TRAVEL: by Eric Mackenzie Lamb
With an area of only 62 square miles and a population of just under 40,000, the Principality of Liechtenstein is one of six micro countries in Europe (the others being Monaco, Andorra, San Marino, Luxembourg, and Vatican City). It’s also a member of the European Economic Area, the European Free Trade Association, and, since 1990, even has its own seat at the United Nations.
Landlocked between Austria and Switzerland, the enclave has no airport of its own and depends largely on its road transportation, as well as bus and taxi services. Zurich airport, less than two hours drive away, is its major international gateway. There’s also a nine kilometer train service operated by the Austrian federal railway which passes through the country and connects travelers to both Austria and Switzerland.
Amazingly, there are more companies registered in Liechtenstein than there are citizens. Which isn’t really surprising, as the country has the world’s highest per capita income for its size, as well as extremely low rates of taxation. By mutual agreement, its official currency is the Swiss franc, one of the most stable in the world.
However, well-to-do corporations are only a part of the country’s economic success. Tourism is also a major factor. And with good reason: despite its size, Liechtenstein has some of Europe’s most spectacular scenery. Medieval castles overlooking the Rhine river (its national anthem translates to High on the Young Rhine), endless rows of vineyards, tiny villages with traditional wooden buildings, hiking and bicycle trails, museums and art galleries, numerous boutique hotels, even a ski resort. But, for a visitor, it never feels crowded or commercialized. Nature itself also plays an important part of Liechtenstein’s image. Along with rolling green pastures, the country has a forest cover of 43 percent, and its trees, many of them centuries old, are protected under strict conservation laws.
The country’s history, no less fascinating, goes back centuries. Once part of the Holy Roman Empire, it was given special status as a semi-sovereign state in 1719 by its then Emperor, Charles VI. During the early 19th century, the Napoleonic wars led to the fall of the Roman Empire and gave Liechtenstein additional sovereignty, and with it, the ability to oversee its own affairs. To establish neutrality, its army was abolished in 1868, although, throughout World War I, the country was closely allied with the Austrian-Hungarian empire. After the conflict ended, Liechtenstein’s government decided to follow a new political direction and entered into a Customs and monetary union with Switzerland, an arrangement which remains in place today. And, like Switzerland, Liechtenstein remained officially neutral during the Second World War. But by 1945, the country was struggling to survive. Agriculture, once its economic mainstay, was in rapid decline. It wasn’t until the 1970s, under the rule of Franz Joseph II and his wife Princess Gina, that the situation was dramatically reversed by their decision to approve a tax haven status for Liechtenstein. As luck would have it, the plan succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.
Sadly, Franz Joseph passed away in 1989 at the age of 83, less than a month after his wife’s death. (Perhaps ironically, one of Princess Gina’s last wishes only became reality in 1984, when women in Liechtenstein were finally allowed to vote).
And finally, something else which you may find unusual: with the exception of a handful of entry points, Liechtenstein has no marked borders with its neighbouring countries. This has sometimes led to some rather comical situations, as happened in March, 2017, when a hundred and seventy Swiss soldiers on a training exercise lost their way during heavy rains and found themselves a mile inside the country’s territory. Their commanding officer swiftly offered the Liechtenstein government an official apology, and, with barely contained chuckles and clinking of wine glasses on both sides, the incident was quickly forgotten.
Alas, if only other conflicts could be resolved so easily!