04 March, 2022

What can developed alpine tourism countries expect after SARS-CoV-2? Insights from a "Swiss" perspective

 This contribution is an English transcript of an interview with Südostschweiz, a major media outlet in Switzerland. The original version can be found at «Der Elefant im Raum bleibt bestehen und harrt einer Lösung» | suedostschweiz.ch.

Please note that this talk was recorded before the Russian attack on Ukraine. It topicalizes the immediate and medium-term challenges tourism in Switzerland faces. Many of the assessments in this talk are also applicable to similar contexts, such as in neighboring countries.

During the pandemic, the Swiss discovered Switzerland as a vacation destination. Now that the pandemic is over, they are booking vacations abroad again. Are the international guests coming back now?
For the most part, the Swiss had little choice but to stay here during the pandemic. Now the borders are open again, but I'm curious to see how volatile the situation will remain. But after two years of not being able to travel freely, we can now expect an excess of demand for travel abroad. This means that this year, and perhaps next year as well, fewer Swiss will stay in Switzerland. It is even possible that there will be fewer than before the pandemic. However, tourists from the European region will return. I am still cautious about intercontinental guests. North America or the UAE should not be a problem. With India and China, it is still a bit uncertain. In India, travel will certainly start earlier - in China, on the other hand, the tourism effects of the still ongoing zero-COVID strategy and the geopolitical aspects are difficult to assess. Here, the “lean” period will probably be longer. I also have big question marks about emerging markets in general; they often have high dollar debts. The now rising interest rates could lead to economic burdens and even dislocations.

Where has the collapse of the international market hurt the most - the cities or the mountains?
It was a different problem at different times. Cities suffered because business tourism collapsed. The same is true for city tourism in Switzerland, even if it is not as pronounced as in other countries. And then, of course, there are the regions geared to global visitor flows and known as corresponding hotspots, such as the Bernese Oberland, central Switzerland, or even parts of western Switzerland and Valais, e.g. Zermatt, which have had to hit bottom. Since many of these destinations are located in the Alps, winter tourism was able to prevent even worse in some cases. .

You talk about the Bernese Oberland or even Central Switzerland, but Davos, Arosa and St. Moritz are also popular with international guests....
Of course. And Davos also had a big slump, for example because the WEF couldn't take place. With St. Moritz, you must make a distinction. In winter, you can compare this destination with Zermatt, but in summer, St. Moritz has never been as popular as other hotspots. St. Moritz never had this global sightseeing tourism like the Bernese Oberland. Overall, therefore, Graubünden has done well. Especially when you look at the winter figures. You got through the pandemic with a black eye.

Is tourism recovering from the pandemic?
Most certainly, because travel is a human need. I also expect global growth rates to be solid again after the pandemic. It is also important to remember that many people in the world have not even started to travel yet. However, I doubt whether under these conditions, tourism will become more sustainable as quickly as many are increasingly calling for. In Switzerland, in particular, we see many good measures at the operational and destination level that improve the sustainability of tourism service provision on site. However, the elephant in the room - the CO2 emissions from tourism mobility - remains and awaits a solution. In short, until we decarbonize guest mobility, tourism is not truly sustainable.

In times of climate change, does it make sense to focus so strongly on winter tourism?
There is hardly a destination that is not working on the further development of a warm weather season. However, one must not forget that the tourism value added in the mountains in winter is still many times higher than in summer due to the central role of cableway companies-driven winter sports. Since climate change is slow in coming, little will change in the foreseeable future, especially in higher altitude destinations. As long as this "foreseeable time" is longer than the investment cycles of the cableway companies, they will continue to replace their old facilities with new ones, in the will to continue to profit from winter tourism at least for this foreseeable time. If you ask me this question again in 25-35 years, you may get a different answer. The "foreseeable time" will certainly be shorter then...

Are there special challenges concerning tourism in a mountain canton like Graubünden?
Yes, for example the shortage of skilled workers. The pandemic has almost brutally exposed the lack of attractiveness of tourism and hospitality professions. To put it briefly: Those who find or have found something "better" are leaving or have already left - perhaps forever. But this phenomenon is only an indication of a deeper problem, namely that of rather poor productivity compared to other industries. Consequently, the scope for higher wages is also rather small, unless individual processes or entire business models are completely reconfigured. One will have to look for approaches to get "more" out of tourism and not just to have "more tourism".

Will there now be price wars in the tourism industry?
Then we would have more tourism, but not more out of tourism... No, I don't think so, maybe except for the low-cost airlines, as many are on a hunt for market share. What speaks against price wars in Switzerland is that two conditions are not met in many cases: First, a filled war chest to sustain such a price war, and second, margins from which one can and will give up something. Moreover, prices have already picked up in the euro zone, where Switzerland's most important markets are located. This means that the latent problem of the strong Swiss franc is increasingly becoming nonexistent. For these reasons, Swiss tourism is more likely to see opportunities for gentle upward price adjustments.

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