Inside Lucerne's thriving tourism industry
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Inside Lucerne’s thriving tourism industry

Inside Lucerne’s thriving tourism industry

Switzerland’s regional tourism sector made a strong comeback this year, with the appeal of places such as Lucerne – specifically among UAE visitors – firmly on the rise. Here’s how its local tourism board is responding

Lucerne Switzerland

Tourism is a lifeline for Switzerland. It accounts for roughly 3 per cent of the country’s GDP and approximately 4.4 per cent of all jobs, making it around double the size of the country’s reputed watchmaking industry. Undoubtedly, the pandemic proved a major setback to it with hotel overnights last year falling to levels last seen only in World War II. And although tourism hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels uniformly across the country, some regions have made a remarkable comeback this year – namely Lucerne – with the UAE proving to be one of the drivers of its resurgent tourism sector.

According to data shared by Swiss Tourism, the number of tourists from the UAE to the Lake Lucerne region between July-August 2021 stood at 5,551. That figure is 20.9 per cent, or 961 visitors, more than the pre-pandemic period of July-August 2019. Consequently, the number of overnights generated by visitors from the UAE in July-August this year climbed 15.6 per cent to 14,657 from 12,679 in the corresponding period of 2019.

“Tourism is a really important economic activity for a small city such as Lucerne. We have about 83,000 inhabitants living in the city and tourism contributes about 7-8 per cent of its GDP. The tourism industry in Lucerne results in more than CHF1bn in added value. There are about 8,000 people working in this industry, so we couldn’t imagine Lucerne without tourism,” says Marcel Perren, managing director and CEO of Luzern Tourism.

The lifting of the travel restrictions from the GCC countries for vaccinated residents in June proved to be a major boon for travellers from the region. In July-August this year, a total of 48,188 visitors from the UAE visited Switzerland. “In the region of Lucerne, we have about 70,000 visitors from the Gulf countries during a normal (non-pandemic) year, and the UAE is by far the biggest source country for visitors from the GCC to Lucerne. For these UAE visitors to Switzerland, Geneva, Zurich and Bern are usually their top three favoured destinations, whereas Lucerne comes in as the fifth-sixth most popular choice for them,” explains Martin Bütikofer, president of Luzern Tourism, who also serves as the CEO of the Swiss Museum of Transport in Lucerne. “We’re doing more than 1.4 million overnights in the city of Lucerne in a normal year, and we have still potential to grow.”

Marcel Perren and Martin Bütikofer
Marcel Perren and Martin Bütikofer

With one eye on that growth, the local tourism board decided to team up with Swiss Tourism, the national tourism board, to be present at Expo 2020 Dubai to address a market in which it sees a promising future. “We normally visit 2-3 day fairs where we just meet with a few B2B partners. But here at the Expo, over a period of six months, we can really connect with the local market and learn about what they think of Switzerland’s tourism, and what they want from it,” says Perren. Lucerne, in fact, is the only regional destination to have an exclusive dedicated section at the Swiss pavilion in the Expo, where visitors will be able to take in immersive sights of its city, lake and mountains. “At the Expo pavilion we also have a part on Swisstainable, which speaks about sustainability in travel,” adds Perren. “Switzerland as a country already ranks high in international rankings in terms of being a sustainable country, and we can use that Swisstainable concept to grow the concept even further.”

Perren refers to the boutique appeal of Lucerne, and says that he is keen on appealing not only to leisure tourists, but also increasingly to business travellers. “We are currently a leisure destination with 80 per cent of people visiting Lucerne coming here to holiday, and around 20 per cent to attend business meetings. We have to strike a balance between leisure and business tourism, and incentivise businesses to conduct their meetings in Lucerne.”

Lucerne nearly hit the jackpot last year when the World Economic Forum announced that it would move its high-profile Davos summit to Lucerne for 2021. It later declared Singapore as the 2021 host, before finally deciding to scrap this year’s edition altogether and return to Davos in 2022. “We have an excellent place like Bürgenstock in terms of security to host the World Economic Forum. There are also top-quality hotels and facilities to support these large international meetings. We are still in discussions with the World Economic Forum to plan smaller side events that take place during the year in Switzerland to be held in Lucerne,” notes Perren.

In its bid to stimulate the local tourism sector, Bütikofer and Perren are both keen not to overcrowd Lucerne. Memories of incidents such as the one in 2019 when American health and beauty products company Jeunesse Global rewarded its top sales agents – 12,000 of them – with a trip to Switzerland, with thousands among them making their way through the narrow cobbled streets of Lucerne are still fresh. Images of that, splashed across newspapers around the world, somewhat contradicted the quaint, quiet and relaxed appeal of destinations like Lucerne. “It’s important that people living in cities across Switzerland are open to the tourism industry and treat the guests well. We always monitor this situation,” says Bütikofer.

“As a board, we visited Barcelona, Amsterdam and other European cities that face these tourism issues [of overcrowding] to study that situation. Fortunately, we do not have the same situation in Lucerne. With our limited capacity of about 1.5 million overnights, that in itself acts as a regulator to the growth of the sector. We’re not planning to build 100 new hotels.”

Addressing these potential future bottlenecks, as well as in a direct response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Perren says that investments have been made over the last year into technology to aid the management of tourism. This includes a digital marking app that will notify visitors via push notifications of events happening at different points of the day across the region. Another app is for parking management in the city, especially useful for buses which ferry tourists in, with the drivers now able to rely on the app to find available parking spots. And the third digital innovation permits visitors to check in real-time how many people are at a particular tourist attraction, say at a specific mountaintop, and then decide whether they want to visit an alternative site instead.

“We emphasise on quality over quantity. I often say to my team that we have the chance to live in a region where others are saving money to travel to. We really want these visitors to have the best quality of time spent here and have a return on their investment to make that dream holiday come true,” says Bütikofer. The UAE market, for one, is taking heed.

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