Bad connections take shine off China travel deal
The Swiss president, Pascal Couchepin, has signed a key tourism deal during his state visit to China, which will make it easier for Chinese to visit Switzerland.
But the benefits for the Swiss tourism industry are likely to be hampered because the national airline, Swiss, no longer flies direct to Beijing.
The decision to grant Switzerland "Approved Destination Status" (ADS) was announced after a meeting in Beijing on Thursday between Couchepin and the Chinese president, Hu Jintao.
The status, which will come into effect at the start of 2004, means Chinese citizens will no longer require permission from their government to travel to Switzerland.
Couchepin said in Beijing that the Chinese decision would have a “positive effect” on Swiss-Chinese relations, and boost Switzerland’s hotel industry.
Tourism in Switzerland, particularly its hotels, has been hit hard over the past couple of years due to various factors, including the global economic downturn, Sars and the high cost of holidaying in Switzerland.
With the Sars epidemic seemingly under control, the Swiss are optimistic the Chinese deal could help turnaround the fortunes of the tourist industry.
Last year, Chinese visitors accounted for 120,000 overnight stays in Swiss hotels, and the Swiss national tourist office, Switzerland Tourism, estimates that the new status could lead to a tripling of the figure by 2007.
However, Switzerland Tourism spokeswoman, Silvia De Vito, told swissinfo it would take eight to 12 months for Switzerland to see the first benefits, since permission to market Switzerland in China was also tied to the accord.
Switzerland Tourism can now begin negotiations with Chinese partners, including tour operators.
The decision to grant Switzerland ADS also levels the playing field with the European Union.
Last month, the EU and China agreed an accord permitting Chinese groups to travel to European states that are party to the Schengen Accord.
No direct flights
EU countries will keep an upper hand however, since there are direct flights between Chinese cities and major European hubs, but none between Switzerland and mainland China.
Swiss International Air Lines stopped direct flights to Beijing in the summer due to a dramatic drop in passenger numbers.
Swiss spokesman Dominik Werner told swissinfo the airline had “no short term plans” to resurrect the flights, but was “monitoring developments closely”.
De Vito admits that “direct flights are very important” in order to tap the potential in China and said that Switzerland Tourism would look to other airlines to fill the gap.
In 1998 Switzerland was the first European country to open a tourist office in Beijing, in hopes of also becoming the first in Europe to receive Approved Destination Status.
But analysts say the Chinese authorities put a decision on hold when relations cooled between Switzerland and China following a visit the former Chinese president, Jiang Zemin, made to the Swiss capital, Bern, in 1999.
A visibly angered Jiang said he was insulted by the Swiss government’s decision to allow a pro-Tibet demonstration to go ahead in front of the Swiss parliament building during his visit.
swissinfo, Dale Bechtel
Chinese visitors accounted for 120,000 overnight stays in Swiss hotels last year.
In comparison, Japan led all Asian countries, spending 700,000 nights in Switzerland.
Germans top the list of all foreign visitors, accounting for 12 million overnight stays in 2002.
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.