Halal meat served around the clock, copies of the Koran in hotel rooms: The Swiss tourist industry is rolling out the red carpet – plus prayer mats with built-in compasses – for increasing numbers of Arab tourists.
The many services compatible with Islamic customs reflect the importance of Arabs from the Gulf states, the fastest-growing source of arrivals in Switzerland in absolute terms.
People from the Gulf spent an additional 148,000 nights in Swiss hotels last year, making up almost singlehandedly for the 179,000 fewer German tourists, who still constitute the largest group of inbound visitors.
Once preferring to stay close to Geneva and other scenic locations on the Lake Geneva shore, Gulf state Arabs have been booking into hotels in Zurich and Lucerne and tourist hot spots in the Bernese Alps like Interlaken.
These developments have in part been the result of efforts by the national marketing body, Switzerland Tourismexternal link, which established an office in Dubai in 2003. Besides organising exhibitions and other events, the office caters to guests from the region through its Arabic language website and provides special family offers like free train tickets for children under 16.
The Swiss tourist industry is keen to keep Gulf state visitors coming back since they are big spenders too – averaging more than CHF500 ($540) per person per day and staying longer (three nights) than the average, often in a luxury hotel.
With that goal in mind, the marketing office, in cooperation with the hotels association, has been hard at work ensuring they feel at home in Switzerland.
A booklet focusing on guests from the Gulf contains important information about the countries of the region and their cultural and religious customs and traditions, as well as business ethics and instructions on how to treat Arab guests.
And to educate hotel staff, tourist offices have hosted workshops like this one.
A survey of select tourist offices and hotels conducted by swissinfo.ch found more and more resorts and regions adapting their offers and services to the needs of Gulf tourists.
Interlaken, where visitors from the Gulf account for close to 10% of all nights in hotels, has been very active in this regard, providing a wide range of activities adapted to Arab guests, such as evening cruises with halal barbecues and tandem paragliding flights with female pilots accompanying female Arab tourists.
The four-star Hotel Metropoleexternal link in Interlaken offers prayer mats with built-in compasses (to locate Mecca) for free, a prayer hall and a corner of Arab cuisine, according to the Metropole manager, Marco von Euw.
Von Euw says a partition is used in the hotel’s barbershop to separate men and women, and other special services include breakfast being offered from 3am during Ramadan, the month of observance which begins this year on June 18.
For the past six years, the tourist office in Zurichexternal link has published a list of hotels that make special preparations for Ramadan and has schooled hotel personnel on various Ramadan customs. The number of nights spent by Gulf tourists in Zurich increased by more than 150% in the period between 2005 and 2014.
At Zurich’s Dolder Grandexternal link, a Lebanese chef serves halal meat, with a selection of Lebanese dishes listed in the room service, a spokeswoman said.
The five-star hotel also has Arabic-speaking staff, a spa with separate areas for men and women and guests are provided with prayer rugs, compasses and a number of Arabic newspapers upon request. They can also watch up to 20 Arabic television channels on their room televisions.
In Lucerne, the Palace hotelexternal link offers a similar range of services, including a private room for prayer, upon request, according to spokeswoman Corinne Frunz.
Daniela Burkhard of the Grand Resort Bad Ragazexternal link says it’s possible to reserve an entire floor of suites at the hotel in eastern Switzerland in the knowledge that some extended families and their entourages can number up to 60 people.
These suites are like mini resorts, offering steam baths and saunas so guests renting these rooms do not need to share the infrastructure with other hotel guests.
Tea, figs and dates are provided free of charge in rooms at Gstaad’s Palace Hotelexternal link, and, upon request, a prayer mat and copy of the Koran. Room service is available around the clock during Ramadan.
Adapted from Arabic by Muhammad Ibrahim, with input from Dale Bechtel, swissinfo.ch