High prices cloud future of alpine railways

Will lofty prices make high-altitude destinations like Jungfraujoch inaccessible? Keystone

Chances are you won’t get a seat on a Swiss train to travel on Europe’s highest railway if you’ve booked a 12-day European travel package, including flight, for as little as $600.

This content was published on January 8, 2019 - 10:25

Yet such cheap packages to Europe are being offered to Chinese tourists, and China is the key market for Switzerland’s Jungfrau RailwaysExternal link and its pricey mountain trips.

The company’s rail journey to the ‘Top of Europe’ as it’s billed – with the upper mountain station at 3,454 metres above sea level (11,332 ft) – has been one of the Swiss tourist industry’s biggest success stories, attracting record numbers year after year.

A large reason for this has been the company’s winning strategy of making deals with tour operators in China, convincing them to include the ‘Top of Europe’ in their Europe packages.

According to a report from Swiss public television, SRF, the Chinese accounted for well over half of all tourists who took the Jungfrau train in 2017, when the railways reported a record 1.07 million passengers.

But the company charges CHF180 ($184) for the few hours it takes to ride the train up and down the mountain of the same name. Without any discount, that is a hefty price tag for a tour operator offering trips to Europe for a few hundred dollars.

SRF recently accompanied the firm’s CEO Urs Kessler on a sales trip to China. Kessler admits that the Swiss railway journey is becoming a much harder sell:

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If visitor numbers fall in 2019, as Kessler predicts, the company could face criticism for its dependency on China.

It’s likely a similar situation facing other mountain railway companies that have targeted Asian guests, including the trip up the Titlis mountain and journey across the Swiss Alps on board the ‘Glacier Express’.

From May to October, the peak months for alpine railway trips, Switzerland counted more than six million tourist arrivals from abroad, yet the Chinese accounted for just over 10%.

The Jungfrau Railways also controls much of the infrastructure, including trains, lifts and restaurants, in the local ski region. It’s investing heavily in a new cable car system to speed journeys up and down the mountain.

Kessler believes such investments are necessary to remain competitive, even if skiing is becoming less popular.

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