At first glance, it is hard for many tourists to tell Switzerland and neighbouring Austria apart.
But in this second report in a special series comparing the two alpine countries, swissinfo discovers that Austria’s resorts, like the nation’s skiers, dominate the competition.
When asked why Austria’s tourism sector has grown over the past few years while Switzerland’s has stagnated, Austrian skiing legend Karl Schranz can only shrug.
“We Austrians and Swiss are very similar,” he says. “In my opinion, Switzerland has just as good a chance to succeed as Austria.”
Schranz hung up his skis about 30 years ago and since then has run his own hotel in the village where he grew up, the chic Tyrolean ski resort of St Anton am Arlberg.
He was one of the great skiers of the 1960s and 70s, competing with the likes of France’s Jean-Claude Killy and Switzerland’s Bernhard Russi.
But since Schranz retired from the circuit, Austria has continued to churn out top skiers, while Switzerland’s glory days ended in the early 90s when Vreni Schneider called it quits.
Whether a coincidence or not, Switzerland’s tourist industry started going downhill at the same time, while Austria’s – after a few up and down years – has been climbing again.
Since 2001, Austria has seen the number of nights spent in its hotels increase by about four per cent, while Switzerland has recorded a minus of about five per cent over the same period.
The Swiss have blamed much of the decrease on the global economic downturn triggered by the terrorist attacks on the United States, the Iraq war and the outbreak of the Sars virus.
But why has Austria, which has a similar customer base, been immune?
Schranz says the tourist industry is as competitive as ski racing, and that is a lesson Austria has learned while Switzerland rested on its laurels too long, failing to make the necessary investments to restructure and upgrade its facilities.
Play catch up
The Swiss are still playing catch up in a number of areas: modernising and increasing the capacity of their ski lifts and using artificial snow to ensure good snow conditions (see video).
But the most decisive factor has been price. The general cost of living in Austria is much lower than in Switzerland and that is passed on to tourists who pay about 30 per cent less than at a Swiss resort.
And the introduction of the euro in the European member state made prices more transparent, reinforcing the belief that Austria is better value for money.
Another factor is that many large Swiss resorts are waging a losing battle against property speculators, who have converted many hotels into holiday apartments. The apartments are purchased by wealthy buyers who use them only a couple of weeks a year.
So even when demand is strong over Christmas and in February, hotel rooms are in short supply in places like Verbier, Crans Montana and St Moritz.
Property owners in the Austrian state of Tyrol, where St Anton is located, must prove that they are year round residents, which ensures that the majority of beds are available for tourists.
“We want to be able to rent them out each week,” says St Anton tourist director Heinrich Wagner.
“In summer, you see a village with flowers on the window sills, which wouldn’t be the case if owners came only for three weeks in winter. The apartments would be shut up the rest of the year.”
Wagner says Austria also scores highly on various soft factors. Guests in Swiss resorts often complain about not being able to communicate with service personnel, who often come from non-German speaking countries in eastern or southern Europe.
Most staff in Austrian shops, hotels and restaurants are Austrian or German.
“We Austrians like to provide friendly service and our guests want to be waited on by people who speak the language of the village,” Wagner says.
“Our Swiss guests are surprised that they can joke in their own language with our staff,” adds Schranz. “That’s an Austrian advantage.”
“In Switzerland, hotels recruit the majority of their staff from Spain, Portugal and the former Yugoslavia. It’s difficult to communicate with these people.”
Schranz has this year invested in a new bar at his hotel, where customers can sit and watch the snow falling outside or admire his trophy collection in a glass cabinet on the opposite wall.
He says the new bar is part of the continual improvements he has to make to keep up with the competition. Not from Switzerland, he says, but from neighbouring Austrian valleys.
swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in St Anton am Arlberg
Both Switzerland and Austria draw the majority of their guests from the same countries, but tourists spend on average 1.5 more nights in Austrian hotels.
In 2003, each tourist in Austria generated SFr2,328 ($2,014) in income, compared with SFr1,718 in Switzerland.
The Swiss tourist industry is counting on growth from Asian markets and Russia, while Austria is hoping to draw more visitors from the ten new European Union member states.
In compliance with the JTI standards