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Swiss court new tourist markets in the US

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The global recession has led some Americans to revise their travel plans, with fewer trips to countries abroad, including Switzerland.

This content was published on August 10, 2009 - 07:47

The number of Americans visiting Switzerland – estimated at about one million per year, including repeat visitors – dropped by 15 per cent from January to May this year, according to Switzerland Tourism.

"And we expect that travel from the US to Switzerland will remain down by about 15 per cent for the remainder of the year," Alex Herrmann, the North American Director of Switzerland Tourism, told swissinfo.ch.

A century ago, the first Swiss tourism office was set up in the US, and over the years Americans have been drawn to Switzerland's stunning scenery, diverse outdoors activities, and its location at the cross-roads of Europe.

But with US unemployment currently at 9.5 per cent, up from 5.6 per cent a year ago, it's difficult to predict when Americans – the third-largest group of foreign tourists to Switzerland after the Germans and the British – will begin taking more trips overseas.

Business travel

It is not only vacationers who are staying away; businesses are also sending fewer of their employees abroad.

The worst-hit business sector has been so-called incentive trips, where US companies send their top employees or salespeople to Switzerland for vacations as a motivational bonus.

"Companies either don't have the money, or from a public relations perspective it's difficult to fire people on one end of the company and then offer to pamper your best sales people in 5 star hotels overseas," Herrmann said.

As the number of American tourists has declined, the Swiss tourism office has gone after new niche markets, and in some cases, they may just have a higher power on their side.

Finding religion

Switzerland Tourism has been courting US religious groups – many of whom organise group trips for their congregations – to entice them to explore Switzerland's religious history.

"It's an interesting market and it's growing," Herrmann said. "These groups don't just want to see religious sites, but it's the hook that brings them to our country."

The tourism office is marketing everything from the eighth century St Gallen abbey - a Unesco World Cultural Heritage Site – to the International Museum of Reformation in Geneva.

On its website, Switzerland Tourism highlights scores of historical religious sites in five Swiss regions and offers information on lodging in abbeys, cloisters and monasteries.

But religious tourists can also be easily put off: after a story in the New York Times about a growing number of nude hikers wandering the Alps, near Appenzell, a number of American groups cancelled their trips to Switzerland, according to Herrmann.

Typically Swiss

In another move aimed at increasing travel from the US, Switzerland Tourism began its "typically Swiss hotels" initiative earlier this year.

Herrmann said the move stemmed from requests by American tourists looking for recommendations on places to stay in Switzerland that offered European charm and Swiss authenticity.

"Typical Swiss hotels is our answer to the question: 'Where should I stay in Switzerland if I want an authentic experience and don't want to stay in a chain hotel?'" Herrmann said.

Switzerland Tourism joined forces with the Swiss Hotel Association to identify hotels that fulfill various criteria including personalised service, architecture that has a connection to the region, and authentic Swiss foods and wines.

Hotels throughout Switzerland are included – from farmhouses to castles to villas – and range from unrated mountain huts all the way up to 5-star hotels.

Herrmann is holding out hope that initiatives like "typically Swiss hotels" along with travel bargains, will get Americans moving again.

"There are amazing deals on hotels in Switzerland at the moment, and generally airfares are cheaper than a year ago. We hope that these incentives will convince Americans to travel to Switzerland throughout the summer," he said.

Karin Kamp in New York, swissinfo.ch

Key facts

The tourism sector generates employment equivalent to about 138,000 full-time jobs in Switzerland. (2005 data)

Tourism is the fourth-largest export industry, generating revenues of SFr15.6 billion ($14.7 billion).

The top five destinations for Americans visiting Switzerland are: Zurich, Geneva, Lucerne, Interlaken and Zermatt.

The first big wave of US tourists came to Switzerland following the Second World War when American GIs came for rest and relaxation programmes.

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