Winter season shrugs off gloom

The Swiss tourism industry is hoping Europeans will come skiing in Switzerland this festive season Keystone

Switzerland is set for a strong winter tourism season, despite gloomy predictions in the wake of September 11, and the collapse of Swissair.

This content was published on December 21, 2001 - 17:27

Tourism operators in the country's main resorts say bookings for the winter holiday season have recovered well, following an initial downturn immediately after the attacks.

Travellers from the United States appear to have overcome their fears - the number of American visitors have returned to almost 2000 levels. More Europeans are choosing to holiday in Switzerland, too, possibly to avoid taking long-haul flights across the Atlantic.

The only significant drop in tourist numbers is among the Japanese, who appear to have abandoned Switzerland, at least for the moment.

Interlaken feels the rub

The tourist resort of Interlaken has been hard hit in recent months, and the tourist office's marketing director, Benno Küng, expects that by the end of the year, the resort will suffer a shortfall of 20 - 25 per cent of its normal overnights.

Overseas bookings in the Bernese alpine resort account for 50 per cent of the country's total overnight stays in winter.

However, Küng is optimistic that business will pick up in the winter season, and has introduced a number of enticements to attract visitors, including free hotel nights, cheaper ski passes and free drinks in hotel rooms.

Americans opt for Grindelwald

By October, bookings in nearby Grindelwald were down by about eight per cent compared with the previous year. However, the resort is expecting a bumper winter season.

Grindelwald's tourism director, Joe Luggen, says bookings by Americans are at about the same level as last winter, and that plenty of Europeans are choosing "safe" Switzerland this year, rather than a beach holiday in the tropics or skiing trip to Colorado.

Luggen believes the Swiss, Germans and British - Grindelwald's main visitors in winter - are holidaying closer to home so they can avoid flying.

Luggen is more concerned about the summer season, when he expects a slump. Thirty percent of Grindelwald's visitors are Japanese and many Asian travel agencies have already cancelled trips for next year. It appears the Japanese are much more jittery about venturing abroad than the Americans.

Wengen

Wengen, also in the Bernese Alps, is already fully booked for the New Year, although it had trouble filling all its rooms over Christmas. Heavy snowfall and plenty of sunshine have contributed to a lively start to the Christmas season.

Wengen is to get a big boost on the weekend of January 12, when the renowned International Lauberhorn ski races get underway. Over 1,000 journalists are expected in the resort to cover the event. The tent village has been expanded, so visitors can now party there all night.

But like Joe Luggen, Wengen tourism director Jürg Gnotke, is concerned about the summer season, sensing hesitation among the Japanese.

Davos

Davos attracts about 500,000 visitors a year, accounting for more than two million overnight stays in hotels and apartments. Most are from Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands, which explains why the recessions in Japan and the US have not significantly affected Davos's winter reservations so far.

Overnight bookings are fairly evenly spread over the seasons, with 55 per cent in winter and the remainder in summer. However, prices in the resort are up to three times higher in winter, so this period is economically more significant.

Unlike other Alpine holiday destinations, Davos was established as a health resort. It still has seven large clinics for the treatment of skin and respiratory illnesses, attracting about 10, 000 "wellness" visitors a year. This figure is expected to remain stable.

WEF summit defection

Davos's problems will start in late January, when the thousands of visitors who normally attend the annual World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting will instead head for New York.

The WEF decided to relocate its 2002 summit for the first time in 30 years as a show of solidarity, following the September 11 attacks.

The forum draws about 3,000 participants, accounting for 30 per cent of Davos hotels' annual income. Most of the revenue is generated by social events organised around the conference.

All of the resort's hotels had allocated beds for the end of January and beginning of February to the Forum's Organising Committee.

Davos will now have to try to attract last minute bookings to plug the gap. Tourism marketing director, Michael Caflisch, says the end of January will be tricky, but February 2-9 is a school holiday week in Switzerland and Germany, so it may be easier to make up the shortfall then. There will certainly be losses in winter, but Caflisch says it is too early to say how great these will be.

What the tourists say

Tourists interviewed by swissinfo in Davos and in the Bernese Alps said the September 11 attacks and the collapse of Swissair had not put them off flying. One young American was confident his government was doing everything to counter the terrorist threat.

Most said they still regarded Switzerland as an idyllic holiday destination. A German man said he continued to choose Davos for his skiing holidays because it was less commercial than many Austrian resorts.

A Spanish family trying out the Swiss Alps for the first time said they had come because snow conditions were good and they did not want to fly as far afield as the United States.

Pulling the tourists

Switzerland Tourism, which promotes the industry, is taking a hard sell approach to keep visitors coming. It has launched a SFr5 million campaign to sell Switzerland in Europe, and has poster and newspaper advertisements in Germany, France and Italy focusing on the country's natural beauty.

In 2002, Switzerland Tourism will receive an extra SFr10 million from the federal government to target the American and Asian markets.

The country should get another boost to tourism thanks to Unesco's decision to recognise an area of the Alps as a World Heritage Site. The United Nations' cultural body in December voted to give the status to Aletsch-Jungfrau-Bietschhorn region - the first natural area of the Alps to achieve this recognition.

Also helping the industry is the fact that 2002 has been declared "International Year of Mountains" - something Switzerland Tourism will be sure to flaunt in its tourist literature.

by Julie Hunt

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