The city of Lucerne is facing more and more complaints from locals about traffic problems in the centre of town, often caused they say by the presence of tourist buses dropping off visitors from China and elsewhere who are looking for luxury watches to take home.
The number of tourists visiting Lucerne could break a record this year, with up to five million day trippers and one million overnight stays expected by the end of 2013 if the current trend continues, Marcel Perren, head of Lucerne Tourism, told the NZZ am Sonntag newspaper.
Asian travellers make up a large share of the visitors. Lucerne has become a very popular destination with mainland Chinese, as well as for travellers from Taiwan and Hong Kong. So far 120,000 have stayed in the area since the beginning of the year, eight per cent more than in 2012, and twice as many than five years ago.
Most Chinese visitors travel as part of groups and get around in buses. However, in a town with just 80,000 inhabitants, locals are starting to feel the pinch when it comes to getting around.
According to Perren, most complaints centre around traffic snarls on the road stretch between the railway station and the Schwanenplatz square a few hundred metres away, where most cars and buses cutting through the city have to pass.
Up to 120 tourist buses stop at Schwanenplatz on some days, where travellers jump out to take a picture of the lake and buy luxury watches.
The city is caught between a rock and a hard place for the moment. “Sales related to group travel have developed favourably,” admitted the city’s head of business development Peter Bucher to the NZZ, “but there are times when the capacities at Schwanenplatz are exceeded.”
Kurt Haerri, president of the Swiss-Chinese chamber of commerce, warns that far more Chinese are on their way. “If Lucerne wants to continue developing this market, the city will have to find new solutions to welcome them, otherwise it will lose the support of the local community.”
Perren says that the city and the business community need to find a way of ensuring that tourism can develop sustainably, but adds that improvements are needed quickly. This week, a Schwanenplatz working group was set up to figure out to improve the traffic flow.
Among the solutions being considered is to let tourists out of their buses as they do now, but have them cross the Reuss River on foot afterwards to get their buses parked on the other side.
Another proposal would have tourists get off at Schwanenplatz and get back on their buses at the National Transport Museum after taking a shuttle ferry. A more ambitious suggestion would be the construction of an underground metro bringing visitors from the north of the city, which would cost an estimated CHF400 million and take three to four years to build.
Local watch sellers, while open to improvements, aren’t particularly enthusiastic about any of the proposals, saying that it is important for tourists to be dropped off and picked up at the same location.
“We began working on developing the Chinese market in the 1990, and we are seeing the results now” said Jörg Baumann, spokesman for Lucerne’s biggest watch seller, Bucherer. “Switzerland is a dream destination for many Chinese, and part of that dream is buying a beautiful watch.”
Baumann said that anything that would be more complicated than the current situation would do more than harm than good to Lucerne.
Haerri suggests that taking the tourists out of the city centre might be a solution, with a specially built shopping mall, bringing other products besides watches such as cheese and chocolate to the forefront.
“The Chapel Bridge and the Water Tower are great symbols of Lucerne, but Chinese tourists go there first and foremost to buy watches,” he added.
In the meantime, changes have already taken place on the Schwanenplatz. Extra security personnel, paid for by local jewellers and souvenir shop owners, has been helping keep traffic under control since summer last year – a reaction after the death of an elderly man hit by a tourist bus.