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Swiss tourism sees peaks and valleys

Swiss values and visitors could help the tourism industry cope with the downturn

(Keystone)

Last year was one of the best ever for the Swiss tourism industry. But there are signs that 2009 will suffer from the effects of the global financial crisis.

Switzerland Tourism, the industry's marketing arm, says that a focus on domestic and neighbouring markets, as well on quality and value will help the sector ride out the downturn.

Journalists arrived at Switzerland Tourism's annual media conference in Zurich on Tuesday to the uplifting notes of Puccini's Nessun dorma, accompanied by picturesque views of the Swiss Alps.

The 2008 tourist accommodation figures also rose to dizzy heights. The number of overnight stays in Swiss hotels increased by 2.7 per cent compared with 2007, to 37.3 million.

This represents the best result in Switzerland since 1990 and the second best ever.

The number of overnight stays by foreign visitors, 21.5 million, was the highest recorded in the sector's history.

Market blues

However, 2009 may not be so rosy, despite a strong, snow-rich winter season.

"We had an excellent start of the year so far, but it's without any doubt that the effects of the finance market crisis will arrive in tourism in Switzerland," Swiss Tourism director Jürg Schmid told swissinfo.

"Especially for the upcoming summer, we see a decline in overnights. For the next two years we believe that tourism in Switzerland will see a decrease of seven to eight per cent in overnights."

Concerns are particularly high over the British, United States and Japanese markets. "[These] are obviously impacted to a large degree by the finance market crisis and we expect to see a decrease," said Schmid.

For the period 2009/10, the fall is estimated at 20 per cent for the British market and 15 per cent lower for the US market. Overnight stays were already almost nine per cent down for US tourists in 2008.

Saving money

As the credit crunch begins to bite, people will still take holidays, believes Switzerland Tourism, but two thirds will look to save money.

"In crisis times people tend to go less for the long distance trips so Germany, France, Italy and Switzerland itself are really the priority markets for the next two years," Schmid said.

Home tourists already make up around 40 per cent of overnight stays, a situation that Schmid says should remain stable.

For Germany, currently the biggest foreign market for Swiss tourism, a key factor will be how the Swiss franc performs against the euro.

Schmid says there are measures that the tourism industry can take to stave off the worst of the downturn. "We really recommend to our business centres not to drop prices, but to differentiate by creativity, quality and by value for money," he said.

Optimism

There could even be opportunities for mid-class hotels, the backbone of the accommodation sector, to take on people switching from five star establishments.

"A mid class hotel with Swiss guests could be more relaxed during this crisis," said the tourism director.

Switzerland Tourism hopes to boost numbers with campaigns focusing on Switzerland's natural beauty, such as its nature parks, and a selection of "typical" Swiss hotels, which have an authentic atmosphere and attractive scenery.

Also important is a possible SFr12 million ($10.4 million) package for tourism from the government, as part of its plans to help the Swiss economy. This still needs to be approved by parliament.

For Schmid, the good 2008 figures show that the sector is still competitive. "We don't see a crisis in tourism, it's really a finance market crisis," Schmid told swissinfo.

"That gives us good reason to believe that the two upcoming years will be difficult, but after that we will see an increase again and in the long term, we believe that Swiss tourism has good reason to see a bright future."

swissinfo, Isobel Leybold-Johnson in Zurich

Government boost

It was announced by the government on February 11 that Swiss Tourism would receive SFr12 million to ride out the financial crisis. This was part of a second series of financial measures amounting to SFr700 million to stabilise the economy in Switzerland.

The funds still need to be approved by parliament and would be used for targeted marketing campaigns.

The tourism sector has promised a further SFr3 million.

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Hotels fight costs

The Swiss Hotel Association (SHA) has already said that politicians and hoteliers must fight costs that affect Switzerland's competitiveness as a tourist destination.

At a news conference in Bern earlier in February, the association admitted that prices were higher than in neighbouring countries and put forward a number of measures, such as more productivity and liberating the markets, to maintain the country's attractiveness.

A study from the BAK Basel Economics research group showed that prices on average in the hotel trade were 12 per cent higher than in Austria, Germany, Italy and France.

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