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Swiss Hotels Look to Gulf Guests to Offset Europe Shortfall

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Overlooking the palm trees and sparkling blue waters of Lake Lugano, the Belle Epoque Hotel Splendide Royal is looking to the East to make its guests feel welcome.

By devising an extensive menu of Middle Eastern cuisine, the five-star establishment opened in 1887 is part of efforts by Switzerland’s tourist industry to attract visitors from emerging markets to offset a decline among European visitors, put off by the strength of the Swiss franc.

Arab visitors come because “the perception of Switzerland is that of a tidy country and a safe place with a lovely landscape,” Splendide Royal General Manager Giuseppe Rossi said, explaining that he’s traveled to countries including Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Qatar in 2015 to nurture client relationships. The number of bookings from mid-eastern countries has climbed about 5 percent this year, he said.

Since British mountaineer Edward Whymper and his team scaled the Matterhorn 150 years ago, the Swiss tourism industry has typically focused on welcoming European guests. The franc’s strength against the euro in recent years has forced establishments to change course and target visitors from elsewhere. In Geneva, where Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd built a summer palace 35 years ago, the Grand Hotel Kempinski and the Mandarin Oriental have Arabic websites. The sames goes for the Splendide Royal’s menu, which features Lebanese wines and rose water pudding.

Visa Rules

In Switzerland, the number overnight stays by guests from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates almost doubled to 725,000 between 2011 and 2014.

With the franc up roughly 13 percent against the euro so far this year, hoteliers and restaurant owners are complaining of tough business conditions. The sector, which employs 210,000 people in a country of 8 million, has for years faced declining numbers of guests due to the strong currency. The central bank’s decision in January to remove its cap on the franc of 1.20 per euro has only exacerbated the problem.

In a move that is likely to boost tourism, the Swiss government eased the visa rules for Emirati citizens on tourist trips in June.

“Developing nascent markets is helping to compensate for the declining numbers from Europe -- but it’s not offsetting it 1 to 1,” said Daniela Baer, a spokeswoman for the Swiss tourism board.

Big Spenders

More than half the overnight stays in the first six months were derived from European visitors, according to Swiss statistics office data published on Tuesday. Chinese made up 5.9 percent, while the Gulf region accounted for 2.4 percent. The total number of overnight hotel stays of foreign visitors declined 1.9 percent in the first half, the data showed.

It helps that visitors from the Gulf tend to be big spenders. They spent 430 francs ($444) a day on average in 2013, according to the most recent tourism board data available. That dwarfs visitors from India spending 240 francs per day, or Russians at 230. Germans, by contrast, spent 140 francs and the Dutch 130 francs.

Sarah AlDuiwaisan, 20, a student from Kuwait City, regularly visits Switzerland with members of her family, including her parents and aunts. They own a house in nearby Evian, France and spend their days in Geneva and touring sites such as Lausanne and Montreux.

“I’ve come to Switzerland every summer since I was a baby,” she said, enjoying the sunshine near Lake Geneva. “We relax, we take in the view. It may be more expensive but for us it’s well worth it.”

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