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Geneva looks east to diversify tourist sector

The Reformation Wall is a popular tourist sight in Geneva Keystone

Geneva needs to diversify its tourism offer to compensate for an over-reliance on holidaymakers from the Gulf states, say tourism experts.

Some 1.8 million people attended the Fêtes de Genève festival that ended on Sunday, but the figures were down from two million last year, most likely due to a clash with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Visitors from the Middle East were conspicuous by their absence at this year’s festival, said Paul Muller, president of the Geneva Hotel Owners Association.

“Without Ramadan, holidaymakers from the Gulf typically account for 50 per cent of all hotel bookings in July and August,” Muller told “This year they were present until July 25 but in August there was no one.”

Bookings were partly compensated by visitors from China, eastern Europe and India, he added.

But the financial impact is expected to be considerable for both hotel and shop owners. According to American Express, holidaymakers from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, spend on average SFr1,892 ($2,395) per hotel room – two and a half times as much as Chinese tourists – and SFr1,000 on shopping during their stay.

They are thought to contribute towards the success of the festival, which brings in SFr120 million for the canton.

“There will be a big deficit this year as many families spend SFr2,000-4,000 to organise an evening event,” said Geneva Tourism spokesman Bernard Cazaban.

Lessons learned

Geneva tourist officials are concerned as Ramadan, whose dates vary slightly from year to year, will coincide with the Fêtes de Genève for the next three years.

“Geneva faces considerable competition from similar but cheaper destinations. This is an opportunity for us to question what we are doing and think about what services we are offering,” Philippe Vignon, director general of Geneva Tourism, told Swiss national radio.

Muller said clear lessons had to be drawn from relying too heavily on holidaymakers from one region.

“Geneva has managed to partly compensate for them, but 50 per cent is colossal and will take ten years to achieve,” he commented.

He said two or three other tourist markets required better targeting, such as China, and special attention was needed to make Geneva a destination for shoppers.

“But what are Geneva’s attractions in summer? The Fêtes de Genève lasts ten days but what about the other 50 to be filled?” he pondered. “Patrons are interested in investing in cultural activities in Geneva but a great deal remains to be done.”

Indian nights

Cazaban said the city already had a strategy in place to attract holidaymakers from China, India, Russia and Brazil.

India was the host nation for this year’s festival. In its honour an Indian village with a miniature replica of the Taj Mahal had been built in the Jardin Anglais to host parties.

The number of overnight stays in Switzerland made by Indian holidaymakers has risen over the past five years from 162,724 to 270,834.

“Most Indian visitors are interested in the mountains but Geneva is increasingly appreciated,” said Rajen Habib Khwaja, Secretary of Tourism at India’s Ministry of Tourism.

The number of Indian visitors to Geneva between January and June has increased by five per cent for the past few years.

“In 2010 Indians were the twelfth most frequent visitors, in 2011 they were the tenth and the idea is that we get them into the top five,” said Cazaban.

Of the approximately 17.4 million nights tourists spent in Swiss hotels between January and June 2011, 7.5 million were Swiss customers.

German, British, French, American, Italian, Dutch and Belgium visitors remained in the top ten but overall numbers fell due to the strong franc. Asian visitors are starting to make a difference.

For example, the number of Chinese coming to see Switzerland this summer – or do business here – rose to 221,218 hotel nights (+36% on 2010). There was also strong growth from India (+28%) to 270,834 hotel nights and the Gulf States (+15%) to 143,146 hotel nights.
The Russian market proved to be one of the few bright lights on the European horizon. Russian visitors spent 293,097 nights in Swiss hotels – an increase of 12 per cent.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR