A view from the Castelgrande castle in the old town of Bellinzona, the capital of Ticino Canton in Switzerland, on June 3, 2016 (SWITZERLAND TOURISM)
Ye Zi, a journalist in Beijing, traveled to Switzerland in 2012. She chose the country because she can speak German and also because of its idiosyncratic scenery, featuring high mountains and lakes.
Located in Central-West Europe, Switzerland borders France, Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein and Italy. The country contains about 20 percent of the Alps mountain range. Approximately 100 Swiss peaks are close to or higher than 4,000 meters above sea level. Swiss mountains are famous for climbing, skiing, snowboarding, biking, hiking and other recreational activities.
Ye visited Jungfrau—one of the main summits of the Alps in west Switzerland—and the cities of Geneva and Zurich during her stay. She said she was most impressed with Jungfrau, because it satisfied her desire to experience the Alps.
The 21st Jungfrau Marathon in Interlaken, a small city in the Bernese Highlands of central Switzerland, on September 14, 2013 (SWISS-IMAGE.CH)
A booming market
In recent years, as China's economy has grown, it has become more common for people from China to travel abroad. Switzerland is also eyeing emerging markets such as China to offset impacts of a shrinking number of tourists from other European countries and the United States.
China became the fourth largest source of tourists for Switzerland in 2015, after Germany, the United States and Britain, with the number of overnight stays in Switzerland by tourists from China increasing by 33.3 percent to nearly 1.38 million, according to the Swiss Federal Statistical Office. On the other hand, the number of overnight stays made by European tourists was 11.8 million in the same year, decreasing 9.3 percent year on year.
Yao Ling, Deputy Director of the Department of European Studies at the Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation, an affiliate of the Ministry of Commerce, said the rapid appreciation of the Swiss franc, which has taken place since the Swiss National Bank scrapped its peg to the euro in January 2015, has discouraged European and U.S. tourists from traveling to Switzerland. Sluggish consumption growth in European countries and the United States against a global economic slowdown has also had an impact, Yao added.
Although the number of overnight stays made by tourists from China in Switzerland declined 17.3 percent year on year from January to October 2016, Simon Bosshart, the Swiss National Tourism Office's Asia-Pacific Director, is still optimistic about the China market in 2017. He projected the number of tourists from China will grow 5-10 percent this year.
Bosshart explained that the decline was primarily due to the terrorist attacks in European countries and the fingerprint collection requirement for Schengen visa applications, which came into effect in 2016. Previously, tourists could post their applications to Swiss visa application centers in China. Now, they have to visit the centers in person.
The Schengen Area, named after the Schengen Agreement, is a zone where 26 different European nations have abolished their internal borders with each other to enable free and unrestricted movement of people, goods, services and capital.
Bosshart said he cares not only about the number of tourists, but also about other changes in the China market. For instance, in spite of the negative growth of tourists in the first 10 months of 2016, significant numbers of tourists from China visiting Switzerland switched from group tours to individual trips, which indicates that they have become more mature and have higher and more diversified tourism requirements. China's tourist market is thus growing healthily.
Bosshart is confident about the advantages of the Swiss tourism industry. He said Switzerland has an advanced public transportation system, and it's convenient to travel by train around the country.
The Grand Tour of Switzerland program, for instance, packs in an incredible number of sights—from palm-lined lakeshores to sparkling glaciers, from medieval villages to buzzing cities. Travelers need only one ticket to take in the views of the mountainous country. Besides, Switzerland has a variety of winter and summer outdoor tourism resources, with its winter tourism boasting over 150 years of history. Recognizing the importance of the China market, Switzerland has rolled out a series of measures to attract tourists from the nation.
The Swiss National Tourism Office has divided tourists from China into summer and winter categories. Summer tourists are further categorized into attraction tourists, outdoor enthusiasts and culture travelers, and winter tourists consist of attraction tourists, snow lovers and ski enthusiasts. The office will develop new products to cater to the needs of the various consumers. "Our purpose is not to reverse negative growth, but to enable the sustainable development of the tourist industry," Bosshart stressed.
In 2016, the number of Swiss visa application centers in China increased from three to 15. It takes only 48 hours to get a visa for Switzerland.
A primary school student from Beijing poses for a photo at Engadin St. Moritz, a tourist destination in the Swiss Alps, on July 17, 2016 (WANG YAJUAN)
However, there are still obstacles hindering tourists from China going to Switzerland.
Hu Xiaodan, Deputy Director of the Marketing Department of BTG International Travel and Tours, a state-owned travel agency under the Beijing Tourism Group, said most of his company's products involving Switzerland are packaged tours comprising France, Italy, Switzerland and Germany. In-depth tour programs for Switzerland alone are few.
For instance, Ye visited Switzerland along with Germany and Austria during her 2012 trip.
"Our customers don't have as strong a desire to visit Switzerland as other European countries, because they lack an understanding of the country's tourist resources. They only know the Alps and little else."
"In addition, consumer prices in Switzerland are relatively high, therefore the country may not be a good option for tourists to shop in," Hu added.
Ye said the cost of transportation in Switzerland is acceptable, but food and accommodation are expensive.
Bosshart said, "Like many European countries, we lack products designed specifically for Chinese tourists. For instance, our One Day Ski Experience program, though welcomed by locals and tourists from nearby countries, needs to be made easier for Chinese tourists and we need to invite skiing coaches who are able to speak Chinese. In addition, language barriers may be another challenge for Chinese tourists."
"Nevertheless, I still feel Chinese tourists are enjoying unprecedented convenience in visiting Switzerland and other European countries," he added.
Copyedited by Chris Surtees
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