Walking down the Promenade, the main street in Davos, Switzerland, Christine is on her way to a meeting. She’s an employee of the World Economic Forum and has already been to the annual meeting five times. “Of course I’m afraid!” she bursts out in a heavy French accent when asked about the risk of a terror attack. “You never know what could happen!”
During the week of the forum, the Swiss Alps resort turns into a heavily guarded fortress: Helicopters are soaring in the air, and snipers are seen on the corners of the roofs. According to André Kraske, spokesman for the WEF committee in charge of security, 3,000 soldiers are dispatched to make sure the resort town will be safe. “Two thousand of them are for supporting the work of the Air Force,” he says. The airspace will be closed during the forum and protected by Eurofighter Typhoons.
“The remaining 1,000 soldiers will be securing the roads and the town itself, and the Swiss police force will also be present,” Kraske says. If necessary, another 2,000 soldiers are ready to fill in.
All this security (which makes you feel as if you’re in a James Bond movie) stands in a surreal contrast to the effort of maintaining the normal life of Davos. It’s a peculiar situation, where a soldier in an anti-terror ski mask cheerfully wishes you good morning and heavy-set security guards have to move effortlessly between treating the world’s most powerful people as VIPs and as terrorism suspects.
Despite all this security, Davos proper is still meant to be a “free space.” According to Kraske, “Anyone can come.” This may sound easier than it is. The train and two main roads are subject to heavy security checks. One young WEF participant says it was “hell” getting into Davos by car: “I really regret not taking the train: They’ll check you several times, especially if you don’t drive a Bentley.” Another WEF delegate points out, “This is what makes Davos so safe: There is literally only one road in.”
Markus Schaub has lived in Davos almost as long as the forum’s existence. “I don’t mind all the security,” he says. “Of course, the traffic is slow because of the security checks,” says another Davos resident, Martina, who’s on her way home from a care center for disabled people, where she works as a cook. “But I just walk instead, it’s better for my body!”
People quickly get used to being searched dozens of times a day. Lucy Pescarmona, managing director for the winery Henry Lagarde, says, “I’ve been coming here for years, and some newcomers always complain about all the security, but the second day they have gotten used to it.” Before heading off, she adds, “Although I must say it was much more convenient when the forum was smaller.” For the past 10 to 15 years, the forum’s number of participants has increased substantially, as have the security measures, Kraske says.
In a wooden stall next to the Congress Center, Maurus Radelow is serving free hot chocolate to passers-by, part of Renault Nissan’s promotional efforts. He’s a local but also working for the forum, and he thinks that for most people in Davos, the benefits outweigh the inconvenience of having to pass through long security checks. “A few Davosers complain about all the security hassles, but they are real hypocrites, because the town earns a shit-load of money because of the WEF,” he says.
“Mere” inconveniences and hassles aside, the city does the best it can to accommodate the 3,000 plus security personnel. “We are closely working with the military and the police,” says Tarzisius Caviezel, Mayor of Davos. “Both don’t do anything without agreement of the township. You only see little of the organization in the back. A classical example was [Wednesday], (the first day of the WEF) how relaxed the security service personnel was when there are big personalities flying or driving into the city.”
Given the enormous security measures taken, Christine seems to be one of the few who worries about a possible attack. Norway’s former minister of defense, Espen Barth Eide, is attending the forum for the 10th time and seems content with the work of the Swiss police force. “I don’t feel afraid,” he says.
Most years the forum has been run smoothly without incident, but there have been some exceptions. “One year there were protesters who flipped the cars on the street and put them on fire,” says a Davos habitué who works for The Wall Street Journal. In 2011, a pipe bomb exploded close to one of the hotels. An anti-capitalist organization called the Revolutionary Perspective took responsibility for the explosion, writing in a statement that “our fight against the dictatorship of capital is focused on the social alternative to capitalism: communism.”
Kraske downplays the explosion: “It wasn’t a bomb, it was just fireworks!” Yet he admits that it’s impossible to secure the whole town. “We can’t check everyone and everywhere.” He stresses that the local people need to be able to continue their normal lives but they also understand the need for extra security. “The forum has been going on for 40 years. They are used to it.”
Featured aerial image courtesy of the World Economic Forum. To see more pictures of security around Davos, click here.