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Arab security concerns worry Geneva tourism

(Keystone)

A violent attack on a Saudi tourist in Geneva risks damaging the city's image as a safe destination for Middle East visitors, warns Geneva's tourism director.

The assault was reported last weekend on the Saudi television channel Al-Arabiya, the second-biggest Arab station after Al-Jazeera. Despite being the top Swiss destination for visitors from the Gulf States, Geneva's market share is under pressure.

After initially denying any knowledge of the assault, on Monday the Geneva cantonal police confirmed that a 48-year-old tourist from Saudi Arabia had been found unconscious with "very serious" head wounds on July 16. He had been reportedly struck from behind with an iron bar near the main station. An investigation has been opened.

According to the Saudi consulate, the tourist was discovered at Geneva University Hospital, where he remained in a coma for ten days. It claims the police only took the case seriously when the diplomatic mission and the tourist's family provided proof that money had been taken from his account using a stolen credit card.

The affair was covered by Al-Arabiya, which has ten million potential viewers, in a lengthy news story that also described an increase in assaults and presented Geneva as a dangerous city for Saudi tourists.

"This incident could have a very negative impact on Geneva's image in the Gulf States," François Bryand, director of Geneva Tourism, told swissinfo.ch. "It's clear that it's one attack on one tourist, but it's one too many."

The tourist office has written to the cantonal government to express its concern about the rise in insecurity and the potential harm to Geneva's image. It has also informed the Swiss ambassador in Saudi Arabia.

Laxness

The consulate criticises what it views as the authorities' failure to deal with the rising number of thefts and muggings and general harassment of Saudi tourists in Geneva.

Over the past two years the Pâquis quarter, squeezed between Lake Geneva and the train station, has grown increasingly hazardous, attracting numerous hardcore petty criminals from North Africa who prey on tourists and passers-by near the lake.

Between 2003 and 2007 the number of cases of street theft involving tricks more than trebled and between 2000 and 2007 pickpocketing doubled, according to the cantonal police.

The Geneva minister in charge of the police, Laurent Moutinot, told Swiss national radio on Tuesday that even if there is a security problem it shouldn't be exaggerated and Geneva is "not the Bronx".

He contested the charges of amateurism against the Geneva police and said he was waiting "calmly" for the results of the investigation.

According to the Tribune de Genève newspaper, Moutinot has also written to the Saudi consulate to organise a meeting to discuss the matter.

Joint meeting

Despite regular police operations, politicians, the police and local residents remain at odds over how to get to grips with the persistent insecurity in the popular lakeside district.

"We are surprised that the situation has become insecure unlike what it was before," Nabil Al-Saleh, Saudi consul general, told swissinfo.ch.

"Switzerland is generally known for its safety and tranquillity. This is why tourists come here. But the past few years have seen a deterioration of the security situation and rise in crimes against tourists."

The diplomat said he wrote a letter to the Geneva authorities in March to highlight the situation but "nothing has been done".

Al-Saleh said he had been contacted by other Geneva-based ambassadors from Gulf states and they planned to organise a joint meeting to present their concerns to the Swiss authorities.

"And if they don't take appropriate measures we will draw up strong travel guidelines for Saudi tourists to Geneva," he said.

Slow erosion?

This latest incident has alarmed tourist officials. According to Switzerland Tourism, the number of overnight stays in Switzerland by Middle East visitors rose by 62 per cent – or 10.2 per cent annually – to 403,590 between 2003 and 2008.

But this figure slowed dramatically to only 0.2 per cent for the first six months of this year compared with 2008, although this does not include the busiest summer months.

Despite being the top destination for visitors from the Gulf states by far, with 138,376 overnight stays, Geneva's lucrative 34.8 per cent market share is under pressure.

Holidaymakers from the Middle East were conspicuous by their absence at this year's Fêtes de Genève festival, which was attended by two million people and ended on Sunday.

According to officials and local businesses, the number of Arab visitors during the festival was considerably lower than the past two years, most probably due to different factors: the impact of the economic crisis, worries about swine flu and the attractiveness of other destinations such as Lebanon.

Simon Bradley in Geneva, swissinfo.ch

Key facts

The tourism sector generates employment equivalent to 138,000 full-time jobs in Switzerland. (2005 data)
Tourism is the fourth-largest export industry, generating revenues of SFr15.6 billion ($14.7 billion).
Geneva is the top destination for visitors from the Gulf states, with 138,376 overnight stays, or a 34.8 per cent market share.
But Arab tourists are starting to discover other Swiss destinations. Geneva's market share decreased by 2.5% from summer 2007 to summer 2008, while Zürich's market share increased by 20.5% over the same period and Interlaken's market share by 81.9%.

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