The number of overnight stays in Swiss hotels fell last year by almost five per cent - the first decrease in three years - as the financial downturn began to bite.
But the sector says that it is crisis resistant, even if it expects 2010 to be another hard year.
There were 35.6 million overnight stays in Switzerland in 2009, according to the Federal Statistics Office. This is 4.7 per cent less than in the record 2008.
“Most regions had a reduction of overnight stays. The one exception is the region of Basel, which had 1.4 per cent more nights than in 2008,” Ernst Matti of the Statistics Office told swissinfo.ch at a Zurich news conference on Tuesday.
Basel benefited particularly from its hosting an acclaimed exhibition of Van Gogh’s landscapes. On the whole, cities did better than alpine areas, with mountainous Graubünden recording the biggest drop, down 5.7 per cent.
Swiss Hotel Association president Guglielmo Brentel says the economic crisis, uncertainties over swine flu and the strong Swiss franc were all reasons why 2009 was below 2008 levels.
But he thinks it could have been a lot worse. “It seems that tourism, down 4.7 per cent, is quite resistant to the crisis compared with other export industries like machinery and watches, which have lost approximately 22 per cent,” Brentel said.
“We have done our homework. In the good years we have invested in the quality of our buildings and services and it seems that Switzerland in the eyes of our guests has a good price-service relation,” he told swissinfo.ch.
British stay away
The crisis has affected foreign guests differently. The British recorded the biggest decrease – down 19 per cent. Tourists from big market Germany also fell.
The largest rise was seen among Chinese tourists - up 27 per cent - although they still make up a small part of overnight stays. Overall, in terms of hotel guests, the domestic market was less affected than the foreign one.
Brentel said the hotel sector should continue its good work to ride out 2010. This means investing in infrastructure, marketing and not bowing to pressure to lower prices too much.
“Nobody travels to Switzerland to spend the cheapest vacation of their lifetime. There are other reasons to come to Switzerland,” he said.
“I’m sure that if we emphasise the quality of our hotels, security and the beauty of our nature we’ll have success.”
“Not very dramatic”
For Switzerland Tourism, the national tourism marketing board, the 4.7 per cent drop in hotel overnight stays is not “very dramatic”.
“It’s still a solid result especially if you look at it over a long time series. It’s the third best result since 1994 and so we are still on a really high level,” said its head of communications, Daniela Bär.
“If we compare it with other European countries, which all had drops in the last year, Switzerland does very well,” she told swissinfo.ch.
In the overall Swiss tourism results, the hotel sector recorded a relatively sharp fall. This seemed to be to the benefit of the camping and holiday home sector which kept up with their 2008 result or even improved it in some areas. Day trip tourism came out as a winner because many more people enjoyed “staycations”, added Bär.
But she said there was no need to worry about the hotel sector. “The Swiss hotel sector is well positioned and has ever more specialised hotels, such as ‘wellness’ spa hotels and family hotels, where we can specifically appeal to guests,” she said.
However, the euro exchange rate remains a factor and Bär hopes that it will hold stable at the psychologically good level of €1 to SFr1.50. Otherwise the summer months of 2010 will be hard because not only will Switzerland be more expensive for euro guests, but the Swiss will flock to the cheaper euro area.
But overall Bär remains confident for 2010, especially as the last quarter of 2009 only recorded a drop of one per cent in overnight stays.
Brentel says that 2010 is likely to be a difficult year for Swiss hotels, and he expects the cities, which have been less hard hit economically than the regions and can profit from the trend towards short city breaks, to recover first.
“But as of the end of 2010, I think generally we will recover. I’m pretty sure we’ll have a better 2011 than 2009-2010,” he said.
Isobel Leybold-Johnson in Zurich, swissinfo.ch
The Federal Statistics Office has been keeping accommodation statistics for 75 years. Here are some of the main changes:
The number of hotels fell by 29 per cent from 7,756 to 5,533. But the number of beds available rose by 35%.
The number of overnight stays rose 2.5 times from around 14.3 million in 1934 to 35.6 million in 2009.
However, people are staying in hotels for less time: an average 2.3 nights (2009) compared with 4.2 nights (1934).
The origin of guests has flipped around: in 1934, 57% were Swiss and 43% foreigners, and in 2009 43% were Swiss, 57% were foreigners.
Swiss Hotel Association
The Swiss Hotel Association (hotelleriesuisse) has 3,085 members. Most are three star (1,000), followed by four star and two star establishments.
According to estimates, 2,229 hotels classified by the Swiss Hotel Association generate 76% of overnight stays in Switzerland.
The association has its headquarters in Bern, with branches in Lausanne and Bellinzona. It has 108 members of staff.
The hotel sector as a whole has a yearly turnover of more than SFr9 billion ($8.4 billion) and employs 70,000 full-time staff.
(Source: Swiss Hotel Association)