How Switzerland's tourism industry is gearing up for a comeback
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How Switzerland’s tourism industry is gearing up for a comeback

How Switzerland’s tourism industry is gearing up for a comeback

Switzerland has been the bellwether and thermometer for the health of Central European tourism. It’s beginning to climb out of one of its most challenging years ever, with Switzerland Tourism CEO Martin Nydegger bullish about a strong recovery

Martin Nydegger, CEO of Switzerland Tourism

Roger, I’m a certain type of actor. I need edge, conflict, jeopardy. Switzerland is just too perfect,” quipped the 77-year-old method actor Robert De Niro in the latest No Drama campaign film by Switzerland Tourism. In it, Roger Federer, who was himself brought on as an ambassador for the Swiss body earlier this year, tries to recruit De Niro in what is perhaps one of the best tourism promotional films in recent memory. Don’t take our word for it. Within two weeks of the video releasing last month, it already crossed the 45 million mark – making it the most-watched Federer commercial ever on YouTube.

The film comes in the midst of an apocalyptic past year for the global tourism industry. In 2019, global travel and tourism reportedly added $8.9 trillion to the world’s GDP. In the first 10 months of 2020 alone, the worldwide tourism industry lost around $935bn in revenue. Among the top 10 countries that suffered the biggest tourism revenue losses due to Covid-19 were five European countries including Spain, France, Germany, Italy and the UK. “Ski resorts in Switzerland were open. Swiss hotels were not closed for a single day. All the restaurants within the hotels were open, and mobility was always intact,” says Martin Nydegger, CEO of Switzerland Tourism, while explaining why the Alpine country’s tourism sector wasn’t as adversely affected as some of its neighbours. “We did not have any peaks, or super-spreading conditions. We had a much more liberal opening regime compared to other countries.”

Switzerland Tourism is a 102-year-old body, but Nydegger is under no illusion of the onslaught of Covid-19 on Swiss tourism, one that he refers to as having had a “historic impact”. He says that although tourism contributes approximately 6 per cent to the country’s GDP, its standing in the overall branding and positioning of the country is probably far higher.

The Swiss tourism outfit has 33 offices in 22 markets – in some countries like China and Germany it has multiple offices – with 250 staff globally. They’re led by Nydegger whose first job was a six-month training internship at The Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai. He joined Switzerland Tourism in 2005 and ran its operations in the Benelux countries. He was subsequently deputed to the head office for eight years and was a member of the management board responsible for business development, before being appointed as CEO in 2018.

He refers to 2020 as a “pointless year” when it comes to benchmarking Switzerland’s tourism performance, and instead says that 2019 is the year against which it will measure its recovery. The Swiss Federal Statistical Office said that in 2019 foreign visitors accounted for 21.6 million overnight stays, while Swiss nationals registered 17.9 million overnights at hotels across the country.

The GCC hasn’t been the biggest feeder market for Swiss tourism, but neither is it an insignificant one. As Matthias Albrecht, GCC director for Switzerland Tourism explains, Gulf tourists have typically been responsible for roughly one million overnights in Switzerland and generated about CHF420m turnover per year in the European country. From the GCC, the biggest source markets are UAE (35 per cent) and Saudi Arabia (35 per cent), with Kuwait and Qatar accounting for around 12 per cent each, and the remaining visitors coming from Bahrain and Oman.

But much of that tourist inflow into Switzerland dried up over the last year as a result of the pandemic. “We did have a few tourists over the summer and that somehow softened the fall. Long-haul travellers from markets such as Asia and America were down starting from minus 90 [per cent], and up to minus 97 [per cent] from Asia,” reveals Nydegger. Chinese visitors are believed to be among the highest-spending foreign visitors to the country, spending on average CHF380 per person per day. In 2019, the income generated from Chinese visitors was estimated at around CHF701.4m.

witzerland Tourism has set up a 4D experience at the Swiss Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai

A factor that kept the wheels of tourism churning, albeit somewhat sluggishly, was domestic tourism. In 2019, each person resident in Switzerland reportedly undertook on average 2.9 trips with overnight stays, according to the Swiss Federal Statistics Office. “Domestic tourism is key for a successful tourism destination like Switzerland. However, the market mix is key. If you have only domestic tourism, you will never really grow because domestic tourism is a stabilising factor. It’s not a growth factor,” cautions Nydegger with regards to tourism bodies unduly focusing on domestic tourism during this pandemic.

“Fifty-five per cent of our visitors are foreign tourists. What we think will be a healthy share for Switzerland would be 45 per cent domestic tourism, 35 per cent continental European tourism and 20 per cent international tourism – and that’s not so far away from the reality.”

For tourism worldwide to recover, it’s going to need a coordinated response. And while Nydegger says that international tourism bodies are generally competitive when marketing their destinations, there are synergies to be had as well. He points to the fact that the European Travel Commission, of which Switzerland is a member, has been engaged in cross-tourism board discussions on how to open Europe safely, making travel more sustainable, and tackling shared pain points.

In the UAE, Switzerland partnered with other European agencies to promote the continent. “We recently had an event called Marhaba Europe in Dubai, where we partnered with France, Austria and Germany to promote Central Europe. We spread the message that Europe is open once again this summer,” says Albrecht.

Further amplifying its message within the region, Switzerland Tourism has set up a 4D experience at the Swiss Pavilion at Expo 2020 (incidentally the country was the first participant to sign up to the mega event) which will allow pavilion visitors to see, hear and experience Switzerland via different mediums and even feel the chill climes characteristic of the country while inside the pavilion.

“At the Expo, we want to focus on sustainability, we call it Swisstainable. We want to showcase how sustainable travel in Switzerland is – you can see the whole of Switzerland by train, bus and boat,” adds Albrecht. Expo 2020 Dubai is expected to draw approximately 25 million visitors – including around 70 per cent from outside the UAE.

The Swisstainable concept feeds into what Nydegger says will be the new post-Covid reality for tourism. “To just wish everything would go back to February 2020 is an illusion. We are living in a different world. We came up with Swisstainable because we believe that people will look at travelling in a more sensible way. Travellers will want to know that whatever buck they’re spending in the destination, is well invested. You buy local. You want to make sure that the people at the hotel you go to are fairly paid, fairly treated. You want to know that when they built this mountain railway at Jungfraujoch, not a single tree was cut. People want to know that the electricity that takes them up to the mountaintop is fully hydro energy. All these kinds of things seemed absolutely uninteresting before. People now want to know that their francs are spent in a smart, sustainable way, which makes them feel better.”

Nydegger expects tourism in Switzerland to reach around 80 per cent of its pre-Covid levels within the next 12 months. While he says that leisure tourism will pick up much quicker, it’s business tourism which will likely be the laggard. “[To reach] 100 per cent will take a long time. Why? Because business travel is slowing down the development of tourism. We can live with 80 per cent. We will have to make adjustments, but we can live with it.”

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