"Cheap" is tourism industry's new buzzword
Foreign tourists are slowly rediscovering the attractions of Switzerland, with the number of visitors from abroad increasing by almost two per cent last year.
Tourism officials claim the key to continued growth is to make the country more affordable, but they say they cannot move mountains.
Franz Steinegger, president of the Swiss Tourism Association, reminded parliamentarians at a lobbying event in Bern at the beginning of this month that the industry cannot – like other sectors of the economy – cut costs by outsourcing production abroad.
"We can’t move the Matterhorn to eastern Europe," said Steinegger.
"Our product is Switzerland and is made in Switzerland and that’s why we are at a disadvantage compared with other sectors," he told swissinfo.
Steinegger said the tourism industry was hindered by legislation that kept prices artificially high. He called on voters to approve treaties with the European Union in order to level the playing field with neighbouring countries.
The total number of overnight stays in Switzerland stagnated last year (-0.3 per cent) – in line with western European countries – at a time when the global travel industry is seeing strong growth (ten per cent in 2004).
Cheap airfares have lured western European holidaymakers – the world’s most seasoned travellers – away from the continent.
Not only are the attractions of northern Africa, Asia or Latin America more exotic, they are less expensive to visit.
Officials representing the various branches of the Swiss tourism industry said at the meeting in Bern that Switzerland had to become more competitive on price if it wanted to see steady growth.
They admitted that many of the problems were homemade, with the industry in need of a major restructuring.
Jürg Schmid, head of the national tourist board, Switzerland Tourism, called on the hundreds of small tourist offices in the country to merge into larger regional organisations to cut costs and improve marketing.
"Switzerland has 450 marketing organisations, each representing a separate town, village or resort," said Schmid.
"The marketing has to correspond to the demands of the tourist, so we need fewer tourist offices but ones with professional marketing departments."
Schmid says this is essential to convince potential visitors that Switzerland is no longer as expensive as it once was.
"Switzerland will never be a destination for budget travellers," he said. "But a holiday here doesn’t have to be expensive. We have to do a better job getting that message across," he added.
"'Cheap is chic' - this is one of the biggest trends in tourism. People are more conscious of price, and it’s no longer a taboo to demand a better price, even in the luxury segment."
Less disposable income
Last year Switzerland Tourism, together with GastroSuisse, an umbrella organisation representing restaurants and small hotels, launched a guide to low-cost accommodation starting at SFr50 ($43) per person per night.
"In the long-term, people in neighbouring countries [key markets] will have less disposable income. That means they’ll have less money to spend on holiday," explained Florian Hew, director of GastroSuisse.
"We have high expectations of the 'Affordable Swiss Hotels' campaign, and I believe it will be well received by holidaymakers in western Europe, but also eastern Europe where salaries are rising quickly," Hew told swissinfo.
Schmid warned the industry not to stay complacent. He said visitors would no longer come as they did in the past just because Switzerland had beautiful mountains.
swissinfo, Dale Bechtel
The Swiss tourism industry generates revenues of more than SFr22 billion annually.
It is the third-largest export sector behind the engineering and chemical industries.
More than 165,000 people work in tourism – 5.2% of all employed people in the country.
In compliance with the JTI standards
More: SWI swissinfo.ch certified by the Journalism Trust Initiative
Contributions under this article have been turned off. You can find an overview of ongoing debates with our journalists here. Please join us!
If you want to start a conversation about a topic raised in this article or want to report factual errors, email us at email@example.com.