Long considered overpriced and unfriendly, Zermatt has begun winning top marks from its guests.
For decades, the village with one of the world’s best-known mountains – the Matterhorn – on its doorstep did not believe there was any need to be nice.
The results of a new survey of 10,000 tourists in Zermatt and two other resorts (Villars, Scuol) taking part in a pilot project, “Enjoy Switzerland”, are surprising.
More than 70 per cent of those questioned by the independent St Gallen company, htp, said they were either “very satisfied ” or “completely satisfied” with their holiday.
And even though many taking part in the survey found Zermatt overpriced, 90 per cent said they would recommend the resort to their friends.
As head of the Enjoy Switzerland project in Zermatt, which is now in its second year, Urs Abgottspon can take a lot of the credit. However, he says it has not been easy convincing locals of the benefits of being nice.
“Friendliness can’t be measured in increased turnover or more guests, and that’s why we met resistance,” he says.
“People have been coming to Zermatt for hundreds of years to see the Matterhorn, and that might be why the inhabitants don’t think they have to be friendly, since tourists will come regardless of how they are treated.”
Abgottspon says a key ingredient to the success of the project has been winning support from each sector of the community for new initiatives, including a plan to rein in obnoxious teenagers by convincing them of the overriding importance of tourism.
The first encounter many visitors to Zermatt have is with teenagers during the short train ride from the neighbouring village of Täsch.
Since cars are banned in Zermatt, tourists have no choice but to travel by train, either from the Rhone Valley far below or from Täsch, which is as far as you are permitted to drive up the road leading to the resort.
And it is public transport and the cable car network that are still rated poorly by visitors to the resort, according to the htp survey.
“The biggest problem is the harassment of tourists,” says Stephan Holzer, manager of Zermatt’s railway station, describing the treatment many visitors have received from teenagers.
Holzer says many holidaymakers have complained of being called names, or of being refused seats by young locals.
They are also forced to board graffiti-covered trains whose aisles are strewn with litter and whose seats have been slashed with pocketknives.
Holzer blames the vandalism on commuting students and says keeping the shiny, red trains clean and free of graffiti is an expensive undertaking.
In one case the railway had to fork out SFr80,000 just to repaint the carriages.
Holzer is pinning his hopes on Abgottspon’s “Peacemaker” project, which is now in its initial phase and involves around 60 students.
“We want to stop them being so aggressive towards tourists,” says Abgottspon.
“There will be workshops on improving communication among villagers and with visitors, the importance of tourism, and making them aware of the jobs created by the tourist industry.”
“The Matterhorn Gotthard Railway is participating in the Peacemaker project because it should make students take more responsibility for themselves when they are travelling on the train,” adds Holzer.
Abgottspon admits that the actions of the young are only a reflection of the disregard many among Zermatt’s adult population have for the hundreds of thousands of visitors who travel to the resort each year.
He says it’s no easy task to convince locals to be more polite, “even with small things such as saying ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’”.
His job has been made more difficult because tourists are returning to the famous resort in droves after a year in which many foreign guests stayed away due to the Sars virus and the war in Iraq.
He is aware that changing attitudes is “a long-term project since friendliness brings repeat customers”.
As he speaks, a group of young boys dressed in traditional costume lead a herd of goats through the village, much to the delight of the camera-toting tourists crowded onto the main street. (see video)
The event has been staged twice a day in Zermatt every summer for about 40 years, and never fails to bring smiles to the faces of everyone watching.
“We do it for the tourists,” says Jasmin Scherrer of the Zermatt tourist office.
It may not be authentic, but it’s just the kind of thing Zermatt needs more of.
swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Zermatt
Zermatt averages about 1.5 million night stays a year in its hotels and holiday apartments.
The cost of a day’s ski pass in Zermatt is among the highest in the Alps, at SFr74 ($59) – SFr10 more than St Moritz, which is known for its high prices.
Zermatt’s tourist industry developed at the beginning of the 19th century when visitors started arriving to admire the Matterhorn.
A tourism boom began in the resort after Britain’s Edward Whymper became the first to climb the 4,478m high peak in 1865.
Swiss and German visitors account for 60 per cent of all guests in the resort, followed by the British, Japanese and Americans.