Geneva remains favourite Arab playground

The president of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Zayed, boosted earnings in Geneva by renting 350 rooms. Keystone

Geneva's tourism authorities have released figures showing a massive increase in Arab visitors.

This content was published on August 22, 2000 minutes

The city has long been a favourite playground for the Gulf's rich and powerful, but the high oil price is making it more accessible to ordinary Arabs, too.

The figures show that in the first half of this year, there was an increase of 57 per cent in the number of visitors from the Middle East compared to the same period last year. That translates into 10,000 more overnight stays.

Virtually all of these visitors stayed in five-star hotels. On average, their visits are longer than those of tourists from other countries. And while they only make up five per cent of all tourists, rising to 10 per cent in summer, they enjoy a disproportionate level of purchasing power.

The figures have taken officials by surprise because Arab tourists traditionally visit the city during July and August.

"The second half of the summer remains the main season, and despite the poor weather, July looks like being very good," says the head of Geneva Tourism, François Bryand. "But we have to be careful with statistics, and I would prefer to study the figures at the end of the year."

Economic factors seem to have been partially responsible for the increase. The rising price of oil and relative weakness of the Swiss franc has put more money in the pockets of ordinary people in the Gulf.

"We've detected that the medium-class of tourist is travelling more. They travel if they have certain level of buying power. And if the price of petrol is high, we definitely have more people coming from the Gulf," Bryand told swissinfo.

But by far the biggest factor in the apparent boom is the decision by the president of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Zayed, to bring forward his annual trip to Geneva for health reasons. The sheikh and his entourage spent six weeks in Geneva from late May to mid-July, and occupied 350 hotel rooms.

"They say the first six months have been excellent, but that shouldn't make them optimistic for the rest of the year," says Herbert Schott, manager of the Intercontinental Hotel, where the sheikh stayed.

"Sheikh Zayed comes to Geneva every year, but principally in July or August. I'm not sure the figures will be so good for the whole year," he told swissinfo.

That's a view shared by Eric Kuhne, manager of the Noga-Hilton, another hotel that benefited from Sheikh Zayed's trip: "Leaving aside the sheikh's visit, the figures are comparable with last year."

Nevertheless the hoteliers agree that the general economic buoyancy in the Arab world has led to more money being spent in Geneva.

"The price of oil has meant more money in everyone's pockets. The more they earn, the more they spend - that's the Middle Eastern mentality - which is very good for us," Schott says.

The Arab royal families began coming to Geneva in the 1950s and 1960s for shopping, medical treatment or simply relaxation. With the onset of the oil crises in the 1970s, they were followed by their newly-rich subjects.

"Geneva was a place of pilgrimage in the early 1970s. Waves of people from the Gulf came to Geneva to see the places where their dignitaries stayed, but which they couldn't afford to visit before the oil boom," Schott says. "They thought: what's good for the king must be good for the people."

Gradually, the monarchs and their entourages sought new places to spend their summers - the south of France and southern Spain - and commoners from their countries followed suit.

But Geneva has always been a special place for blue-blooded Arabs. Not only is it a shopping and business capital, it also has a human dimension that is lacking in bigger cities like London and Paris.

"Geneva has remained a little mecca of tranquillity and security. It's politically neutral. And of course many of these people have money deposited here. Increasingly, they have also been coming here for medical reasons," says Herbert Schott.

"They've seen enough of the other destinations. Now they want peace and quiet. They want somewhere safe, where they can walk on the street without being accosted. And that place is Geneva," he adds.

by Roy Probert

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