Turf war shakes crisis-hit Geneva limo business

9th April 2009, Comments 0 comments

Geneva's limousine operators are up in arms over ‘foreign intermediaries’ reportedly muscling in on local business.

Geneva -- The streets of Geneva are normally awash with a flow of limousines serving the Swiss city's diplomatic community, private banks, foreign celebrities on tax holidays and wealthy Gulf families on a summertime break.

But now local limousine operators are feeling the pinch as the financial crisis bites and a turf war claims a big client, the Saudi royal family -- which normally mobilises limousines by the dozens if not hundreds during trips here.

"The profession in Geneva is devastated," Hassan Azed, head of a local association of limousine operators (AGELLMC), told AFP.

More than 200 chauffeur-driven limousines legally ply their trade in the city of 180,000 inhabitants. But business with the elite banking industry in particular has dropped recently, he explained.

One of the biggest companies in the area recently cut its fleet by a fifth and sacked a handful of office staff, as corporate clients in particular turn to taxis instead of a 130 franc an hour (85 euro, 115 dollar) limousine.

"In a crisis it's the first part of an expense account to go," explained Azed, himself the owner of a limousine company.

Meanwhile, more calls were coming in from chauffeurs, who mainly work on a precarious freelance basis, chasing after drives.

One of the biggest slices of the business comes from wealthy Middle Eastern potentates and their families on private visits, or medical checkups at Swiss clinics, along with dozens of staff.

"We have much more demand in summer," said Azed.

Those who do not have property locally generally take over chunks of five star hotels -- up to 230 rooms in one instance according to the Tribune de Geneve newspaper -- for several days or even weeks.

When members of the Emirates ruling family stay in the region between June and August, they normally need about 100 chauffeur-driven cars for shopping trips and excursions, according to hoteliers and drivers.

Memories are still redolent of late Saudi King Fahd's stay in his mansion in the plush Geneva suburb of Collonge-Bellerive in 2002, which mobilised several jumbo airliners and 300 limousines, many of them leased directly from Germany to make up for the shortfall.

But a mooted trip by 81-year-old Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, Fahd's son, in late spring is leaving a different flavour.

Geneva's limousine operators are up in arms because "foreign intermediaries" will reportedly be muscling in on local business by bringing along more than 60 cars from Germany for the Saudis, bypassing local firms.

Normally imports are only allowed once the local market is saturated, Azed claimed.

"It was done by the rulebook when King Fahd came in 2002," said Azed. "In this instance we're presented with a done thing."

Local trading authorities have summoned representatives of limousine companies, hotels and shopkeepers to a meeting on Monday to dampen the protests.

But the spat is tangled in a complex web of local and European regulations for public carriage operators in Geneva, which is on the border with France, and stiff competition that makes the taxi business pale.

One website lists about 30 legal local limousine firms, and nearly 100 that are allegedly not registered, "work on the edge of legality", or have gone bust.

Peter Capella/AFP/Expatica

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