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Has canyoning in Switzerland become safer?

Last year's tragedy highlighted the lack of regulation for extreme sports in Switzerland. The industry is resisting the introduction of mandatory rules, but discussions are underway to make sports like canyoning safer.

This content was published on July 26, 2000 - 13:44

Until the accident, the tourism authorities in the Bernese Oberland took little interest in canyoning - it was a niche market, accounting for only a tiny proportion of tourism revenues.

All that has since changed. Extreme or adventure sports remain a niche industry, but tourism and sporting bodies have been working hard to try to ensure that accidents like the canyoning tragedy never happen again.

In the aftermath of the accident, it was hinted that the guides who led the fateful trip down the Saxet Gorge had received very little training. It later emerged that standards for guide instruction or certification simply didn't exist.

"You can go into business very quickly. You buy a tent, you buy a diving suit and you are a guide," says Leo Caminada, president of the Swiss Outdoor Association (SOA). "But this is not enough because you need to have qualified people, if you have a company which offers canyoning."

The SOA was set up in the wake of the accident last year. It represents the interests of Switzerland's mountaineering and guide associations, which were among the first to criticise some private operators for not training their guides properly. It also lists as members private companies involved in extreme sports.

The SOA set about defining safety standards and training procedures for guides. It has also worked with the Federal Sports Office to implement the first-ever set of voluntary guidelines for operators.

Caminada is opposed to the introduction of mandatory laws. He says they would be difficult to enforce and wouldn't necessarily make canyoning any safer. "If you don't observe nature and you forget to accept nature then accidents can happen."

He adds: "there are more accidents involving skiing or mountaineering."

Caminada's views are echoed by the director of the Federal Sports Office, Heinz Keller: "Not even the best laws can prevent accidents. The most important thing is individual responsibility and very good training for guides."

However, the cantonal parliament in Berne is divided, and is discussing legislation. Elisabeth Zölch, a member of the cantonal government, doesn't believe new laws are needed, but says extreme sports should be more tightly regulated.

She has called for the creation of an independent agency which, based on internationally recognised standards, would be empowered to certify operators.

For its part, the SOA is convinced the industry is responsible enough to ensure high safety standards without recourse to the law.

"People coming to Switzerland want to have an adventure, and they want to have the ultimate kick, but that is a definition of canyoning which is not true," says Leo Caminada. "Canyoning is not a sport where you have a kick. You have adventure but you have a safe adventure."

Sports official Keller agrees. He says as long as there are competent guides, regulation is not needed. However, he warns that laws might be necessary in the future.

"The danger is the fascination. We don't know what risks people will take in future. Perhaps young people tomorrow will develop other extreme activities, which don't require guides. We might have to introduce laws to regulate these activities."

by Dale Bechtel

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