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Switzerland's tourism industry braces for war

Summer bookings are a scarce commodity at present. dipdip

Switzerland's tourism industry is preparing for the worst, as war in Iraq and the economic downturn force people to cut back on holiday plans.

This content was published on March 19, 2003 - 18:34

Travel firms have reported a sharp decline in bookings as holidaymakers delay making decisions on their summer vacations.

"Consumers are holding back," said Hans Peter Nehmer, a spokesman for the Swiss Hotelplan group, one of Europe's biggest tour operators.

The war in Iraq comes at a bad time for the industry, which has shown remarkable resilience in the face of last year's Bali bombing and the September 11 attacks.

The war also comes at a time of growing unease about Switzerland's stagnating economy and rising unemployment.

Swiss travellers, it seems, are opting for cheaper holidays or staying at home.

"Bookings are coming in very slowly," revealed Walter Kunz, director of the Swiss Federation of Travel Agencies.

"Over the past two or three weeks bookings are around 50 per cent [down]."

Summer blues

And while bookings during January were up on the previous year, few holidaymakers are looking as far ahead as the summer season.

"Spring bookings are quite good, but for our main season - between May and October - bookings are not coming in at the moment," Kunz told swissinfo.

Demand for travel to Asia may also suffer because of fears over the outbreak of a pneumonia virus.

Airlines, including national carrier, Swiss, have moved to cut flights to the Middle East, citing security concerns and falling demand.

The airline said on Tuesday that it would cut two of its six weekly flights between Cairo and Zurich, adding that it would consider halting additional flights to the region.

The key question now facing travel industry leaders is whether the downturn will be sustained.

"[The war] is a terrible blow for the entire, already troubled, travel industry," the World Tourism Organisation said in a statement on Tuesday.

Swiss confident

Despite blaming the Iraq crisis for 90 per cent of the current downturn, Kunz said there was a danger of overstating its impact.

If, as many in the industry are hoping, the war is short, then the long-term repercussions on Switzerland's travel industry would be limited.

Once a war is over, Kunz believes people will begin travelling again - even during an economic downturn.

"When the economy is weak, you probably book a cheaper holiday. You don't cancel it altogether," he said.

Hans Lerch, CEO of Switzerland's largest travel group, Kuoni, expressed confidence on Tuesday that the war would only be a short-term drag on the industry.

"I can assure you that tourism, once the war is over and the people think it's safe again, will be back and rolling. It has always been like that," he said.

Backpackers

Some sectors of the Swiss travel industry appear to be unfazed by the war.

Peter Anderegg, head of STA Travel (Switzerland), said customers such as backpackers and budget travellers aged between 18 and 30 years were less sensitive to security fears.

"We are relatively stable and less weak than others, because we have fewer package tourists," Anderegg told swissinfo.

swissinfo, Jacob Greber

In brief

Swiss travel firms have reported a sharp decline in bookings as holidaymakers delay making decisions on their summer vacations due to fears about war in Iraq and economic woes.

Airlines, including national carrier, Swiss, have moved to cut flights to the Middle East, citing security concerns and falling demand.

The industry hopes people will begin travelling again once the war is over and even during an economic downturn.

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