One of the biggest international travel trade fairs, the World Travel Market, is underway in London. Over the next four days, Switzerland will be trying to prove that while its breathtaking Alpine beauty comes at a price, it's an affordable one.
At a recent meeting of Swiss tourism executives, the economics minister, Pascal Couchepin, said it was the industry's duty to sell dreams. For Switzerland, those dreams are an extremely valuable commodity.
Tourism ranks third in Swiss export revenues behind the metal, machine and chemical industries, but ahead of watchmaking. Tourism had a 5.4 per cent share of the country's Gross Domestic Product in 1998. As far as employment is concerned, approximately one in 11 people working in Switzerland is directly or indirectly involved in tourism.
And there's reason for optimism that tourism will retain its leading position. Overnight stays - the industry benchmark - have risen steadily in Switzerland over the past five years. However, Couchepin warned the industry not to rest on its laurels. He said many offers were still outdated.
The director of Switzerland Tourism in Britain, Dino Dulio, argues that the industry has been working hard to adapt to an ever-changing market.
The British made up five per cent of all foreign guests in Switzerland last year and Dulio says the challenge is to keep them coming. In winter, he says, it has become cheaper for the British tourist to fly south for a beach holiday than to travel to any of the traditional ski destinations in the Alps or North America.
"It's estimated that there are no more than 800,000 people in Britain who enjoy winter sports, and that number is not increasing," Dulio adds.
He says Switzerland Tourism in Britain has formed a loose association with other "winter sport" countries and major ski tour operators. Its goal is to create packages designed to win over a new public. As part of the enticement for first-time skiers, equipment rentals, lessons and passes are free.
"This market is more and more price driven," says Dulio. "Any package has to have added value. The price has to be competitive."
He says the tourist industry is also faced with a new trend. People are travelling more frequently but the length of their stays is getting shorter. The British now typically choose three or four night packages, instead of the traditional seven or 14 days. "This is a major trend, so we have to adapt," says Dulio.
Switzerland Tourism also sees potential for increasing market share by making Switzerland more attractive to young adults.
The industry has been helped by the reputation Zurich has developed as one of Europe's trendiest cities. Switzerland Tourism is trying to build on that by putting together special offers for snowboarders in winter, and young people interested in adventure sports in summer.
"We're not a mass tourist destination and we'll never be one. What we're trying to do is offer value for money," Dulio adds.
by Dale Bechtel