Swiss Alps add halal BBQ, Chinese pop, as high franc drives quest for new tourists

Thu Dec 3, 2015 1:12pm EST
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By Brenna Hughes Neghaiwi

ZURICH (Reuters) - Switzerland's strong franc has driven French and German skiers and hikers away. But in the Alpine resort of Interlaken, perched beneath Europe's highest railway station on the Jungfraujoch glacier, a new kind of tourist has arrived from further afield.

Chinese are buying Swiss watches. Emiratis are enjoying halal barbecue cruises on the clear Alpine waters of Lake Thun.

The top four sources of visitors after the Swiss themselves are now China, the Gulf countries, South Korea and India. European countries are out of the top five, probably for good, says tourism director Stefan Otz.

The town of 6,000 began courting Asian visitors two decades ago, giving it a head start over rivals. Now, it counts on an annual "Ramadan bump".

Overnight stays by Gulf country visitors were up by nearly half in Interlaken from July through September compared to the same period last year, thanks in part to lures like prayer rooms and Arabic-speaking hotel staff.

Branding the 3,500 metre high glacier pass as the "Top of Europe" has helped transform it into a must for Asian visitors. The company Jungfraubahn Holding AG that runs the railway up the mountain increased its half-year earnings in 2015, despite lagging ski ticket sales and fewer EU visitors.

Chinese popstar G.E.M. performed a concert at 3,454 meters (11,332 feet) atop the Jungfraujoch glacier this summer. Local officials and show sponsor Tag Heuer, the watchmaker, hope a broadcast in China boosts the region's appeal.

Jehovah's witnesses offer pamphlets in Chinese between Interlaken's most famous watch shop and its bus depot, waiting for the 200-300 Chinese visitors who arrive each day. They cannot read the hanzi characters on the forms, they said, but have learned a few phrases in Chinese.   Continued...

A cow feeds on grass in front of the Victoria Jungfrau hotel in the Swiss alpine resort Interlaken, Switzerland November 11, 2015. Picture taken November 11, 2015. REUTERS/Ruben Sprich