Geneva’s limo business hurt by crisis

Geneva’s limo business hurt by crisis

13th April 2009, Comments 0 comments

The banking crisis and competition for the Saudi royal family's business hurts the limousine industry.

GENEVA - The streets of Geneva are normally full 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 offer their trade in the city of 180,000 inhabitants. But business with the elite banking industry in particular dropped recently, he explained.

AFP PHOTO/HASSAN AMMAROne of the biggest companies in the area recently cut its fleet by a fifth and fired a handful of office staff, as corporate clients in particular turn to taxis instead of a CHF 130 (EUR 85, USD 115) an hour 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 rulers 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 still remain 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 proposed trip by 81-year-old Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, Fahd's son, in late spring is leaving a different flavour.

Geneva motor show 2009Geneva's limousine operators are up in arms because "foreign intermediaries" will reportedly be competing with 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 full, 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 summoned representatives of limousine companies, hotels and shopkeepers to a meeting earlier in April to dampen the protests.

But the conflict 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 competition worse than the taxi business.

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

Text: Peter Capella / AFP / Expatica 2009

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