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‘Swiss tourism could benefit from the crisis’

Switzerland still has what it takes to attract tourists. Keystone/cyril Zingaro

After a year of empty airports, deserted beaches, cities and hotels, SWI swissinfo.ch caught up with David Ruetz, head of the Internationale Tourismus Börse Berlin (ITB) to discuss how the tourism industry is waking up from the dead.

This content was published on April 14, 2021 - 09:00
Petra Krimphove, Berlin

David Ruetz from Switzerland has headed the Internationale Tourismus Börse Berlin (ITB), the biggest tourism fair in the world, since 2003. The tourism expert is convinced that Switzerland will benefit from the emerging boom in the tourism industry. Demand for nature holidays and outdoor trips has increased since the pandemic as people are looking for more security and safety measures during their travels.

The 51-year-old ITB director has written several books on the trends in tourism and lectures at German and Austrian universities.

SWI swissinfo.ch: When was the last time the tourism industry was as deeply affected as it is now?

David Ruetz: We are seeing an extreme version of the situation we faced after the September 11 attacks and during the 2008-2009 economic crisis. The terrorist attacks in the Mediterranean – Turkey and Egypt – as well as those in London, Paris and Madrid crushed tourism in the past. However, this is the first time it’s happening on a global scale. Everyone in the tourism industry has been affected, from booking platforms to airlines, hotels and small independent travel agencies. And it’s far from certain that once everyone has been vaccinated there won’t be yet another virus or crisis lurking around the corner.

SWI: In light of this, what is the general atmosphere in the global travel industry?

D.R: The unpredictability of the situation is causing many headaches for market players. According to data from the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), in January 2021 international air travel was down 87% compared to January 2020.

SWI: Has the Covid-19 pandemic changed the tourism industry for good?

D.R: We have commissioned surveys for the German, American and Chinese markets which indicate that there will be an exceptional boom in the industry once the pandemic is over. Consumers have a huge desire to compensate for lost opportunities. In 2021, only a quarter of the surveys’ respondents said they were not planning any trips. Most of them want to travel again once it is possible.

SWI: Will travel look different in the future?

D.R: The pandemic has forced us to slow down. The key question is whether we actually want to go back to the “old normal”. In 2019, there were long queues at the Eiffel Tower, scores of people heading up the Jungfraujoch in Switzerland, and Venice was overwhelmed by cruise ship tourists. Now, dolphins are reclaiming the Venetian Lagoon. The ‘faster, higher, stronger‘ had to stop at some point. Flying to Rome for €5.99 did not make sense, not only from a business perspective.

“Consumers have a huge desire to compensate for lost opportunities”: David Ruetz. zVg


It is difficult to predict what’s going to happen. From an economic point of view, tour operators want to build on their past successes while people’s desire to travel is enormous. We can only hope that two things will change in the future: one is that gratefulness for the opportunity to travel will remain; the other is that increased awareness of sustainability through Covid-19 will endure, at least at a basic level.

SWI: Has the pandemic affected some operators more than others?

D.R: I would put it differently: the pandemic has opened up opportunities for tour operators who focus on the evolving attitudes of their target groups. More than ever, travelers are looking for businesses with a soul, where hotel owners live their values. The trends are ‘value-based’ and ‘less’.

SWI: The Swiss tourism industry has been hit hard. Visitors from Asia and Arab countries were an important pillar of the industry. How can we regain their trust and encourage them to travel again in the future?

D.R: That’s not my greatest worry. Traditionally, Switzerland has been a dream destination for tourists from Asia and the Arab states because of what this beautiful country has to offer. As soon as travel is possible again, tourists from these regions will be the first to knock on Switzerland’s doors. I am convinced of that.

As far as rebuilding trust is concerned, making Roger Federer the brand ambassador of ‘Destination Switzerland’ was a strategically clever move. He embodies this sense of trust.

SWI: According to the ITB World Travel Survey, people are more likely to travel within Europe and their own countries. There will be more sustainable nature and outdoor trips and a lot fewer business trips. Could Switzerland benefit from the crisis in the long run?

D.R: Yes, it can. Sixty-one percent of the respondents in Germany and 91% in China said they wanted to enjoy more nature and outdoor holidays in the future. I think this is pretty relevant. Nature and solitude are high on the agenda.

SWI: What about city tourism?

D.R: Urbanism has always been a big driver of tourism. I hope and fear at the same time that the demand for city trips will pick up again. There are some good ideas for counteracting the overuse of certain tourist sites, developed in pre-pandemic times. If governments are willing to do so, and they are, mass tourism can be regulated via apps and physical barriers.

SWI: How can Switzerland continue to compete with cheaper neighbours like Austria and Germany? Tourists can hike and ski there for less money.

D.R: It’s not all about price. Many Swiss who live abroad visit their families and friends back home and spend their holidays with them. Together with holiday and business trips, they form one of the three pillars of the tourism industry. The degree of loyality is also very high among tourists visiting Switzerland. As far as our prices are concerned, visitors enjoy a certain exclusivity in Switzerland as a countermeasure to mass tourism.

SWI: Does the pandemic also offer an opportunity for Switzerland to modernise its tourism infrastructure and reposition itself in the market?

D.R: Many businesses have used the lockdowns for refurbishments, training and the development of new concepts. This downtime was an opportunity for some while others found themselves at a crossroads: should they give up and close their activity or risk a new beginning?

In March 2021, 3,500 exhibitors, media representatives and travel bloggers from 120 countries participated in the ITB event, which took place virtually.

This year, the focus was on rebooting the industry after the devastating financial losses suffered due to the Covid-19 crisis.

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