The Swiss tourism sector is bracing itself for a hard-hitting drop in rich Arab visitors, following the decision by voters in Italian-speaking Switzerland to ban face-covering headgear in public places.
“Tourists from the Gulf states will think twice about whether they should go to Switzerland,” Barbara Gisi, head of the Swiss Tourism Association, told the SonntagsBlick.
On September 22, two-thirds of voters in canton Ticino approved a ban on face-covering headgear in public places – the first canton to do so.
It will now be up to the federal parliament to accept the change to Ticino’s constitution. It is not clear how quickly this will happen; parliament could decide to wait until the European Court of Human Rights issues a verdict on a complaint filed against a similar ban in France.
Bettina Bhend, spokeswoman of the Bernese Oberland tourism office, said few tourists differentiate between Ticino and Switzerland as a whole. “A large fall in customers from the Middle East would have negative consequences for all the Bernese Oberland economy.”
In this region in central Switzerland, tourists from the Middle East make up 7.2 per cent of all tourists, up from two per cent in 2006.
Sibylle Staehelin, who offers tandem paragliding in the region, says 80 per cent of her clients are Arab women, of whom the majority jump with a headscarf and a minority with a niqab, a full-face veil with a slit for the eyes often worn as part of a full-body covering.
She said a national burka ban – already mooted by some people – “would drive away our best customers. It would be a catastrophe for Interlaken”.
Swiss tourism experts say a burka ban would have even more serious repercussions that the 2009 minaret ban, because travellers would feel restricted in their personal freedom.
For years, Swiss hoteliers have made efforts to attract Arab customers and their strong purchasing power.
A Switzerland Tourism poll found that Arabs spend 2.84 times the average visitor. The annual contribution of Arab tourists to the Swiss economy is CHF1.46 billion.
To keep this up, on October 21 a charm offensive will be launched by travel agent Luxury Switzerland, aiming to inform top hotels how to cater for Muslim guests.
Advice includes having a Koran and prayer mat in rooms, no alcohol in minibars, Arabic television channels and burkinis – a swimsuit for Muslim women – available in the hotel shop, as well as female staff in spas.
Not everyone was so negative about Ticino's ban. Jean-François Rime, president of the Swiss Trade Association and a member of the rightwing Swiss People’s Party, denied it would have any influence on tourism.
“This danger [that rich tourists would stay away] is exaggerated,” he told the SonntagsBlick, arguing that because he himself had seen few women in burkas in Arabic countries, “I don’t believe veiled tourists from these places bring much money into Switzerland”.
He concluded: “For the economy and trade, burkas and niqabs aren’t a big issue or an economic problem.”