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Global downturn plagues tourism industry

Jungfrau Railways say the absence of Asian tourists has led to a 40 per cent drop in business (swiss-image.ch)

Switzerland has hosted a major travel trade fair in a bid to turn around the fortunes of the country's struggling tourist industry.

The three-day Zurich fair, which attracted over 400 tour operators from 40 nations, came on the heels of a dire forecast for the forthcoming summer season.

A study released on Tuesday by the Basel-based economics institute, BAK, predicted a 3.2 per cent drop in hotel overnight stays this summer compared with last year.

The figure, which is nearly five per cent lower than the average over the past ten years, is cause for concern for the tourism trade - a key sector of the Swiss economy.

Tourism generates SFr27 billion ($20.5 billion) annually in direct and indirect revenues.

Mixed signals

There were mixed signals at the Zurich fair, the Switzerland Travel Mart (STM), that the industry would bounce back next year.

Switzerland Tourism, which organised the fair, said interest in Switzerland as a travel destination was on the rise, with four per cent more buyers in attendance than during the last edition of the STM in 2001.

It expects the fair to generate SFr48 million in sales, equivalent to 240,000 overnight stays.

However, representatives from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan cancelled due to Sars, and no one was willing to predict when Asians would start travelling to Europe again.

Asian gap

Asians account for about half of passengers buying tickets for scenic sightseeing trips on the Jungfrau Railways in the Bernese Oberland.

Despite some interest from Asian operators at the fair, Marcel Furer of the Jungfrau Railways told swissinfo that the absence of Asian tourists had meant a drop in business of up to 40 per cent.

Furer said he was optimistic the travel industry would eventually rebound, though he was cautious regarding next year's prospects.

Price cut

Also heavily reliant on Asian guests, as well as Americans, is the city of Lucerne.

The Montana Art Deco Hotel, which has performed above expectations in recent months, said it was under pressure from foreign sales agents to lower prices to woo last-minute tourists.

"It's a tense situation," Maria Büeler of the hotel told swissinfo. "Bookings for June are much lower than they were last year, so people are deciding on their holidays at the very last moment."

Lust for travel

Perry Bender of the American tour operator, Destination Europe Resources, estimates that his sales are down about 20 per cent compared with the average over the past decade.

As a European specialist, his company sells about 50,000 airline tickets a year and 30,000 hotel nights annually.

But Bender said Americans are rediscovering their lust for travel.

"As soon as the Iraq war technically ended, we started receiving telephone requests again," he said.

He added that Switzerland was an easier sell in the United States compared with France because of Paris's more vocal opposition to the war.

Safe destination

Switzerland Tourism's director, Jürg Schmid, told swissinfo the Switzerland was well positioned to rebound faster than most.

"Switzerland is well known as being a safe, secure country," he said. "These are key assets we can play up at this moment in history."

Meanwhile, buyers said Germans, who account for about 40 per cent of all foreign tourists visiting Switzerland, were expected to keep coming.

German buyers at the STM said Germans would continue to holiday close to home and travel by car.

But they stressed that Germans were taking shorter vacations and spending less.

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel

Key facts

The Switzerland Travel Mart is the country's largest trade show for incoming business.
Over 400 buyers from 40 nations attended the three-day fair in Zurich.
Organisers expect the fair to generate SFr48 million in sales, equivalent to 240,000 overnight stays.

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