Asian visitors give Swiss tourism a silver lining

Sat Jul 28, 2012 12:06pm EDT
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By Catherine Bosley and Arnd Wiegmann

JUNGFRAUJOCH, Switzerland (Reuters) - Wearing two thick brown sweaters on top of her blue-and-gold sari, Sujatha Thoota from Hyderabad, India still shivers as she looks onto the largest glacier in the Alps. It is the first snow she has ever seen.

"It's wonderful," said Thoota, on holiday with her family, but adds she is too scared to venture out onto the ice.

Attracted by the fresh air, snowcapped mountains and cleanliness, Asian and Middle Eastern visitors are flocking to Switzerland, helping to counter the impact of Europeans kept away by the strength of the Swiss franc and widespread belt-tightening.

The Jungfraubahn cog railway line, considered pioneering for the steep incline of its 7-kilometre tunnel hewn into the Eiger and Moench mountains, is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. The train's history is emblematic of the evolution of Swiss tourism.

A century ago, during the train's first year of service, 39,000 travelers ascended to the Jungfrau's observation deck, nearly 3,500 meters above sea level. Most of them were European, a spokesman for the railway said.

In 2011, 60 percent of the 765,000 visitors to the site, a must-see in Switzerland for many tourists, were from Asia.

Hoteliers and restaurateurs have complained about the impact of the soaring safe-haven franc, which has risen by nearly a third since the global financial crisis erupted in 2008, prompting the Swiss National Bank to set a cap of 1.20 per euro last September to stave off a recession.

Yet there is a silver lining. Since the cap was imposed the franc has tracked the euro, and as the single currency suffered because of the euro zone debt crisis, the franc has fallen alongside it. That has helped boost Switzerland's appeal to visitors from outside the euro zone.   Continued...