GRINDELWALD, Switzerland (Reuters Life!) - Rob van der Erve, who has visited the slopes overshadowed by the vertiginous Eiger north face for 30 years, surveyed the usually busy runs and smiled at the sparse number of skiers.
“The snow, it’s ideal. It’s so wonderfully peaceful,” he said, settling down to a lunch of fried eggs on a sunny terrace.
But the tranquility that van der Erve is enjoying may not be so good for the Swiss tourism industry, which makes up some 3 percent of gross domestic product.
Last year the winter sport sector enjoyed a bumper season thanks to generous snowfall -- and despite the downturn. This year will probably be a tough one for hotels and tour operators with fewer guests expected and those who come likely to watch their wallets.
“We’re a bit nervous because of the financial crisis. Of course people will save a bit and our resorts are more expensive than others,” said ski instructor Svenja Grulke, sipping a steaming hot drink whilst looking up at the infamous “White Spider” ice field by the Eiger’s summit.
From the town of Grindelwald, part of the Bernese Oberland’s Jungfrau region, a heated train snakes halfway up the Eiger to deliver skiers to the pistes. The mountain’s 1,600 meter (yards) north wall is one of mountaineering’s grimmest, and dozens have perished trying to scale its summit.
“I’ve noticed it,” said Grulke, from Germany. “Many Germans just can’t afford it even if they want it very much.”
The economics consultancy BAK Basel forecasts a 3.7 percent drop in overnight stays for the winter season, with demand from foreign tourists down 5.1 percent. The figures include conference bookings.
Roger Seifritz, tourism director at Gstaad, said he expected overnight stays to fall about 3 percent, while the BAK expects mountain railways to experience a 5.8 percent real revenue drop in the twelve months to October 2010.
Fewer tourists does not necessarily mean better deals: Despite the promise of good snow, some companies have cut capacity and the Swiss franc’s strength against the pound and the euro has also pushed prices up.
“People are starting to book but it is going to be a really challenging season,” said Lisa Tyrrell of British tour operator Ingham‘s, where the average ski holiday costs 660 pounds ($1,065) per person.
At the luxurious Victoria Jungfrau hotel in nearby Interlaken, director Hans-Rudolf Ruetti said that although the very wealthy were still spending, those slightly less well off hoping to treat themselves were losing the urge to splurge.
The BAK expects the Bernese Oberland to see the sharpest fall of any Swiss region, with a drop in overnights of more than 4.5 percent, particularly due to declines among Britons.
Andrew Dunn of Scott Dunn, which offers holidays in chalets in Zermatt and Valais, said uncertainty in the job market would weigh on business but that his company had nevertheless raised prices to account for the unfavorable exchange rate.
“We cut our capacity by 30 percent,” he said. “(But) we had to charge more because sterling is weak.”
But some in the tourism industry are still confident that the love for snow will trump any money worries and skiers will cut back on expensive treats like spa treatments or champagne rather than skipping holidays entirely.
“So long as there’s snow, people will come,” said a saleswoman working in a shop selling tourist mementos.
The Swiss mountain lift association said it was optimistic for the winter season after revenues rose nearly 3 percent in the year to October, thanks to a jump in local vacationers.
“I think people are price conscious for about three days maximum and then they say ‘stuff it’,” holiday operator Dunn said.
(Editing by Paul Casciato)