ISELTWALD, SWITZERLAND – The small fishing village of Iseltwald, Switzerland, is home to just about 400 people. Located on the southern shore of Lake Brienz, it’s long been quiet and uneventful, rarely visited by outsiders — until a popular South Korean TV show put it on the map for global travelers, practically overnight.
Since September 2022, Iseltwald has been hosting massive numbers of Asian tourists, mostly from South Korea and Southeast Asia. The volume of day-trippers has become so intense — sometimes outnumbering locals — that the village launched a double-decker bus service this month to ferry them to the scenic spots they come to see.
That’s thanks to the popular K-drama “Crash Landing on You,” which Nielsen Korea ranks as South Korea’s fourth-most-viewed TV show in history. After it debuted in 2019, a steady international rollout on Netflix Inc. snowballed the show’s audience. The show’s narrative is set in North Korea, where production was not possible; instead, many scenes were shot in Switzerland. A particularly pivotal scene takes place at Lake Brienz, whose stunning turquoise waters, flanked by mountains, are now etched in viewers’ minds.
That scene — a crescendo in the main characters’ relationship that features actor Hyun Bin playing the piano on a pier — has driven such intense tourism that Google Maps now calls it “Crash Landing on You filming location.” It’s become such an icon of romance that visitors use it as a backdrop for proposals, weddings and engagement photos. Lake Lungern, a 40-minute drive east from Lake Brienz where part of another episode in the series was shot, has also experienced an influx of South Korean tourists.
Getting to either spot takes commitment. Since Lake Brienz is more easily accessible, it has gotten the lion’s share of attention. Visitors typically fly to Zurich and take a 140-minute train to Interlaken Ost, then ride a bus for 25 minutes to Iseltwald. (Bern Airport is closer but much smaller — and would still require rides on trains and buses.)
On a recent midweek visit, the bus between Interlaken and Iseltwald is filled with Asian tourists toting selfie sticks and tripods. On arrival, each must now pay 5 Swiss francs ($5.50, ¥780) to go to the edge of the pier to take pictures; the charge was imposed in May in hopes of curbing overtourism. All proceeds go directly to the municipality of Interlaken to help cover infrastructure costs related to the influx of visitors, such as garbage disposal, toilets and signage.
Most visitors (including this writer) stay for only an hour or two. Unlike the huge gains in tourism across Croatia that stemmed from zeal for “Game of Thrones,” or the spike in overnight stays at British countryside estates after the long run of “Downton Abbey,” TV tourism here stands to disrupt a pristine place and tiny community without bringing much economic benefit. With only a few modest hotels and restaurants in the village, few are cashing in meaningfully, though the family-owned Hotel Chalet Du Lac has enjoyed rising reservations from Asian guests in recent months. (Though the show’s streaming run ended early in 2020, the pandemic delayed the fans’ response.)
“I came to Switzerland 10 years ago, but at that time I didn’t know anything about Iseltwald,” says Young-ah Lee, 30, visiting from South Korea. “I found out about it through ‘Crash Landing on You,’ and I’m glad I got to come here because it’s such a beautiful place to visit.”
Ramya Mamidi, 22, an Indian American from Philadelphia, came with her sister to photograph the location. “You could really see the beauty of Switzerland in the show. I think that’s something they did really well,” she says.
Even these visiting fans see the risks of introducing tourism on this scale to such a small destination. On her visit, Lee expresses conflicting feelings: “I think it’s great that the show increased exposure to this place that otherwise wouldn’t have had that many visitors, but I could also see how it could be bad for the residents who live here, because of the increase of noise and disturbance.”
Some elderly locals sit on a bench within earshot of chattering tourists. Asked about the influx, one of the women frowns and says in her limited English: “Too much.”
“Local people can feel a little overwhelmed by the situation, especially by this lake,” adds Markus Berger, head of corporate communications at Switzerland Tourism. “It’s a small village, who normally have this beautiful place to themselves, and all of a sudden you have hundreds of tourists every day.”
He adds that the language barrier — residents mainly speak German in central Switzerland, along with the country’s remaining official languages of French, Italian and Romansh — forces a sort of culture clash on locals accustomed to few visitors. Complaints to town officials have streamed in. Managing the number of visitors while finding ways to cash in on them will be vital to making this tourism wave more sustainable.
For now, momentum seems to be gaining. The new double-decker buses that started running from Bonigen to Iseltwald each transport up to 120 passengers, increasing capacity by 25%. Because parking is limited, buses must secure permits ahead of time. The sole alternative transport, due to limited parking for cars, is by ferry; ticket sales to Iseltwald are already up 40% year over year, says operator BLS Schiffahrt AG.
“Some say this is just a boom that will end, but we will continue to bring people over to Lake Brienz even when the drama is over,” says Berger. “It would be a pity not to bring people to this beautiful place.”
Source: The Japan Times