More than 400 buyers from 50 countries and 350 Swiss suppliers gathered in Davos for Switzerland Travel Mart, the biggest turnout the event has seen to date.
For North America's delegation, the program kicked off with a two-day pre-tour in Basel. There, at the city's historic Teufelhof hotel, Basel Tourism Vice Director and Head of Marketing, Christoph Bosshardt offered insight into the Swiss city's appeal. First, he said, is its proximity to neighboring France and Germany, making movement between countries easy. Secondly, Basel is rich in culture, history, and architecture; it's home to 40 museums, and structures by 12 Pritzker-winning architects. Finally, he said, is the sheer convenience that comes with a visit to the city of fewer than 200,000 residents.
"It's very easy to get to Basel—Zurich's airport is a little more than one hour transfer [by train]," he said, adding that Basel is also accessible via international train stations in France, Germany, and beyond. As of next January, getting around the already user-friendly city will be even more convenient. Beginning then, said Bosshardt, "Everybody staying in Basel for the night—whether in a hotel, hostel, or B&B—will get a free Basel Guest Card, which includes not only public transport, but also free access to Wi-Fi hotspots all over the city and 50 percent reductions on admission to museums, the zoo, and guided tours. I think this will make Basel even more attractive as a stopover."
Alex Herrmann, Switzerland Tourism's North America director, offered statistical evidence of Basel's increasing popularity, noting an increase in business from North American travelers in particular. Between January and June 2017, overnight stays among North Americans were up 10 percent over the same time period in 2016. Arrivals increased by 11.9 percent. June, July, and September see the highest volume of North American travelers, he said.
As for what's driving Switzerland's popularity as a whole, Herrmann said, "Switzerland has an answer to any travel trend out there," from river cruising to city breaks to hiking and biking. Food and wine are other important factors. "Swiss wines are hard to get anywhere else," Herrmann said. "Only two percent of them are exported."
Herrmann explained that, when it comes to how visitors prefer to explore Switzerland, touring is increasingly popular, especially by train. By purchasing a Swiss Travel Pass, visitors can ride the country's vast rail system, buses, ferries, and other modes of public transportation on a single ticket, and receive discounted admission to dozens of sites and attractions. A mobile app by SBB—the Swiss transportation system—makes finding timetables and planning routes a simple task. To boot, travelers can take advantage of Switzerland's door-to-door luggage service, which allows them to ship luggage from North America to their destination in Switzerland, or from one train station or hotel to another.
Driving and bike tours are rising in popularity, too, said Herrmann. Since its recent launch, a grand tour—comprising 1,000 miles of some of Switzerland's most scenic roadways, including through Lake Geneva's wine growing region—has already become popular, despite the fact that driving tours haven't previously been talked about much in the context of visiting Switzerland, he added. The tour is ideal for electric cars, with more than 300 charging stations along the route. "It's a sustainable way to see Switzerland," Herrmann said. He added that hiking and biking will be a major focus of promoting tourism to Switzerland in 2018.
With travel to Switzerland trending toward individual travel and away from mass tourism, Herrmann said that Switzerland's tourism organization strongly believes in the travel trade. "That's why we have a lot of programs for travel agents, why we visit you with our Swiss partners, and why we produce our 'Yodel' sales manual," which has been distributed in publications including Luxury Travel Advisor. "We also launched a new e-learning program, mostly for travel advisors," Herman continued. With different modules to choose from, "It's a great way to learn a lot about Switzerland in a short amount of time."
With the Basel pre-tour complete, the delegation then traveled by train to Davos, where Switzerland Travel Mart officially kicked off at Vaillant Arena, home of the city's nationally celebrated Hockey Club Davos. There, Switzerland Tourism Director Jürg Schmid asked his international audience: Why do people travel?
"Some people choose a destination because it's a bargain," he said. "That's not Switzerland's marketplace. More and more, people want to discover, to learn, to experience a country, its culture, its people. They're looking for inspiration."
That yearning for experiential travel is a countertrend to globalization, he added. "Slow tourism is the growth market of the future. This is precisely the market where tour operators and travel agents are needed more than ever."
Schmid went on to explain that the 400-plus buyers in attendance at STM are very important business partners for Switzerland. "On a worldwide basis, they represent revenue of $25 billion," he said. "For Switzerland, they represent roughly a billion dollars of yearly income revenue to our tourism sector. In Switzerland, roughly one-third of the hotel overnights are generated through the indirect channels; this demonstrates that it's an important part of Switzerland's business."
When it comes to the U.S. market, he said, for seven years in a row its business has grown at a rate of 4 to 8 percent.
Schmid went on to say that Switzerland is the perfect experience platform. "It's small—the distance from east to west is just 348 kilometers, and from north to south just 220. It may be small, but it's enormously diverse," he continued, referencing the four cultures and languages (French, Italian, German, and Romansch) found within its borders. "This means that you need only travel for two hours to experience another culture, another gastronomy, another history. And the landscape is constantly changing, from glaciers to palm trees, and from mountain peaks to urban city centers."
Schmid then introduced Maurus Lauber, CEO of Swiss Travel System, who explained that sales of STS tickets have rocketed up 86 percent since 2010. Business from the North American market alone went up 27.8 percent through the end of July. Lauber said the numbers are evidence that American visitors to Switzerland love rail travel, for its panoramic experience, convenience, accessibility, its "Swissness," and its diversity. In Switzerland, more than 250 companies provide modes of public transportation, from trains to boats to buses to cable cars.
In closing his presentation, Switzerland Tourism Director Jürg Schmid explained that, as a small country, Switzerland isn't prepared for mass tourism, nor does it want to be.
"This is not an artificial Disney World," he said. "This is why we don't promote group travel anymore in Switzerland. We are a quality destination. We're not a low-cost destination, we never will be, and we don't want to be. We believe being low-cost is not an achievement. We want to go for quality, and this means experiential, individual travel."