By Sophie Douez
For decades, Swiss hotels and mountain resorts have been able to rely on Swiss and visiting Germans to fill their coffers. But each year there are fewer Europeans. Can visitors from emerging markets make up the difference?
On a warm sunny day in late summer, it is easy to see why sleepy Weggis, nestled quaintly at the base of the Rigi mountain on the shores of Lake Lucerne, has long been a magnet for European summer holidaymakers.
Described by Mark Twain as “the most charming place”, in the town today a trio of musicians plays Bach’s Air Suite #3 to an audience of a dozen or so elderly people seated in the blue and yellow seats of the Pavilion um See.
Paper cloths on the tables of the restaurant terraces rustle as a light breeze comes across the lake, completing the picturesque scene except perhaps for one thing – the place is not exactly buzzing with tourists.
Weggis is one of many tourist resorts suffering from a free fall in the number of visitors from traditional European markets resulting from the weak European economy and the strong franc. The amount of holidaymakers coming to Switzerland from Germany – the largest group of foreign tourists by far– is down by 15 per cent in first six months of this year, compared with the same period last year. A similar drop was seen in British visitors.
On the bright side, overseas guests from new markets like the Gulf States, China, India and Russia are increasing rapidly. In the first eight months of this year, overnight hotel stays by people from the Gulf States jumped 24.7 per cent, while Chinese numbers increased by 26.5 per cent, making them almost as frequent visitors as Indians whose numbers remained fairly stable.
Tourism officials are pinning their hopes on the emerging markets; banking on growth in the order of 30 per cent again next year, Switzerland Tourism director Jürg Schmid recently told the Sonntagsblick newspaper that Chinese tourists should outstrip the numbers of tourists coming from neighbouring countries such as Italy in 2013.
But this could be wishful thinking with the Chinese economy starting to show signs of a slowdown, and bearing in mind that German visitors still outnumber tourists from emerging markets put together by about two to one. Perhaps this is why some in the industry are going out of their way to attract them, while others remain indifferent.
“It depends on where your hotel is,” says Stephan Maeder, owner of the Hotel Carlton-Europe Interlaken and president of the hoteliers association for the Bernese Oberland. “Here in Interlaken it is really omnipresent, this change of market. But at the same time, if you go to Lenk or even some hotels in Gstaad, they feel it much less.”
Maeder says he began noticing the arrival of visitors from emerging markets about six years ago and since then, his hotel and staff have undergone a certain period of adjustment in learning how to host these new clients in a manner acceptable to all concerned.
“The religion part is probably the most difficult [to manage] … in the lobby, they just ask me where Mecca is and go on the carpet and pray, and of course for the other guests, this might seem a bit strange,” he says, adding that dietary requirements, clothing and personal hygiene habits can also pose tricky problems.
Maeder cites the example of guests who are used to taking a shower before they have a bath; confronted with a Swiss-style bathroom in his 100-year-old hotel, guests use the shower hose outside of the bath first, something which almost always results in water damage because the bathroom is not equipped with a second drain.
A new extension planned for his hotel has been designed to accommodate to these requirements, and “now we are discussing about air conditioning because Arabs in particular, but Indians as well, as soon as we have more than 20 degrees they are all crying for air conditioning which is not very common in holiday resorts in the Oberland.”
What people want
But here in Weggis, hotel managers canvassed by swissinfo.ch do not have the same problems. They say that although they are seeing “a few” new visitors, the only major change they have noticed has been the decline in European visitors.
“We are seeing a lot less Europeans like the Dutch or Belgians or from the Nordic countries that come by car in summer and pass through on the way to Italy,” said Sabine Koch, who manages the Hotel Schweizerhof with her husband. “Even if they have to drive 20 hours, they prefer to continue to Italy because of the prices.”
Urs-Peter Geering, manager of the Hotel Beau-Rivage, said that while the Chinese market was growing, “it’s not big”, and at 39 rooms his hotel could not accommodate large tour groups of Asians.
“The Chinese are just on a tour to Switzerland and they have an overnight in the Lucerne area,” said Geering. “Mostly they stay one night, a few groups stay two nights, but they go shopping in Lucerne. Watch shopping.”
For both Geering and Koch, Europeans, and Swiss in particular, will remain their main target markets. Maeder corroborates their assessment that the new tourists have very different needs and expectations of a visit to Switzerland, which is often just one stop on European tour taking in several countries.
Shopping, not skiing
Maeder says that while Indian and Arab guests are likely to spend a bit more on a hotel and outdoor activities, the Chinese are more interested in Switzerland as a destination to buy luxury products.
“If you take the Chinese market up to now, they do not really come to Switzerland for a nice hotel, they come to buy a watch and as long as luxury taxes in China are much higher than in Switzerland, this market will stay like that,” he says. “The Chinese market, even though the numbers are increasing, it’s not yet a market on which Swiss hotels can survive.”
Geering says he has no plans to change his marketing to target Asian or Arab tourists “because we still consider the Swiss and European market, that’s our clientele who are here for a holiday. The Swiss tourists [market] are still OK”.
And despite the boom in Interlaken, Maeder says: “For the upcoming winter I have worries because those markets we are talking about are not ski tourists”.