Fruitful trip: Tourists throng the market in Lausanne at Place de la Palud in the heart of the Old Town. Tourism is a key sector for Switzerland’s economy Image Credit: Supplied

Switzerland maintains its top spot in The Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report published by the World Economic Forum, a position it has retained for five consecutive editions. The country continues to lead the rankings, performing well on all aspects of the index from infrastructure, especially ground transport to hotels and other tourism-specific facilities.

“Tourism is a key sector for Switzerland’s economy and is the fourth-largest industry in the country following chemicals, metals and machine-making and watchmaking. About 6 per cent of Switzerland’s export revenues come from tourism and around 17-20 per cent of this revenue is contributed by medical tourism,” says Sowmya Rajagopalan, Programme Manager, Medical Devices, Healthcare Practice, Europe, Frost and Sullivan — the international business consulting and market analysis firm.

The past couple of years have seen a paradigm shift in the industry resulting from a number of factors, ranging from the rise of the emerging markets and the China boom to increase in demand of medical tourism and the pegging of the Swiss franc to the euro.

Euro effect

In the face of much criticism, in September 2011, the Swiss Central Bank capped the Swiss-Euro exchange rate. “The Swiss tourism industry is heavily impacted by its strong currency, especially in combination with the current economic recession in Europe. The continued high prices in Switzerland, when compared to neighbouring European countries, is offsetting especially for European tourists who see Switzerland as a high price country,” says Lianne van den Bos, Senior Research Analyst, Euromonitor International.

Due to the currency difference, Switzerland had fewer guests from the euro area, points out Stefan Ryser, Head of Marketing Services and Market Manager GCC, Interlaken Tourism. “Another impact was that more Swiss nationals went abroad for their holidays. Thanks to the diversification of markets, Interlaken was less affected by the currency crisis than other destinations,” 
says Ryser.

“Switzerland still has a good chance to improve the visitor numbers from the traditional markets such as the UK and Germany. Considering the latest numbers it looks like the home market Switzerland is stabilising as well,” he adds.

Last year, Interlaken Tourism registered 87,515 overnight stays from Chinese tourists compared to 65,173 by Germans, where as the Gulf countries contributed to 58,313 overnights. Switzerland Tourism reported that the Chinese spent 830,000-840,000 overnights in 2012, while GCC tourists clocked up 492,832 overnight stays in the country.

In 2012, only 34 million overnight stays were registered in Swiss hotels — the lowest number since 2005. Guests from the Eurozone stayed away due to the high valuation of the Swiss franc. On the other hand, visitor numbers from the Middle East and Asia continue to increase, with more tourists from China than from regular countries such as Italy or the Netherlands, Euromonitor 
figures show.

Feel-good factor

The Swiss vistas have been immortalised in art and celluloid and the country’s crisp climate, fresh Alpine air and glistening lakes are an integral part of its wellness tourism package. Medical tourism in Switzerland is fostered officially and business is picking up, especially from Brazil, Russia, India and China and Middle Eastern countries.

“Health and wellness tourism was one of the most profitable and growing tourism segments in Switzerland in 2012 despite high prices and competition from other European countries having similar natural landscapes such as Austria or Germany. Medical tourism represents the fastest-growing health and wellness category in Switzerland over the past five years with around 5 per cent in 2012,” says van Den Bos.

Being significantly higher priced than other medical tourism destinations such as Hungary or Germany, Switzerland attracts the affluent medical tourists from all over the world. Major private hospitals located in Lausanne, Berne and Geneva are where medical tourists seek popular procedures, including medical spa treatments, cosmetic surgery, IVF treatment, neurosurgery, obesity surgery, and orthopaedic surgery. >

Swiss hospitals also offer many other procedures including dentistry, laser eye surgery and laser hair removal.

The Swiss Health and Wellness Tourism is worth over CHF3 billion (about Dh12.1 billion). It was one of the most growing sectors in 2012 together with being the second-largest market in Europe in the health and wellness tourism segment. Medical tourism accounts for 30 per cent and spas for the remaining 70 per cent, reports Euromonitor.

“It is mostly the affluent population from Russia and Gulf countries that look at Switzerland as the destination for medical and wellness tourism,” Rajagopalan says. “The Swiss Hospital Association represents 300 hospitals and estimates that between 1 and 2 per cent of all patients come from abroad, although it could be much higher. Switzerland’s largest private health-care group, Hirslanden, has 14 hospitals and is seeking annual growth of 10 per cent in foreign patients within the next five years. It gets many patients from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Switzerland’s main markets are the Gulf states, Russia, China, and former Soviet countries.”

Stéphanie Lampart, Project and Promotion Assistant of health insurance company Swiss Health, reports a definite increase in inquiries from the GCC market. “However, this is not only in the health market but also generally in the Swiss tourism industry. Typically, but not exclusively, the general GCC medical tourist is of a wealthy nature, internationally experienced, educated and often does not completely have trust in his/her country’s own health system.”

Medical treatment in Switzerland costs an average of CHF20,000. However, studies show that additional spending including shopping, hotel stay and others could drive the figure five to ten times higher.

China comes calling

You cannot miss the Chinese when out and about in Switzerland. They are after all a double-digit growth segment for Swiss tourism. The country’s tourism department has been marketing its brand heavily in Asia in recent years and believes the number of tourists from China alone could swell from 400,000 a year to two million by 2020. “The Chinese outbound travel market has shown a steep and consistent quantitative growth throughout the past years, and a change of this trend is currently not in sight,” says Ryser.

The main interest of the Chinese, says van den Bos, is shopping, thus providing a big impulse to sales of Swiss luxury goods. Chinese tourism ranks second highest in inbound tourism flows, totalling almost CHF1 billion in 2012. And catering to this luxury segment is Maura Wasescha, Founder, Maura Wasescha AG, who opened her own full-service firm to help people looking for luxury and maximum well-being. “It started with the Europeans. Today, they are still here, however, the requests from the Middle and the Far East, China and India are increasing quite remarkably,” she says.