Switzerland expensive? That may be true, but who wouldn’t be willing to hand over their life savings for a week in paradise?
That’s the opinion of the growing number of Indian tourists not turned off by Swiss prices. If the tourist board could only convince the dwindling Germans, Americans and Japanese...
"It’s the kind of place I see in my dreams," says Sangeeta Chopra. Despite a seductive smile, Chopra is not a film star playing hard-to-get in the latest Bollywood love story, but an Indian tourist enjoying the alpine scenery.
She and her husband Ashok are two of the few dozen Indian tourists crowded on to the lookout platform of the Jungfraujoch mountain station.
They have escaped the arid heat of Rajasthan to see Switzerland’s eternal snows and stand on its mountain stage, which has doubled for Kashmir in many an Indian film.
In the 2003 blockbuster The Hero – Love Story of a Spy, Bollywood actor Sunny Deol jumps from the Jungfrau summit, more than 4,000 metres above sea level.
If Bollywood screenwriters were to write a script solely about Switzerland, the Swiss tourist industry would be the reluctant maiden, who could only be saved from herself by the heroics of stars such as Deol.
The tourist industry has been stagnating, showing no signs of growth. During the 1980s and early 1990s, tourists spent 77 million nights in Swiss hotels, holiday apartments or chalets.
But in recent years the figure has been hovering around the 65 million mark.
It is surprising therefore that many Swiss hotels and resorts snub Indian guests even though they are the only foreign visitors – besides the Chinese – to have increased in numbers.
There are now twice as many Indians visiting Switzerland as there were in 1992, making India the fourth most important overseas market for the Swiss tourist industry.
Off the record, many Swiss managers and directors complain about the behaviour of Indian guests, who they say fail to respect Swiss culture – they often bring their own cooks, leave food lying around and generally "trash" the hotel rooms.
"Hotels should be more cooperative in accepting Indian groups," counters Ravishankar of the travel company, Thomas Cook India.
Ravishankar adds that quite a few people in the Swiss tourist industry "do not really want to understand the requirements of the Indian traveller". Despite the reluctance, he says his company’s Swiss business is growing by 30-40 per cent.
Most of the business is going to the few Swiss resorts and mountain railways which welcome Indians with open arms.
The Jungfrau Railways as well as the companies operating the restaurants atop the Schilthorn and Titlis mountains have been especially eager to please by employing Indian cooks.
"Indian food plays a very important part as to whether tourists will go to a particular destination," says Meher Bhanbara of the large Indian travel company, TCI.
"You have to educate your workers," says Urs Zumbrunn, who runs the restaurants at the Jungfraujoch station, including the Indian self-service diner, "Bollywood".
As he jokes with a crowd of warmly wrapped tourists scooping piping hot dhal, chicken masala and basmati rice into Styrofoam bowls, Zumbrunn says this means keeping cool when Indians begin haggling over the price or demanding to see the manager.
"That’s why I’m always around," he says. "When paying the bill, they only want to hand over their money to the boss."
"We haven’t tried Swiss food, but we’ve had good Indian food everywhere," comments Yuvraj Aggarwal, after having his picture taken with the other 13 members of his family.
After lunch, the Aggarwals and many other Indians try their hand at tobogganing, shrieking with delight as they slide down on snow for the first time.
Normally dignified women in saris throw snowballs at their husbands.
Since 1996, the Jungfrau Railways has had its own agent in India, selling what could be the most expensive snow in the world, and the mountains that it is heaped upon.
"They are thrilled to see snow," says Bhanbara. "Switzerland is still number one [among European countries] but the Swiss have to take a closer look at their pricing because it’s getting more and more expensive."
"When we do only Swiss tours and have to use Swiss coaches, it’s very expensive – at least twice the price of what we get from other European countries," adds Ravishankar.
Yet, it is still a price many are willing to pay to see "god’s creation, a paradise on earth", as Yuvraj Aggarwal describes it.
swissinfo, Dale Bechtel on the Jungfraujoch
Indian tourists accounted for nearly 200,000 nights in Swiss hotels or other accommodation in 2003 – a two-fold increase since 1992.
However, the number of nights tourists spent in accommodation in Switzerland has dropped over the same period from 77 million to 65 million.
The Swiss tourist industry reported that foreign tourists spent SFr12.6 billion ($9.8 billion) in 2003, putting the tourism sector in third place as far as export earnings are concerned, behind the engineering sector and chemical and pharmaceutical industries.