Government bails out ailing tourist industry

Austria's scenery is easily a match for Switzerland's. www.uni-konstanz.de

The government has pledged SFr135 million ($90 million) to the tourist sector to lift it out of the doldrums.

This content was published on September 20, 2002 - 15:35

The bulk of the money will be in the form of a loan to the hotel industry, which reported a six per cent fall in overnight stays in the first seven months.

The money will be paid out between 2003 and 2007.

The economics minister, Pascal Couchepin, said SFr100 million was destined for the hotel industry, but only "going concerns" would benefit.

The slump in the number of overnight stays came after four consecutive years of increases.

Switzerland Tourism said foreign tourists had stayed away because of the general economic downturn and following the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Austria preferred

But these factors do not appear to have deterred foreign guests from visiting neighbouring Austria. Last year it recorded a 1.5 per cent growth in overnight stays.

Increasing numbers of Swiss are also choosing Austria as a holiday destination at the expense of Switzerland.

Tourism experts and holidaymakers insist it is not simply a question of cost; it is also a matter of taste.

"Every restaurant had a playground, and it's hard to find any in Switzerland as big or well equipped as those in Austria," says Beatrice Böhlen, a Swiss woman talking about her family's holiday in an Austrian resort in the Kärnten region.

"Our children were always very welcome wherever we went, which isn't the case here in Switzerland."

Böhlen says the cost of a cable-car ride or boat trip was half what it would be in Switzerland. She and her family would like to return to Austria - this time in winter.

The Böhlens are representative of an increasing number of Swiss who are turning their backs on Swiss resorts and opting for a holiday in the Austrian Alps.

Seven per cent more

The Swiss spent 2.7 million nights in Austrian hotels, inns and holiday apartments last year - an increase of seven per cent on 2000.

But it is not only the Swiss who are choosing to spend their holidays outside Switzerland. The number of foreign guests was also down last year, by more than nine per cent.

The big losers were Swiss resorts. Hotels complained of six per cent less income in 2001, and the trend has continued this year.

In comparison, Austria saw 1.5 per cent growth in overnight stays last year despite an unstable world economy and the terrorist attacks in the United States, which led to a large drop in Americans and Asians travelling to Europe.

The strong Swiss franc and higher cost of living has made Switzerland about 30 to 40 per cent more expensive than its European Union neighbours.

This is one of the main reasons Swiss tourist resorts are having such a hard time.

But Urs Kamber, director of tourism for the Austrian resort of Lech, says it is not only down to a question of price.

Value for money

Lech has a reputation as an upmarket resort but still saw tourist numbers rise last year.

"Even though Lech is not a very cheap destination, the value for money here is very, very good," says Kamber.

A native Swiss and former director of the Swiss resort of Bad Ragaz, Kamber has his own view of why Switzerland has lost some of its attraction.

"Most of the Austrian hotels are still family owned and run and this gives a certain charm," he says. "I believe people still want to spend money and they are still willing to spend a lot of money for quality service.

"But no one wants to sit in a hotel without any atmosphere and not to be given personal attention."

Kamber says this is why 75 per cent of the tourists in Lech are repeat customers, who, when they do come back, return with their friends.

His theory is echoed by Krista Lausenhammer of the Austrian tourist board in Vienna.

"If you spend your holiday in a privately-run inn, you have the opportunity to get to know the owners, their customs and see how they live," she says. "That's something special."

Whereas in Switzerland, more and more hotels are now owned and staffed by resident foreigners, diluting the Swiss character that many visitors are looking for.

Inflexible

Thomas Allemann, an economist with the Swiss Hotel Association, counters that it is simply a question of price, and Swiss hotels are not as flexible as their Austrian counterparts.

"We have a very strict classification system," he says. "For example, Swiss four star hotels have to offer meals 24 hours a day, and have to have an 'à la carte' restaurant on the premises."

Allemann says this leads to higher operating costs, which are reflected in the price of the rooms and meals.

In Austria, many hotels in an equivalent category only offer half or full-board accommodation, which reduces costs.

Silvia De Vito of Switzerland Tourism says many resorts are preparing special offers for the coming winter to make a stay in Switzerland more cost competitive.

But she admits that the difference is often one of perception, since any holidaymaker can find accommodation and services in Switzerland to suit their budget.

De Vito says Switzerland Tourism has been working hard to change that image by "introducing a nationwide quality standard to make a guest's stay in Switzerland more pleasant".

swissinfo

Key facts

The government will pump SFr135 million into the tourist industry between 2003 and 2007.
Swiss hotels saw a six per cent decrease in overnight stays in the first seven months.
Foreign guests are down by more than nine per cent.
Austria saw an increase of 1.3 per cent overnight stays in 2001.
Nearly seven per cent more Swiss holidayed in Austria last year.

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