I had to do a double take when I watched a young mother helping her two-year-old drink from a public fountain in the middle of the town square. Then, I saw locals dunking their water bottles in it as they went about with their morning routine. Truly, a visit to Lucerne, Switzerland, the host of the Switzerland Travel Mart (STM) 2009, was quite a departure for this Los Angeles resident.
The travel trade gathered in Lucerne for the Switzerland Travel Mart. // Skye Mayring 2009
“Our water is so clean that you can swim with your mouth open in our rivers,” said Juerg Schmid, the CEO of Switzerland Tourism, during the opening ceremony of the STM last month. “It’s literally all drinking water.”
It seems fitting then that Switzerland is marketing itself this year with the tagline “Get Natural” and heavily promoting its sustainable tourism products. After all, the Swiss are champions of sustainability and have been so, long before it became fashionable. And at present, the country is responsible for recycling 97 percent of its glass and 76 percent of its plastic, according to Schmid.
But it came as a surprise to me when the CEO addressed the “global crisis” during the opening ceremony. The tension in the room built as the approximately 480 buyers, tour operators and trade journalists and 450 suppliers in attendance braced themselves for unsavory news. However, instead of mentioning anything whatsoever about the turbulent economy and its effect on tourism to Switzerland, global climate change was his topic of choice.
It wasn’t until the STM press conference the following day, that Schmid discussed pressing economic issues. He said that Switzerland expects a 7.5 percent decrease in overnight stays in 2009 and 2010 (even though Switzerland boasted a 2.7 increase in overseas guests in 2008 as compared to 2007) and that the fluctuation of other currencies against the Swiss franc will be a determining factor in the years ahead.
Switzerland Tourism is reacting to the instability by making travel to and within the country more accessible to foreign guests. One simple example is the newly launched Typically Swiss Hotels feature on MySwitzerland.com. The feature allows agents to browse and book any of the 250 Swiss hotels and inns that meet stringent quality standards, such as traditional architectural styles, the exclusive use of local materials, attractive locations and restaurants that serve Swiss cuisine. Agents can browse the Typically Swiss Hotels by specific categories — including countryside properties, romantic hotels, city hotels and hotels near water — and further narrow the search by a specific region.
“Because of the size of Switzerland, it’s convenient and fast to get from the city to the mountains and travel between cities,” Alex Herrmann, Switzerland Tourism, director, North America told TravelAge West. “I’ve worked for a U.S. company and only had three weeks of vacation time, so I know that you have to make the most of it. Switzerland is perfect because it is a mini-Europe where you can see three distinct travel regions — with different climate zones, languages, architecture and food — in a week’s time.”
And Switzerland is working to further speed things along. New ICN tilting trains have been introduced on the Gotthard route this year, which means travelers can get from German-speaking Lucerne or Zurich to the Italian-speaking Lugano region in 2½ hours.
The ever-popular scenic train, the Glacier Express, is also getting an upgrade. To further develop the Glacier Express product, the Rhaetian Railway and the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn have ordered a total of eight panorama coaches to operate between St. Moritz/Davos and Zermatt daily, beginning this summer. The new, panoramic Glacier Express trains will include a service car with a kitchen, a bar area with standing room for 24 people, two first-class panorama carriages and two second-class panorama carriages. Due to maintenance, there will be no Glacier Express service from Nov. 1 to Dec. 11, 2010.
“Agents should look beyond what they know about Switzerland because, nowadays, travelers from the U.S. are looking for off-the-beaten-path experiences. A visit to the UNESCO Biosphere Entlebuch is a great example,” said Herrmann.
A home to some 17,000 residents, Switzerland’s only biosphere reserve represents more than 150 square miles of cave formations, rolling hills, waterfalls and moors. Here, clients can golf, mountain bike, hike through Alpine forests, try a traditional Kneipp hydrotherapy treatment, stay in one of its Typically Swiss Hotels or swim, mouth agape, in one of its streams.