Switzerland has become a cultural destination, attracting tourists with a growing selection of exhibitions, concerts and festivals.
Basel has led the way, weathering the tourism crisis of recent years by marketing itself as a city of culture.
The city on the Rhine has a long tradition of industry and trade. But it has discovered that art makes money too, and pulls in visitors.
In the space of ten years Basel has acquired three prestigious museums, designed by some of the great names in world architecture: Renzo Piano’s Beyeler Foundation, Mario Botta’s Tinguely Museum and the Schaulager by Herzog and De Meuron.
Together with the Kunstmuseum, Switzerland’s most respected museum of fine arts, they have helped transform the chemical town into one of Europe’s leading cities of art and culture.
There is also ArtBasel, the art supermarket that attracts thousands of celebrated gallery owners and wealthy collectors from all over the world.
“More than one million people visit our museums each year,” pointed out Raphael Wyniger, head of marketing at the Basel tourism office.
This year could set a new record. The defining exhibition on Tutankhamun and the treasures from Egypt’s Valley of the Kings should draw more than half a million visitors to the Museum of Antiquities.
“Culture Unlimited” is the slogan used by Basel in recent years to sell itself in Switzerland and abroad. It has worked even during the economic slump of the past three years.
While other Swiss cities saw a nine per cent drop in overnight stays in 2003, Basel recorded an increase of 5.5 per cent.
“The phenomenon is due in part to the fact that Basel is a city of fairs and conventions, two sectors that react less sensitively to fluctuations in the economy,” Wyniger told swissinfo.
“But it is undoubtedly also due to the strong growth of cultural tourism.”
Art and culture lovers are very welcome guests, thanks to their free-spending ways.
“These tourists are generally more than 35 years old. Often, they are couples, with two incomes and well-paid jobs. And they spend freely,” noted Wyniger.
“Culture Unlimited” appeals above all to visitors from neighbouring Germany, France and Italy. But tourists also travel from Britain and the United States.
“Our guests include an increasing number of Swiss who stay overnight in Basel. They often come for an exhibition, and then discover that Basel also has a lovely historic centre that is one of the best preserved in Europe,” Wyniger said.
“Good marketing and an attractive offer mean that cultural tourism is becoming increasingly popular in Swiss towns,” said Silvia De Vito, spokeswoman for Switzerland Tourism.
One of the closest followers of this trend is Lucerne, especially after the opening of the impressive cultural and congress centre designed by Jean Nouvel, and the arrival of the prestigious Rosengart Collection of modern art.
“Since the beginning of 2000, culture has become a strategically important element in our tourism package,” confirmed Mario Lütolf, director of the local tourism office.
With two photography museums and two devoted to modern art, even an out-of-the-way industrial town like Winterthur is developing cultural tourism.
And Bellinzona is exploiting its recent rating by Unesco, which has included the town’s three medieval castles on its World Heritage List.
Cities, which unlike Basel have no great patrons of the arts, or a substantial architectural heritage, are focusing instead on increasingly popular concerts and festivals.
Another option is to use traditional events to lure the tourists.
Popular fairs in central Switzerland, the Valais cow fights, and a number of other traditional events are attracting more and more visitors, many from abroad.
“The Japanese, for example, are very keen on tradition. And when they travel, they take an interest in local customs,” said De Vito.
swissinfo, Armando Mombelli
One million people each year visit Basel’s museums.
Half a million visitors are expected this year for the Tutankhamun exhibition alone.
In 2003 the number of visitor nights in Basel increased by 5.5%.
Basel, Lucerne, Winterthur and Bellinzona are all developing a wide range of cultural events to encourage tourism.
Switzerland Tourism, the national organisation for promoting tourism, has decided to focus on culture to raise awareness of Switzerland abroad.
The national campaign for 2005 will have the theme “Art and Architecture”.