Swiss tourism: a tale of two markets

Lucerne's lion monument: a must-see for Chinese visitors Keystone

In common with many other industries in Switzerland, the ailing tourism sector is being kept afloat by stable domestic consumption and strong growth in Asia.

This content was published on February 21, 2012 - 20:12

The strong franc contributed to a two per cent drop in overnight stays in Switzerland last year, but the figures would have been worse without a surge in tourists from emerging economies and the Swiss visiting their holiday homes.

Figures released by Switzerland Tourism on Tuesday revealed an 8.5 per cent fall in European guests in 2011. Some 10.5 per cent fewer Germans and 8.3 per cent fewer British took their holidays in Switzerland compared with 2010.

But Chinese visitors increased by nearly 50 per cent, while 24 per cent more Koreans, 17 per cent more Indians, ten per cent more Russians and 15 per cent more Brazilians flocked to the Alps.

The number of overnight stays enjoyed by the Swiss in their own country fell by only a tiny margin despite the attraction of getting more for their money if they went to the eurozone.

Holiday homes

“Switzerland is no more expensive for the Swiss than before, unlike people in neighbouring countries who now feel the effects of the strong franc,” Switzerland Tourism director Jürg Schmid, told

“Hotels and resorts have been forced to lower prices and offer discounted packages which Swiss holidaymakers can also take advantage of. So the cost of vacationing at home has actually come down for the domestic market.”

Many Swiss have the advantage of owning holiday flats or second homes in tourist regions, which reduces costs even further.

A boom in the construction of such properties in recent decades has often been derided for ruining the landscape. While the number of hotel beds has remained constant at just over 200,000 since 1975, the number of beds in second homes has rocketed from around 600,000 to 1.3 million.

While many people regard the largely unoccupied holiday homes as an eyesore, the Swiss tourist board is now thankful that their presence has helped encourage more Swiss to stay at home for their holidays.


Big spenders

“There are two ways of looking at holiday homes,” Schmid told

“They have been a stabilising factor during the recent tough times, but we also feel that the limit has been reached before they spoil the splendid nature that people come to enjoy.”

Domestic holidaymakers accounted for just over 44 per cent of all overnight stays in Switzerland last year, but around half of the income in the sector.

“What people save on accommodation they spend on other activities, such as shopping or eating out,” explained Schmid.

Other big spenders are Asian visitors who shell out SFr350 ($384) per person per day, compared with a relatively miserly SFr120 to SFr240 for European guests, depending on what country they come from.


China expectations

“First time visitors are much more likely to spend more money during their stay,” Ruth Meier, vice-director of the Federal Statistics Office, told

“People who come here regularly over a number of years do not need to climb every mountain or buy a watch every time they come.”

Switzerland Tourism has been marketing its brand heavily in Asia in recent years and believes the number of tourists from China alone could swell from 400,000 a year to two million by 2020.

The number of overnight stays by Chinese tourists already more than tripled between 2001 and 2011. For the first time ever, China outstripped Japan as the most important Asian country in terms of overnight stays last year.

“Fortunately for us, Switzerland is viewed as one of the three must-see destinations on a European tour, along with France and Italy,” Simon Bosshart, Asia-Pacific director at Switzerland Tourism, told

“Most of our Chinese guests live in big cities where they experience crowded streets, pollution and lots of cars. They long for natural scenery and clean air, so for them Switzerland is like Shangri-la.”

The only problem is that such visitors are not so common during the winter season, so Swiss ski resorts have yet to benefit from the Asia effect.

Remoter areas, such as Graubünden in the far southeast, have also yet to find a way of attracting these new visitors in appreciable numbers. The big Swiss cities of Zurich and Geneva saw tourist numbers increase last year, but Graubünden witnessed a 7.6 per cent decline in overnight stays.

The 2011 tourist season

Overnight stays by tourists in Switzerland fell 2%, or by 772,000, according to statistics released on February 21.

Domestic holidaymakers registered 15.8 million overnight stays (down by 0.1%) while foreign guests racked up 19.7 million overnighters (-3.5%).

German (-10.5%), British (-8.3%), Italian (-6.2%) and French (-3.8%) visitors all declined compared to 2010.

But Chinese (+47.3%), South Korean (+24%), Indian (+17.2%), Brazilian (+15.2%) and Russian (+14.1%) guests all came in significantly greater numbers.

Alpine regions suffered the worst falls in visitors last year, particularly Graubünden (-7.6%), Valais (-4.4%) and the mountains of canton Bern (-2.5%). Ticino also witnessed a 4.6% fall in guests.

In response, hotels and resorts have been forced to lower prices, but figures on the economic performance of the tourist industry will not be available for another year.

Ski resorts have been hit particularly badly and were not helped by the late arrival of snow this season.

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