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Indian tourists a growing and welcome market

One Indian in three who visits Switzerland travels to the Jungfraujoch at 3,454m altitude (Picture: Switzerland Tourism) Switzerland Tourism

The helicopter accident in which seven Indian tourists were killed on Tuesday is unlikely to have any impact on one of Swiss tourism's biggest success stories in recent years: the massive growth in the number of visitors from the sub-continent.

Over the past five years, the number of Indian tourists to Switzerland has grown by about 15 to 20 per cent on average every year. The trend even seems to be accelerating.

About 25 per cent more Indians came to Switzerland in 1998 than in the previous year, and there were about 30 per cent more guests in 1999.

Peter Ueltschi, of the emerging markets division at the Swiss tourist board, Switizerland Tourism, is confident the death of seven tourists in a helicopter collision will hardly be felt on the industry.

“The main travel season for Indians coming to Switzerland is from April to June or July. In other words it is over for this year and, generally speaking, people forget after a certain time. So we expect to get some cancellations in the immediate future, but by next Spring people will travel again.”

The Indians are more than welcome guests in Switzerland. While in 1998 the number of guests from traditional markets such as the United States, Italy and Britain slumped by 11, 13 and 15 per cent respectively, the rapid rise in Indian tourists was a ray of hope.

The absolute numbers are still low. Ueltschi estimates between 70 and 80,000 Indians will come to Switzerland this year and spend about 170,000 nights in Swiss hotels. In contrast, last year there were about 700,000 overnight stays from Japanese tourists, 1.5 million from Americans and nearly 7 million from Germans.

But Swiss tourism authorities say the potential is enormous. With a population of over one billion and a growing middle class, India already has more people who can afford to travel to Europe than the entire Swiss population.

Switzerland Tourism thinks the Indians can help the industry grow back to the record levels last achieved more than ten years ago.

“We want to return to the 80 million overnight stays we recorded in 1990 within four or five years,” Switzerland Tourism’s director, Jürg Schmid, told the Sonntags Blick newspaper last month. “And by then we want to be strong in the inter-continental business. That’s where our markets of the future are. For the Indians or the Japanese, we Swiss are an incredibly exotic people.”

Although India is now viewed as the most important emerging market, the growth in the number of Indian guests did not come about through any marketing efforts by Switzerland Tourism.

“It started maybe about five years ago, when the Indians discovered Switzerland thanks to the film industry in India,” Ueltschi said. “The Indians make more and more films, love stories, all over Switzerland, and the Indians are great movie goers.”

“Since then we have had a great increase in double digits every year, and of course we are tremendously happy about it.”

At first, most of the guests were rich Indians, but the market has widened as it has developed. Ueltschi says packages offered by Indian tour operators start at about $400-500, a price accessible to a growing number of people. They are also good spenders in Switzerland.

“It’s a very interesting fact that when the Indians come to Switzerland, they even shop around,” Ueltschi said. “Figures show they spend about SFr300 a day per person.”

On their first trip to Switzerland, most go to the same places: central Switzerland, the Bernese Oberland and Lake Geneva, along with the main cities Zurich and Geneva.

The Alps always feature prominently in the programme: “It is the dream of every Indian, to touch snow somewhere in Switzerland,” explains Ueltschi.

They are so keen on the mountains, that despite the relatively low number of visitors to Switzerland, they make up a good four per cent of all guests on the Jungfrau railway, which takes passengers to the highest railway station in Europe, at an altitude of more than 3,400 metres. About 25,000 Indians, or one out of three who visits Switzerland, will travel up the mountain this year.

“In the first years they used to bargain for everything,” recalls Urs Kessler, director for marketing and operations at the Jungfrau railway. “Other tourists used to get annoyed at the Indians for holding things up as they bargained over the price at the ticket counter.”

“It was simply a cultural thing. They had to learn that we don’t do that here, and they don’t any more,” Kessler said.

by Malcolm Shearmur

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR