Sunday, 14 April 2013

The Amazing Race 22, Episode 7

Maun (Botswana) - Zurich (Switzerland) - Grindelwald (Switzerland)


[Mont Blanc (in the furthest range, near the right) as seen across Lake Geneva from inside the Palais Wilson.]

This episode of The Amazing Race 22 was designed as an advertisement for Switzerland Tourism.

The reality-TV show succeeds in making the mountains and outdoor sports and activities look attractive, as indeed they are to many foreigners. Unfortunately, neither the TV show nor the Swiss government's tourist information Web site acknowledges, much less provides any advice for dealing with, the major obstacle for foreign tourists in Switzerland: high prices.

Let's get this straight from the start: For foreign visitors, Switzerland may be the most overpriced country in the world today -- substantially more expensive, whether as a hosteller or a five-star tourist, than anywhere else in Europe, and anywhere in the surrounding Euro zone in particular.

As I've reported on elsewhere, I spent a week in Geneva (admittedly, only one corner of Switzerland) last month, meeting with members of the U.N. Human Rights Committee as part of a delegation from the U.S. Human Rights Network:


[With some of the other members of the U.S. Human Rights Network delegation inside the Palais Wilson in Geneva.]

The UNHRC meets in the Palais Wilson, named for U.S. President Woodrow Wilson and formerly the headquarters of the U.N.'s predecessor organization, the League of Nations:


[The U.N. Human Rights Committee in session in the Palais Wilson. Sir Nigel Rodley (U.K., center) in the chair.]

In front of the rear entrance to the Palais Wilson, there's a statue of U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Sérgio Vieira de Mello, who was killed by a truck bomb outside the window of his office in the "Green Zone" in Baghdad in 2003 along with 20 others of the staff of a U.N. humanitarian aid mission:


Most international aviation organizations, including both inter-governmental agencies and industry associations and consortia, are based in Geneva and/or Montréal. Four years ago, I spent a week in Geneva for a conference on aviation and global warming.

In 2009, Geneva was already among the most expensive places I had ever visited, as one might expect of a small city with disproportionate numbers of expense-account business and government visitors, rich tourists, and Swiss private-bank customers. This year, I expected prices to be higher, but I was still sticker-shocked at how much they had gone up.

It's not about how you travel. Because the problem is the high valuation of the Swiss Franc (CHF) relative to other countries' currencies (the opposite situation from China, where the artificially low valuation of the Chinese Yuan makes everything even cheaper for foreigners than it would otherwise be), everything including tourist services that is produced in Switzerland or with Swiss labor, or priced for Swiss markets -- lodging, food, you name it -- is overpriced by any international standard of comparison.

Lest you be tempted to feel sorry for the people of Switzerland, whose inbound tourism industry has been suffering more and more in recent years from the rise in value of the Swiss Franc, the flip side of this equation is of course that travel almost anywhere else in the world is now marvelously cheap for Swiss tourists. Since Swiss International Airlines resumed nonstop flights between Zurich and San Francisco in 2010, for example, they have been full of Swiss tourists on what are for them bargain holidays to the USA. As I saw in 2011 on one of these flights, there are few Americans travelling to Switzerland, except for the wealthiest tourists and those on business or government expense accounts.

Switzerland is undeniably beautiful. But pretty pictures on a TV show like The Amazing Race won't persuade foreigners to choose Switzerland over other possible destinations if they can't figure out how to afford it, or don't think it represents good value for their money right now (which, in fact, it doesn't).

Tourists who come to Switzerland without realizing how expensive it will be will feel duped. A waiter at a relatively cheap but still grossly overpriced kebab-shop in Geneva -- himself a "guest-worker" from Asia who hadn't travelled much in the rest of Europe -- asked me, "Is it really so much more expensive here than other countries in Europe? Customers keep telling me they can't afford to stay, and they are never coming back."

Swiss people grumble that this is unfair. Why should they be punished for their thrift, for not going into national debt, for staying out of the European Union and the European Central Bank and thereby not having to bail other countries like Greece out of their debts? But we can congratulate the Swiss on their fiscal prudence (part of Geneva's proudly Calvinist heritage) without choosing to pay their current prices for lodging, food, and other travel services.

The target of legitimate anger both by foreigners who arrive unprepared for Swiss prices and Swiss people who want to encourage inbound international tourism in spite of its high price should be the Swiss government's tourism promotion agency, Switzerland Tourism.

I've often complemented the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) for its outstanding efforts to acknowledge Japan's sometimes justified (but not always, and certainly not as much as Switzerland today) reputation for unavoidable expensiveness, and to provide information, resources, and tools to enable foreigners who want to visit Japan to find ways to afford to do so.

To date, Switzerland Tourism exemplifies the other extreme, keeping its head firmly buried in the sand.

Perhaps they think Switzerland's unique attractions transcend price. That might be true, to some degree, of Machu Picchu or the Taj Mahal, but probably not of the Matterhorn or any other Swiss sight or site.

Perhaps they think that if they don't mention prices, potential visitors won't think about them. That won't work either, unless they only want to attract price-is-no-object visitors making in-person deposits to their Swiss bank accounts. (A significant subset of regular visitors to Switzerland, but nonetheless a limited market segment.)

How expensive is travel in Switzerland?

Lodging:

Go to the Affordable Switzerland tab (if you can find it) on the Switzerland Tourism Web site. Then click on "Inexpensive Hotels". The first of the "suggested" hotels advertises promotional rates starting from CHF130 (USD139) per night. But for any of the dates for which I could find rooms actually available, the rates started at a more typical CHF338 (USD360) per night for a double room.

The least expensive of the Top 50 hotel discount offers, anywhere in the country, on the Switzerland Tourism site is currently a 1-star village guesthouse for CHF144 (USD155) per night for a double room with private bath in low season (May, between the winter skiing and summer school-holiday peaks), in a corner of Switzerland far from any major city or well-known tourist destination.

It's hard to find a hotel room with a private bath for less than USD250/night in Geneva, Zurich, or any Swiss tourist town. You can expect to pay USD100, per night, or a bit more, for a spartan private room with a small double or two twin beds in a hostel, with shared toilet and bath or shower down the hall. Bunks in hostel dormitories range from about CHF35-45 (about USD40-50) per person per night, without breakfast.

The price of food (see below) makes a hostel or a rented apartment where you have the use of a kitchen even better value than in places with lots of cheap options for eating out. Airbnb.com has risks and almost certainly doesn't comply with Swiss business licensing requirements, but in Geneva in particular there are lots of expatriates and employees and contractors of international organizations who rent out spare bedrooms (with kitchen privileges) or whole apartments. If you are staying for a week or longer, you can probably find a room in a close-in residential quarter of the city for about USD150 per night, or a studio apartment for around USD200 per night.

Food:

There are relatively few distinctively Swiss culinary specialties. If you are looking for German, French, or Italian food -- the basis for most Swiss cooking -- you'll get better value in Germany, France, or Italy.

In major Swiss cities and tourist centers, you can get all manner of international and "ethnic" food. But even when it's prepared by under-paid immigrants or "guest workers", and served at a stand-up sidewalk counter or by a street vendor, it's still overpriced.

At three Vietnamese restaurants I passed in Geneva, a basic bowl of "pho" (beef noodle soup) that would cost perhaps USD6-8 in San Francisco was priced at CHF17, CHF18, and CHF20 (USD18-21). A falafal sandwich on pita bread from a Turkish or Arab hole-in-the-wall was CHF9-CHF11 (USD10-12), not including side dishes or anything to drink.

It's hard to find a sit-down restaurant in Geneva, even in any of the places I got to outside the city center, where main dishes at dinner are less than CHF20 (USD21), a la carte.

