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Walking in the Alps is reinvented

Watch your step. ST/

Hiking is still one of the most popular pastimes in Switzerland, even if walking in the Swiss Alps is no longer what it used to be.

New trends mean that the most basic form of motion now involves much more than putting one leg in front of the other to get from A to B.

Half of the Swiss population say they hike regularly, and nearly 30 per cent say they would like to do more.

Yet the latest studies show that maintaining the impressive 62,000 kilometres of paths and trails (14,000 more than in the United States) criss-crossing the country is no longer enough to satisfy the public.

Young adults are drawn to the latest trends in outdoor activities, while the over-50s want proof that what they are doing is good for their health.

Lucrative walking

The tourism industry has seen the future and agreed on a formula which it hopes will make hiking a more lucrative business.

The industry has created holiday packages designed to take advantage of the new array of hi-tech hiking gear that is flooding the market.

“There has been a hiking revival, and it’s being driven by marketing professionals, inspired by sporting goods manufacturers,” Ruedi Jaisli, head of the tour operator, Trans Swiss Trail, told swissinfo.

“Walkers suddenly need hi-tech poles, devices to measure their pulse and even a GPS navigational system to get from A to B.”

The new gear can not only be purchased or hired in alpine resorts, but it can also be put to use on recommended “Nordic” (see related items), “Swing” or “Smart Mountain Walking” routes and adventure and theme trails.

Nutritional advice

Smart Mountain Walking, for example, requires a qualified guide who not only leads groups along alpine trails, but also gives advice on nutrition and instruction on how to use the various monitoring paraphernalia.

The adventure and theme trails are designed to appeal to young adults and families who have turned their backs on the Alps in favour of the beach.

The national tourist office, Switzerland Tourism, is offering help online with the launch of a do-it-yourself walking planner (see related sites).

With a few clicks, you can design your own Swiss hiking tour which takes into account the degree of difficulty, distance and whether you want to combine it with cultural or culinary highlights.

At a recent conference dedicated to “Swiss Alpine Walking” – the name given to the promotion in Swiss resorts of the new trendy walking techniques – studies were presented showing the benefits of hiking at altitude.

While walking is healthy, hiking between 1,200 and 2,500 metres above sea level does even more to prevent heart disease, lower blood pressure, strengthen bones and burn calories.

The resorts hope this argument will win back holidaymakers to Switzerland.

Four out of ten Europeans spend their summer holidays by sea, while only six per cent head for the Alps. And only one in ten in the latter group chooses Switzerland.

Tomorrow’s walker

In order for resorts to create tailor-made packages for potential guests, Zurich’s Dichter Institute, which specialises in market research, has defined tomorrow’s walkers, dividing them into four categories.

The current leader, the “social” walker who hikes simply to be with friends and family in the outdoors, will decrease from 65 per cent to 39 per cent over the next five years.

Gaining up to 25 per cent each over the same period will be walkers seeking “adventure” (mountain tours, climbing, survival) and “well-being” holidays (combined with spa hotels, culinary offers).

“Hi-tech” hikers coming to the Alps to practice Nordic, Smart or Swing walking are expected to eventually claim an 11 per cent market share.

“It’s easy to link walking with a variety of services,” said Jaisli. “It’s really a question of transforming walking from a free activity into an attractive product.”

“It’s rather an odd development, when you consider how lazy Europeans have become.

“Most people won’t walk more than an hour from where they’ve parked their car. We used to laugh at Americans for this very reason, but we’re no better any more.”

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel and Alexander Künzle

The new trends are:
Nordic Walking
Smart Mountain Walking
Swing Walking
Adventure tours
Theme trails

“Swiss Alpine Walking” is a joint project subsidised by the Swiss government, and supported by research institutes and the national tourist office.

The following pilot resorts and tourist destinations are taking part: Flims Laax Falera, Pontresina, Appenzellerland, Engelberg, Gstaad, Saas-Fee and the villages in the Saas Valley.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR