In the Swiss Mountains, a $356 Million Golf Resort Takes Shape

PONT-LA-VILLE, Switzerland — On the two-lane road through this lakeside village of 600 residents, in the middle of Canton Fribourg, you can’t miss two sales signs outside a driveway entrance: “Golf Resort La Gruyère, appartements de prestige.”

Within five years, developers promise to transform the village’s modest golf course into a $356 million luxury destination: a Hyatt-owned Alila hotel, spa and three restaurants (scheduled to open in 2023); 105 apartments and 27 hotel residences; a beach club; and a remodeled, 71-par course, designed by the American golf architect Robert Trent Jones Jr.

It will be Switzerland’s first golf community to offer residential units, not only to well-heeled citizens, but also to foreigners. “Gruyère is not developed on a five-star level,” said the Swiss developer Urs Müller, general manager of the holding company Ben Golf Investissements group SA. “That’s why we came here — there’s no competition.”

From the golf patio on an August evening, the scene is quintessentially Swiss — and breathtaking. The undulating greens that overlook Lac de La Gruyère are surrounded by farms, red tiled roofs and mountains — the Prealps of Fribourg — bathed in a pink glow. Cowbells ring in the adjacent farmer’s field, while the bell in the nearby Catholic church tower chimes eight times. The last golfers have just putted out on the 18th hole and head toward the restaurant, which doubles as a clubhouse.

Ten years ago over coffee on that patio, Mr. Müller persuaded the French developer Michel Benedetti to help him start the ambitious development. Both had experience developing similar projects on the Côte d’Azur. Mr. Benedetti agreed to buy the existing course and restaurant, as well as to finance Mr. Müller’s extensive groundwork, which involved acquiring additional land and permits and securing a prominent hotel chain.

Since 2017, three shareholders have owned the holding company. Mr. Müller and his wife, Martine, the marketing director, hold a 20 percent stake; the Benedetti family, 30 percent; and the Chinese developer Li Yongjun and his family, 50 percent. Together, they have put up $71 million to kick-start the project, which includes a $19.3 million bank loan.

Since apartment sales started in mid-June, and a $3 million advertising campaign began, Mr. Müller said, six reservation contracts have been signed by buyers from Switzerland, China, France, Britain and India. Each contract required a 5 percent down payment. “This confirms that we will achieve our goal of a very good mix between different nationalities,” he said, adding that the company would select outside property agents, beginning this fall, to help attract more buyers.

Come October, construction is to begin on the first 22 apartments, set for completion in two years. Owners who have reservations will sign deeds and pay 20 percent of the cost of their homes in advance to help finance construction.

The contemporary tiered apartments, designed by local architects, range from one bedroom (800 square feet, or 75 square meters) to four-bedroom penthouses (3,900 square feet, or 360 square meters). They feature spacious living rooms, wide French windows, south-facing terraces with panoramic views and 24-hour security. Buyers customize their own interiors; underground parking is offered separately.

Prices range from $3.7 million to $8.4 million, or $17,000 to $18,000 per square meter. While the cost is lower than the cost of elite property in Gstaad or St. Moritz, where luxury home prices start at 32,000 Swiss francs per square meter, La Gruyère prices are roughly three times as high as those in the surrounding middle-class area.

“It won’t be a ‘bling bling’ resort with Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Hermes shops. We will be ‘back to nature,’” said Mr. Müller, who said he thinks that most wealthy buyers will have several homes around the world and yearn for what La Gruyère has to offer — a bucolic location with hiking trails and water sports, security, quality construction, a good hotel management company and proximity to Lausanne, Montreux and Gstaad via a nearby highway. He estimates only 30 percent to 40 percent will be golfers.

The development also offers buyers a stake in a newly built Swiss resort — a rarity under Swiss law. Since 2013, the authorities have limited the number of secondary vacation residences to 20 percent per municipality, effectively capping the number of “absentee owners.” Because Pont-la-Ville’s municipality has not hit that level — some 90 percent of homeowners live there year-round — developers may sell up to 45 apartments as secondary residences, though foreigners are limited to buying no more than 200 square meters, or 2,150 square feet.

The remaining 60 apartments must be sold as primary residences, Mr. Müller said, either to Swiss citizens or foreigners who declare Switzerland as their primary residence. By contrast, foreigners are free to buy La Gruyère’s 27 furnished hotel residences, ranging in size from one to three bedrooms and managed year-round by Alila. Owners must pay for hotel services when they visit.

Sales contracts come with restrictions: no Airbnb rental options and no more than five owners from any one non-European country.

For golfers who buy units, an upgraded course with several new or longer fairways is scheduled to open in April 2022.

Within an hour’s drive from La Gruyère, golfers have access to 10 of Switzerland’s 100 courses, including Golf Club Gstaad-Saanenland. “You don’t have to be a member to play at most clubs in Switzerland,” said the Gstaad club manager, Ronnie Zimmermann.

The Swiss Golf Association estimates that 65 percent of its 100,000 golfers have private club memberships; the remainder have memberships in two large public golf organizations.

“We don’t have a crisis like the U.S.A. right now,” said the marketing director, Klaus Burkhardt, referring to the rising numbers of American golf courses that have closed. Still, he said, Switzerland won’t build more courses, and up to 10 rural courses may close in the next five to 10 years.

At La Gruyère, Mr. Müller said he was not worried. “Good courses won’t have a problem — we want to avoid overcrowding,” he said, predicting the Alila hotel would attract a wide variety of guest golfers. “We expect 22,000 rounds per year.”

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