Value for money is generally much better at lunch than at dinner, especially if you order the lunch special, typically a set three-course menu for a fixed price. The same amount of food at the same restaurant costs perhaps 50% more in the evening than at midday. American or British-style hearty hot breakfasts are uncommon and expensive. If you want to sample some Swiss restaurant meals while keeping your budget as low as possible, eat breakfast and an evening snack at your hostel or in your rented apartment, and have your main meal out in the middle of the day.

Keep in mind, though, that most Swiss businesses keep shorter hours than would be normal in the U.S., and most restaurants close for several hours between lunch and dinner. "Nonstop" in a Swiss business advertisement doesn't mean "open 24 hours a day", but merely that the business doesn't close during a specified range of hours. A restaurant open "nonstop 12:00-20:00" (noon-8 p.m.) doesn't close between lunch and dinner, while a store open "nonstop 9-17" (9 a.m.-5 p.m.) doesn't close for the shopkeeper's lunch hour. Geneva's Calvinist "blue laws" and informal norms make Boston's look lax: Most stores including supermarkets are closed on Sundays, and many on Saturdays, even in tourist districts.

Swiss wine, surprisingly, is one of the better local values. Where the mountains don't slope up too steeply from the shore, Lake Geneva is surrounded by vineyards, and there are wineries in Geneva itself. Wine is also produced elsewhere in the warmer, lower-altitude south and west of Switzerland. Most Swiss wine is drunk as table wine, and isn't as highly prized or priced even within Switzerland as imported wines. A glass of the red or white "vin du maison" in a Swiss restaurant is likely to be something interesting, unfamiliar, and almost always Swiss-made.

Swiss wine has no standard labelling scheme, but the best-known Swiss wines are white wines made from the grape variety known as "Chasselas" or "Fendant" (although they don't necessarily have either of those names on the label). These are the characteristic wines used in, and drunk with, traditional Swiss fondue.

Apples grow at higher altitudes than most fruits, and apple juice is a standard Swiss beverage. Unlike in the U.K., where "cider" by default is alcoholic, the Swiss seem to drink much more nonalcoholic apple juice than "hard" cider.

What can you do about these prices?

The Swiss won't like my saying this, but the simplest advice is to go someplace else this year. Consider the French, Italian, German, or Austrian Alps instead of the Swiss Alps, or perhaps other mountains altogether such as the Argentine and/or Chilean Andes -- more different and cheaper still. Postpone your trip to Switzerland until a more opportune and affordable time. In terms of value for money, this may be the worst time ever to go to Switzerland.

I'm not an exchange-rate forecaster, but most experts seem to think that the current valuation of the Swiss Franc is unsustainable, especially relative to the Euro, precisely because it so undercuts the competitiveness of all Swiss exports. If you aren't in a hurry, there's likely to be some year in the next decade when the Swiss economy stumbles or the Swiss Franc falls. Wait, and take your Swiss vacation-of-a-lifetime then. Not now.

Some of you, of course, have reasons to travel to Switzerland now and not next year, or will be passing through as part of a larger trip. Next week, I'll have some specific advice for visitors to Geneva and "La Suisse Romande" (Francophone Switzerland).

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 14 April 2013, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | TrackBack (0)
Comments

I won't ascribe the term 'rip-off' to the pricing of EVERYTHING in Switzerland, but it does come pretty close.

I make one other suggestion for those who need a 'mountain fix': visit the Western USofA from Colorado to California to many other locales.

The US dollar goes further than ever before, the scenery is great, and with budget motels prominent in the middle of larger Western US cities (with free wi-fi) you can spend more on guided tours and better food, not just pita wraps with distilled water in one's non-A/C semi-private room with a randy toilet down the hall.

I get to Europe twice a year, so I'm not just banging the drum indiscriminately for USofA tourism. But other European cities (as well as all of Switzerland) are going to feel yearly reductions of the American dollars spent there as they jack up rates for frankly sub-standard hospitality products. They will miss this contribution to the repair of their already damaged economies.

Posted by: a concerned reader from Chicago, 25 April 2013, 07:48 ( 7:48 AM)
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