More than a decade ago, the Swiss were the first Europeans to establish national tourism office in China.
That investment is now paying off. Chinese travellers are flocking to Switzerland, visiting the Alps and buying pricey watches. Once a rare sight in Swiss cities, rising numbers of Chinese tourists are now helping make up for fewer visitors from other European countries.
The Swiss Federal Statistical Office (SFSO) this week reported that the number of overnight stays at hotels and other lodging in Switzerland slipped 2 per cent in 2011.
It seems that Switzerland has become a less appealing destination for European vacationers thanks to the strong Swiss franc coupled with the economic woes roiling the continent. Last year, the number of overnight stays by European guests (outside Switzerland) dropped 7.3 per cent, according to SFSO. Declines were registered for guests from the Netherlands, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, France and Belgium.
Fortunately, Chinese tourists have discovered Switzerland. They make up the fastest-growing group of travellers to Switzerland, registering a 47 per cent jump in overnight stays to 595,264 in 2011. They are now the 6th biggest group of foreign guests in Switzerland (in terms of arrivals). The Swiss National Tourist Office expects demand in China for Swiss vacations will keep increasing in coming years.
"We think in 2020 that we will have two million overnight stays by Chinese guests," Daniela Baer, a spokeswoman for the Swiss National Tourist Office, said this week in a telephone interview.
When Chinese tourists first come to Switzerland, often as part of a two-week tour in Europe, they want to see the highlights like the Matterhorn, according to Ms. Baer. But as they return to Europe, they are interested in seeing other parts of Switzerland.
The tourists from China like to shop as they often bring home presents for family and friends, according to Ms. Baer. Swiss watches are among the most popular souvenirs. As for Swiss specialities like cheese fondue, Ms. Baer says they want the experience of tasting it but aren't exactly keen on a full meal of melted cheese.
Of course, Switzerland isn't the only European country benefiting from the Chinese tourist boom. That country's middle class are increasingly going sightseeing abroad, aided by relaxed travel restrictions as well as greater wealth.
The number of international Chinese travellers totalled 57.4 million in 2010, according to a report last year from Credit Suisse. That compares with just 10.5 million in 2000. The bank said the main beneficiaries from this booming tourist market will be luxury brands and other retailers (the Chinese travellers like to splurge on prestigious brands), along with hotels and airlines.
"Future growth potential becomes apparent when considering that the 57.4 million Chinese outbound tourists in 2010 corresponded to just 4.3 per cent of the total Chinese population," according to the Credit Suisse report.
The Swiss are trying to appeal to these new travellers through a variety of ways.
Language is one example as the official Swiss tourism website has been in Mandarin since 2001. Tourist attractions like luxury watch shop Beyer in Zurich also offer Mandarin versions of their websites.
The Swiss National Tourist Office is also reaching out to the Chinese market by inviting TV and other media to visit the country. They scored an important success when two twin brothers, popular bloggers in China, wrote a book about their separate one-month travels through Switzerland.
Flying to Switzerland is also getting easier for Chinese tourists. Swiss, the national airline owned by German neighbour Lufthansa, this month launched a direct flight from Zurich to Beijing. The airline already has direct flights to Hong Kong and Shanghai. The opening ceremony for the first flight to Beijing was attended by the Chinese ambassador to Switzerland as well as Doris Leuthard, one of seven members of the Federal Council who lead Switzerland.