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Swiss reach out to wealthy Asian visitors

Asian tourists admire an alpine panorama Keystone

Switzerland is already a leading destination for wealthy Asian tourists but Switzerland Tourism believes there is still a huge potential to be tapped.

This content was published on June 30, 2010 - 14:23
Robert La Bua, swissinfo.ch

The fourth Asia Luxury Travel Market, the premier travel market in the Asia-Pacific region, took place in Shanghai earlier this month. Switzerland Tourism’s presence was marked by a bright red stand hosting a number of Swiss companies here to increase awareness of their products and services.

Chinese outbound tourism in particular is booming, yet the numbers seen worldwide are only the tip of the chopstick, a harbinger of the coming paradigm shift that will redefine the world's biggest industry.

Like their fellow Asian travellers, Chinese jetsetters are wealthy, and they like to spend their money. As frequent traveller Li Haixia says, "Switzerland is beautiful and the shopping is fun." Indeed, Chinese visitors have a particular fascination with Swiss watches and already account for a considerable number of high-price sales.

Amazingly, there seems to be more trepidation than glee among many European tourism offices, whose continually reduced budgets and lack of first-hand knowledge of Asian consumer behaviour has them receding into their traditional markets rather than making inroads into new ones.

Switzerland Tourism has been one of the world's leading tourism offices in attracting Chinese travellers, starting with a Mandarin version of its website, the most basic of instruments in establishing a presence in the world's most spoken language.

The results are apparent, with statistics reflecting not only growth in the number of arrivals, but also length of stay and average expenditure.

Seeking escape

As in so many other economic indicators, the Chinese move ahead at a fast pace; today's leading Chinese tourists have already travelled to Europe numerous times and are seeking specialised experiences beyond a lift up the Eiffel Tower or the view from Neuschwanstein, the fairytale castle in Bavaria.

As urban dwellers in Asia's densely packed cities seek an escape from their daily norm, Switzerland's fresh air and charming scenery are naturally attractive to "high-yielding quality customers" who want to experience Switzerland in depth, according to Shirley Romano of Chur University’s Institute for Tourism and Leisure Research.

However, in her recent report Romano also notes that "European hosts may not be ready for the adjustments needed for the particular needs of the Chinese tourists".

The same can be said about Asian travellers from other countries. Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Korea are also increasingly valuable as sources of tourism revenue, and of course, India rivals China in economic might as well as arrivals of high-end travellers in Switzerland.

The “Asian market” is as heterogeneous as “the European market” and well-informed travel businesses know to specifically address the needs of clients in the individual countries.

Positive image

Switzerland enjoys a positive image in China and with the growing disposable income of China's richest travellers, the smart businesspeople are already here, tending to already established relationships and creating new ones.

As was stated at the Ultratravel Forum that kicked off the Asia Luxury Travel Market's events, "the businesses that are the most successful in China are the ones that came here ten years ago".

In the case of Switzerland Tourism, it's been 12; Switzerland Tourism was the first national tourism office of a European country to set up a China office, doing so in 1998 and exerting an influence over Chinese travellers' holiday decisions ever since.

Canton Lucerne maintains its own tourism office in China in recognition of the fact that it is one of the most popular destinations for Chinese travellers to Switzerland.

Lucerne Tourism's Overseas Marketing Manager Mark Meier says, "Lucerne is one of the favourite places in Switzerland for Chinese travelers," and Lucerne Tourism is intent on keeping it that way.

It's certainly not only government entities making an effort to make their products known in the biggest outbound market in the world. Hotel groups and individual hotel properties were also well represented.

Christopher Cox of Victoria-Jungfrau Collection and Karin Kunz, General Manager of Zermatt's Mont Cervin Palace, were among the busiest people in the Switzerland Tourism exhibit space, with one appointment after the other closing deals for the coming season.

Medical tourism

One of Switzerland's most prominent facilities for medical tourism, Clinique La Prairie, has been reaching out to Chinese and other Asian clients for several years. This early investment has paid off well; as in other ultra luxury markets, word of mouth is of utmost importance, and returning clients of Clinique La Prairie are the best advertisement of the facility and its services.

After busy days at the travel market, Clinique La Prairie representatives hosted a variety of evening events for past and prospective clients. "The numbers from China just keep rising," said representative Yaël Bruigom. "We have had a phenomenal response," added Gabriela Vuichoud.

Not surprisingly, a China-based company specialising in assisting high-end visitors to Switzerland with their holiday plans is doing very well. Fert is a tour operator for wealthy Chinese run by Managing Director Xiao-Hong Raemy, a resident of Geneva for 12 years before her return to China.

Success in China is by no means automatic. Sophisticated Asian travellers are accustomed to the most sumptuous hotels, resorts, and spas in the world, with unparalleled levels of service and attention to detail — all for less cost than comparable accommodation and services in European countries.

While money is not a problem for luxury travellers, they, too enjoy a good deal and will spend big when there is value for money.

Robert La Bua in Shanghai, swissinfo.ch

Chinese tourists

For tourism in a specific country to be promoted in China, it must first be granted Approved Destination Status by the Chinese government. Switzerland was added to the ADS list in 2004.

Chinese travellers accounted for 6% of the world's outbound travellers in 2009.

It is expected China will provide an astounding 100,000,000 outbound travellers by 2020.

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Swiss hotel figures

The number of overnight stays in Swiss hotels fell in 2009 by almost five per cent - the first decrease in three years - as the financial downturn began to bite.

There were 35.6 million overnight stays in Switzerland, according to the Federal Statistics Office. This is 4.7 per cent less than in the record in 2008.

However, there was a rise among Chinese tourists - up 27 per cent - although they still make up a small part of overnight stays.

The British recorded the biggest decrease – down 19 per cent. Tourists from big market Germany also fell.

On the whole, cities did better than alpine areas, with mountainous Graubünden recording the biggest drop, down 5.7 per cent.

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