More and more Indian tourists are discovering the joys of travelling independently in Switzerland, disdaining package tours. Swiss efficiency makes getting around easy but how hard is it to find tasty vegetarian food on your own?
It’s a hot summer’s day in Bern and the train station is a hive of activity. Rajat Khanna, a middle-aged Indian tourist, is busy consulting the train departure board. He is on his way back to his hotel in the mountain resort of Engelberg after an impromptu visit to the Swiss capital with his wife and son.
“We've opted for an eight-day Swiss rail pass that we're using to the maximum,” Khanna told swissinfo.ch. “Bern was not on our itinerary but we decided to make the most of our travel pass.”
Khanna is among an increasing number of Indian tourists who’ve chosen to visit Switzerland on their own instead of opting for an organised package tour. Swiss rail pass vendor Swiss Travel Systems AG, saw its Indian revenues increase by almost 50% in the first semester of 2015 compared to the same period last year. Rail pass sales are often used an indicator of independent traveller traffic.
According to 2014 figures, India ranks tenth overall as a source country for overnight tourist stays in Swiss hotels and second among Asian countries after China. However, most Indian tourists visit Switzerland as part of a tour of Europe considering the average length of stay is a mere 2.2 days.
“The fact is that group tour operators use coaches to transport their clients and will keep cost down as much as possible which eliminates the likelihood that many of these tickets are used by groups,” Claudio Zemp, the Mumbai-based India director of Switzerland Tourism told swissinfo.ch.
This trend of Free Independent Travellers (FIT in the tourism industry jargon) from India is quite a significant development. When it comes to FIT in Switzerland, the Indian market measures up well against the Chinese despite China accounting for four times more tourists than India (in terms of number of tourists who’ve spent at least one night at a Swiss hotel).
Toovey Abraham, CEO of Mumbai-based Swiss Tours, has observed the trend towards FIT from the Indian side as well. He claims his company accounts for almost a third of the Indian FIT market share.
“When we started in 1997 we had only 10 % of FIT from India,” he told swissinfo.ch. “Now we have more than 70 % travelling as FIT.”
Travel Oytser India, another operator specialising in FIT has seen increased revenues in recent years thanks to an upswing in interest in independent travel.
“I can say my revenue from Switzerland is increasing by 27-30% year by year since last 3-4 years,” said Travel Oytser’s Abhay Jaipuria.
Adventure and comfort
A look at the most visited Swiss destinations indicates that Indians still prefer package tours. The top five destinations encompass only around 3% of the country’s area but account for over half of all Indian tourist traffic, suggesting a standard package tour itinerary is still the norm.
But independent travel is slowly making inroads, as more and more visitors realise that travelling within Switzerland is relatively hassle free and often good value.
“If you ask for information about a train connection, the staff at the counter print out a timetable for you,” says Khanna. “I used their services to get the fastest and most convenient rail connections.”
Rohit Kenia from Mumbai had considered a few package tours but decided against joining one on the advice of his son who had travelled independently during his trip.
“My son visited Switzerland three years ago and he gave me the confidence to travel by bus, train and tram,” Rohit Kenia explained. “The Swiss railway pass is good value for money and you also get discounts to visit certain attractions.”
According to Khanna, group tours may appear cheaper but Indian tourists seldom get value for money on them.
“We met a tour group in Lucerne that was given only half an hour to explore the city,” he says. “They didn't have time to enjoy the lake while we were able to take a leisurely two-hour cruise.”
Swiss Tour CEO Abraham, believes that Switzerland may be an expensive destination for independent travelers but it offers attractions that are well worth the money.
“Switzerland’s neighbours can offer a cheaper vacation to FIT but not seamless public transportation, Europe’s highest railway station (Jungfrau), the world’s steepest cogwheel railway (Pilatus), the first open double-decker cable car (Stanshorn) and the most photographed mountain on the planet (Matterhorn),” he says. “These things are priceless for Indians.”
Grabbing a bite to eat presents a bigger challenge to Indian tourists than finding their way around the Swiss rail network. Lack of vegetarian options in restaurants and “bland” European food can be frustrating.
“We mainly chose a tour package for the food as we are vegetarians,” says Sayoni Singhi who is in Bern on a group tour. “Tour operators provide us the right type of food at the correct time.”
Independent traveler Devendra Shah is also vegetarian and admits that his options are limited in Switzerland.
“We have to either buy sandwiches from supermarkets or eat at Indian restaurants,” he told swissinfo.ch.
Mealtime is something that even adventurous traveler Khanna found difficult to navigate.
“We found limited choice in food options even though we are not vegetarians or obsessed with Indian food,” he says. “Tour groups are definitely better for those who are particular about having Indian food like those from Gujarat state or from the south of the country.”
There is also no getting away from the fact that food is relatively more expensive in Switzerland. Independent travellers often don’t budget enough.
“With a package tour you know upfront what you are going to spend,” says Khanna. “With independent travel food is a big variable in terms of expense and in Switzerland we found it quite expensive.”
Swiss Tour CEO Abraham agrees that prospective independent travelers are often anxious about food options and expenses but believes that this can be overcome by advance planning.
“This is a challenge and most vegetarians prefer to carry some food from India and stay in self-catering apartments,” he says. “We have more than 50 such apartments in Lucerne and Interlaken and most of them are booked four to five months in advance.”
Switzerland is not a complete desert for vegetarians. Veggie restaurants like Tibits and Hiltl have been around a long time and most Swiss restaurants can scramble up a decent Rösti - the country’s beloved grated potato dish - with some greens. The Happy Cow website has a list of over 250 vegetarian restaurants and also offers a mobile app to locate them. The supermarket Coop has introduced a range of vegetarian ready meals called Karma that includes Indian favourites like dal, paneer and pakoras.
No time for complacency
Switzerland Tourism was one of the first European tourism promotion bodies to set up shop in India but competition today is fierce, according to Abraham of Swiss Tours.
He wants the Swiss tourism sector to make it more attractive for Indians to stay longer by offering discounts for longer stays, especially during the off season in September.
Attracting repeat visitors is also a challenge according to tour operator Jaipuria, as many Indians are convinced that Switzerland has nothing else to offer besides scenic beauty. He believes that Indian FITs are looking for thrills like adventure sports and advises Switzerland Tourism to promote activities like river rafting, bungee jumping, hot air ballooning and biking that are already well established in the country.