The first groups of Chinese are beginning a visit to Europe this week, including Switzerland, taking advantage of a new agreement on tourism.
Swiss tourism officials are welcoming the group with open arms, hoping it will be the start of a friendly invasion of Chinese which could restore the industry’s flagging fortunes.
Officially “tourists”, the first group actually consists of about 60 government representatives, VIPs and Chinese journalists.
After a welcoming ceremony on Saturday, the group will be wined and dined at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, before touring Lake Geneva and paying a visit to Switzerland’s two top tourist towns, Interlaken and Lucerne.
The national tourist office, Switzerland Tourism, has reason to celebrate.
The arrival of the group is proof that Beijing’s decision to grant European Union members and Switzerland “Approved Destination Status” (ADS) is about to bear fruit.
ADS opens the door for everyone in China who can afford a trip to Europe, since they no longer need to apply for special travel permission from their government.
Behind the Japanese
Switzerland Tourism is predicting that the number of nights Chinese spend in Swiss hotels will treble to 300,000 by 2007, putting them second only to the Japanese among Asian travellers.
It is the first good news the tourist industry has received in many years.
As air travel has become cheaper over the past decade, Europeans have preferred to fly to southern beaches rather than spend their holidays in the mountains closer to home.
And when it comes to the Alps, Austria has been winning the tourism battle, having convinced holidaymakers that their resorts offer better value for money.
Switzerland not Austria
But according to a poll by the World Tourism Organisation, Switzerland not Austria is among the top three countries in Europe the Chinese most want to see.
The Swiss tourist industry has responded to the challenge and has begun a campaign not only to market Switzerland in China but also to ensure Swiss towns and resorts are ready for the Chinese.
The industry has published a guide to Chinese culture and customs, with a list of “dos and don’ts for Swiss service providers”:
“Never put a Chinese guest in a room with the number ‘four’ in it, since the number brings bad luck,” the guide warns.
The national tourist office is also offering resorts the chance to take part in a joint marketing venture.
Fabrizio D’Aloisio of St Moritz tourism says this includes “workshops and events in China… support and coordination for translation activities, and the production of brochures and other promotional material [in Chinese].”
“At cost,” D’Aloisio told swissinfo.
St Moritz expects to see a “significant increase in Chinese visitors over the next five to ten years”.
According to Switzerland Tourism and a swissinfo survey (see “Chinese tourism survey” under “related items”), about 20 towns and resorts expect to benefit from ADS.
They are following the lead of the Titlis cable car company in canton Lucerne that has successfully been active in the Chinese market for the past ten years.
“Titlis will host about 20,000 tourists travelling in groups from mainland China this year,” says André Küttel of the Titlis company, speaking from Singapore during a promotional tour of Asia.
A key to the success of the cable car company has been the decision to hire Mandarin-speaking guides, employ Chinese cooks in its mountaintop restaurant and to print promotional material in Chinese.
It is a price not every tourist operator or resort can, or is, willing to pay. “We don’t have any money to invest in new markets,” said Beat Anneler, head of Lake Thun tourism in the Bernese Oberland.
“If we did, we would put it into promoting Lake Thun in Britain or the Netherlands, which are third and fourth in importance behind Germany and Switzerland for our region,” Anneler added.
“For the most part, there has been no growth in tourism over the past few years,” said Piotr Caviezel, tourism director for Appenzell. “That often resulted in failed attempts to break into new geographical markets.
“In my opinion, most regions in Switzerland don’t have the means or the infrastructure to tap into Asia or eastern Europe.”
Josef Mondl, a sinologist at St Gallen University, believes Switzerland Tourism’s expectations are realistic.
However, Mondl, who is manager of a Sino-Swiss management-training programme, says there are still many hurdles to overcome.
He told swissinfo that the Chinese taking part in the programme fail to understand how Switzerland can try to attract more of their compatriots when there are no direct flights to Switzerland from most major Chinese cities.
And even with ADS in effect, the Chinese still have to apply for a Swiss visa, on top of a visa they are required to have in order to visit European Union countries party to the Schengen Agreement on border controls.
But Mondl says the biggest obstacle remains “a lack of understanding for Chinese culture and customs”.
swissinfo, Dale Bechtel on Lake Thun
China population: 1.3 billion
More than 20 million Chinese travelled abroad last year and the World Tourism Organisation predicts a fivefold increase by 2020.
The Chinese are expected to account for 300,000 nights in Swiss hotels by 2007.
A few dos and don’ts contained in the Swiss tourist industry brochure, “Hello China”:
Don’t mention sensitive topics such as politics, human rights, and independence movements, Taiwan etc.
If you hoist a Chinese flag outside your hotel, make sure it’s the flag of the People’s Republic of China.
Don’t give a Chinese guest a room on the fourth floor, or a room with “four” in it, since this number is considered bad luck.
Put an electric kettle or a thermos of hot water in the rooms since the Chinese like to drink tea at all times of the day and night.
Simple Chinese dishes should be available with every meal; rice, steamed or fried vegetables, and meat cut in thin strips.