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A rising star

A change to Swiss Alpine resort St Moritz's real-estate laws could create an exceptional foothold for international property investors

ART SCENE: The Sky Over Nine Columns installation.

WINTER WONDERLAND: (Above) Grace St Moritz Apartments.

WINTER WONDERLAND: (Above) St Moritz is in Switzerland's Engadin Valley.

WINTER WONDERLAND: (Above) St Moritz is in Switzerland's Engadin Valley.

SPORT SCENE: The winter sports calendar is packed with glamorous events, including the annual Cartier Polo Match.

THE star of St Moritz is on the rise. Since the late 19th century, this quaint Alpine resort in Switzerland's Engadin Valley has been the place to see and be seen. Considered the birthplace of luxury winter tourism, it has been the snowy playground of international royalty and the fashionable jet set, where Jackie Onassis, Charlie Chaplin and Gunter Sachs would disport themselves on immaculate slopes before indulging in serious après-ski at 1,770 metres up.

Today, St Moritz is still the place to rub fur-clad shoulders with the rich and famous, from supermodels Naomi Campbell and Claudia Schiffer, to actor George Clooney and singer Tina Turner. Steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal owns a palatial chalet on the elite Suvretta Hill, next door to British star architect Norman Foster. The world's most exclusive designer boutiques twinkle along the iconic shopping street Via Serlas, while visitors can enjoy caviar and truffles at one of the five Michelin-starred restaurants in the village, and stay at iconic Swiss mainstays, Badrutt's Palace and Kulm Hotel. The winter sports calendar is packed with glamorous events, from the annual Cartier Polo Match played on the resort's frozen lake, to this year's FIS Alpine World Ski Championships, where skiers raced downhill at a mind-blowing 140 kilometres an hour.

It's becoming a Mecca for the arts, too. This year German artist Heinz Mack brought his breathtaking roaming installation, The Sky Over Nine Columns, to the frozen shore of Lake St Moritz. The opening coincided with the sixth annual art and architecture forum, E.A.T.(Engadin Art Talks) which takes place in nearby Zuoz.

But as the culture scene heats up, chill winds are blowing for Switzerland's ski industry. According to estate agent Savills, Switzerland has seen ski visitor numbers decline 17 per cent in the last decade. "The large baby-boomer demographic is now at the upper end of skiing age and the millennial generation have a lower propensity to ski," said Savills in a note. "The growing range of leisure options for this generation is spreading the prospective market even thinner."

The Lex Weber property law has also limited St Moritz as a buyer's destination. The rule caps second-home ownership by foreigners at just 20 per cent of a development, in units no larger than 250 square metres.

Turning point

This year marks a turning point for St Moritz, according to real-estate investment manager and local councillor Leandro Testa. Last month, a new rule was voted in that flings open the foreign property quota from 20 per cent of a development to 100 per cent.

The move coincides with a launch by Greek-owned hospitality group Grace Hotels, which is redeveloping and restoring the 110-year-old La Margna Hotel. As well as a five-star boutique hotel, Grace will add 17 serviced freehold apartments to the St Moritz property pool due for completion in 2019. Apartments will range from one to four bedrooms, as well as a two-bedroom mezzanine penthouse priced at 9.9 million Swiss francs (S$14.2 million). Residents will have views over the iconic lake and full access to the Grace St Moritz hotel's amenities and 24-hour concierge.

More than half have been spoken for, says Gareth Zundel, a spokesman for the development. "The market is relatively illiquid and the redevelopment of La Margna hotel into luxury residences and a boutique hotel by Grace offers a rare new-build buying opportunity."

The interesting thing is that as serviced apartments run by a hotel, they come under the classification of commercial property. "That means that as a buyer you are unrestricted in the size or quantity of the apartment," said Alex Koch de Gooreynd, a partner at Knight Frank, which is acting as broker for the Grace apartments. "The whole resort is very excited about it as there has always been very limited stock in St Moritz. It will be a game changer."

It could have more broad-reaching ramifications. The launch or refurbishment of top-branded hotels sold as serviced apartments - under the guise of being commercial property - will be a precursor for wider gentrification in Switzerland, reckons Mr Koch de Gooreynd. "Aparthotels" such as the Grace Hotel in St Moritz will "spur regeneration and cement their position as premier ski destinations".

A new era for this quaint Alpine town could foretell a more open future for the Alpine nation. W

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