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Swiss ski resorts upbeat over downturn

Resort managers are hoping for a repeat of last year's fantastic snow and weather conditions

(Keystone)

Tourist officials are quietly optimistic that this winter Switzerland's ski resorts can ride out the bumpy economic crisis.

Many resorts report bookings for the Christmas, New Year and February school holidays at similar levels to last winter.

"All the signs are positive," Urs Zenhäusern, media director at Valais Tourism, told swissinfo.ch. "I think we'll have a stable year, or maybe better, but not necessarily a drop."

Swiss ski resorts felt the pinch last winter with overnight stays down by 6.4 per cent from January to August 2009, compared with the same period in 2008.

This follows a steady increase since 2003 and the "best winter ever" in 2007-2008, with 16 million overnight stays, according to Switzerland Tourism.

Cornelia Lindner, head of public relations at Davos-Klosters tourism, was also hopeful about the forthcoming season. Confirmed reservations in the region are up on last year.

"For Christmas and New Year there are only a few apartments still free. The same goes for February," she said.

A similar message can reportedly be heard at other resorts like Arosa, Grindelwald, Gstaad, Adelboden, Engelberg, Laax, Blatten-Belalp, Reideralp and Bettmeralp.

"Afterwards it's hard to get a precise overview as people are making more and more last-minute bookings," explained Switzerland Tourism spokesperson Veronique Kanel.

"The winter season heavily depends on snow conditions."

Resorts are hoping for a repeat of last season when snow started falling across most of the country in early October and continued well into April.

Brits drop off

At Saas Fee rooms are still available at many four- and five-star hotels, which have fewer bookings than in previous years. But 90 per cent of apartments and other less expensive accommodation, like youth hostels and bed and breakfast lodgings, are almost full.

Kanel confirmed this new trend: "Swiss tourists, who represent the majority of our clients, are shifting from hotels to other accommodation."

This can also be explained by a greater selection of mountain apartments and holiday homes.

"Since the beginning of the year we've had a record number of contracts signed with individuals wishing to rent their apartment or holiday home – up by 20-30 per cent," Marco Amos, director of Interhome agency for Switzerland, told the French-speaking Le Temps newspaper.

At nearby Verbier, where one in five skiers and boarders is traditionally British, the outlook is rather hazy, however.

"We've had lots of requests but few confirmed bookings. As the holiday dates are not ideal this year, tourists tend to reserve for one week rather than two," explained Pierre-Yves Délèze, deputy director of Verbier Tourist Office.

The combination of a credit crunch with an unfavourable exchange rate meant 20 per cent fewer British skiers and boarders hit Swiss slopes last winter.

"And we don't see the British market recovering in the near future," said Kanel.

Since October 2007 British tourists coming to Switzerland have effectively lost one-third of their purchasing power.

"The economic crisis has hit other markets, but not as bad as the British," she added.

Promotional push

This winter Switzerland Tourism will invest SFr20 million ($19.49 million) in promotional campaigns – up SFr500,000.

It will also be dipping into the SFr12 million pot it received this April from the Swiss government to help it face up to the financial crisis.

The money is being spent on marketing activities to attract visitors from Germany, France and Italy – and within Switzerland itself - which are all seen as "growth markets". A new campaign is being launched in November.

Simon Bradley, swissinfo.ch

Swiss slopes

Marked ski pistes: 7,400km

Marked cross-country ski trails: 5,500km

Marked winter walking trails: 2,900km (largest network of winter walking trails in the Alps)

Marked snowshoe trails: 2,100km

European altitude record: 29 winter sports areas are located above 2,800m (average altitude)

Marked and prepared slope with the greatest vertical drop:
Klein Matterhorn-Zermatt: 2,300m (most in Europe)

There are 650 mountain transport and ski lift companies operating in Switzerland's ski resorts.

With 11,000 employees, they are a key economic factor in mountain regions.

The companies have a combined annual turnover of approximately SFr840 million ($687 million), of which around 25% is reinvested in maintaining or purchasing new infrastructure.

Tourism is the third biggest export industry, employing about 10% of the Swiss workforce.

Around 40% of hotel overnight stays in Switzerland are made by Swiss citizens.

According to the May forecast of the BAK Basel Economy Institute, hotel overnights in Switzerland should decline by 6.7% in 2009 compared to 2008.

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