Cristina Tschuppert and Toni Riethmaier from Pearls of Switzerland are travel consultants for Switzerland and Saudi Arabia. A conversation about snow-covered mountains, 900’000 demanding Arab tourists and special halal hotels.
Mrs Tschuppert, what fascinates Arab tourists about Switzerland?
Tschuppert: A lot: the landscapes, the multilingualism and the different cultures of Switzerland, the weather, the chalets and the range of travel options, whether by train, boat or bus and the well-developed road network. Switzerland is a small country and you can easily travel from A to B and then to C. In addition, every city has its own characteristics and makes it special and attractive. Lucerne, for example, is becoming increasingly popular. Here, the offer is particularly large: the mountains, Lake Lucerne and the city. Arab guests are also fascinated by Interlaken, Rougemont and Gstaad. These are wonderful places for Arab guests to chill out and enjoy the landscapes. Also, the high level of safety and cleanliness in public areas are very important for travellers.
Which tourist regions are popular and why?
Tschuppert: The whole area around Lake Geneva is very popular and a hotspot in summer. Not at least because Saudia flies directly from Riyadh or Jeddah to Geneva. In addition, the Clinique La Prairie near Montreux is a very popular place for medical & health tourism. The Saudi King Ibn Saud has been a guest there too. Also, very popular in summer for families is Interlaken and as mentioned before also Lucerne, a city located in Central Switzerland at the shore of Lake Lucerne and surrounded by mountains.
Mr Riethmaier, what is the profile of the Arab guests who do visit Switzerland?
Riethmaier: More than 900’000 guests from the Arab world are visiting Switzerland every year. Most of them travel privately and for recovery. As example, this can be a married couple or a whole family, travelling with children, parents and grandparents, cousins and other relatives and acquaintances. But the situation is totally different with business people. They usually travel alone or as a group of men, like work colleagues or regional business partners. Many important international conferences take place in Switzerland and international organizations are usually based in Geneva. Therefore, Arab politicians or members of so-called ruling families are often to be seen, but they are visiting Switzerland with a clan of servants and without family members. It happens that you meet women or men travelling alone for study and educational purposes but this was in the past and rare due to restrictions. Now, this will slowly change because with the current development in Saudi Arabia women are also allowed to travel without a guardian or male permit. The last and also very important profile is medical tourism. Guests usually book a longer stay and the focus is on health. Switzerland has excellent clinics and renowned doctors. Also spacious rehabilitation clinics in remote areas with appropriate privacy are popular.
Are there hotels and restaurants that offer special services for Muslim guests beyond the usual?
Riethmaier: The majority of all Swiss hotels offer special services for Muslims in general and therefore also for Arab guests. However, these services and offers can vary from hotel to hotel. There are no standards or guidelines that hotels could apply. Sometimes, an Arabic speaking employee, an alcohol-free minibar in the room or to serve halal-compliant food in the hotel are just enough. Or the complete package, where the guest can not only dine halal, but is also offered, for example, a prayer rug with a Qibla guide in the room, hand shower in the bathroom, Koran in the bedside cabinet, special cosmetics, alcohol-free minibar, Arabic hotel guide and much more. Here one must also consider the hotel category. If it is a more luxurious and possibly also larger and well established 4- or 5-star hotel, such as Hotel Villa Honegg in Ennetbürgen, the Grand Hotel National in Lucerne, the Park Hyatt in Zurich or Hotel Metropole in Geneva, the offers and facilities possibly are better than in smaller or lower categories hotels. Some hotels are specialized on the Arab market and offer all the amenities for Muslim travellers. You can call these hotels “Halal Hotels”. We know every single hotel and restaurant we do offer to our guests as we do hotel inspections. This way we can make sure in advance that the offers meet the expectations. We pay great attention to the equipment of the rooms and products that are available in the hotel. For example, it is not absolutely necessary to have Arabic-speaking staff, more important is that a non-alcoholic minibar is not just a slimmed down version of the normal minibar, but that there is an alternative filling, for example with regional juices, lemonades or special non-alcoholic beer and wine, that there is a special section at the breakfast buffet, either with halal-certified or homemade halal-compliant food. The various bars and restaurants always offer a small selection of halal drinks and food, in the room prayer rug, directional arrow to the Qibla and a Koran is available. There are also various Arabic and Muslim television and radio channels, as well as a guide who refers to local halal restaurants or supermarkets, hairdressing and beauty salons, mosques and doctors. But these are only a few examples of what is really needed. Employees who deal with Muslim guests should also be trained accordingly in how to deal with such guests.
Who are the beneficiaries of the halal value chain?
Riethmaier: All – starting with the end consumer, because as the saying goes: the guest is the King. If the guest is satisfied, it’s the best advertising. A dissatisfied guest will not return to a restaurant, he will not talk about it to his family and he will certainly not go out and eat with his work colleagues there. But if expectations and needs are met, everyone benefits. From the supplier to the end user, this includes every step of production and service. Starting with procurement, continuing through production and then showing up in sales. Happy guests are valuable, repeat customers and drive sales.
How many hotels and restaurants offer halal food that actually complies with Muslim food regulations? In other words, not just conventional without pork and alcohol.
Riethmaier: We can’t give any answer about that. However, we know all the hotels and restaurants, such as the Tassnim Orient in Lucerne, Le Cèdre Bellevue in Zurich or L’Arabesque in Geneva do meet Muslim standards of food requirements. We personally do recommend them.
Are there any problems with tourists from the Gulf States and how can they be solved?
Tschuppert: If you accept the culture and know how to act, there are no problems. It’s a shame that the locals sometimes have no knowledge of other cultures and do not want to respect other people and their ways of life. It needs flexibility and understanding for a different kind of culture. If one acquires knowledge and deals with it, the guest can, may and should be the King. For example: accepting cover-ups or, don’t looking in the eyes of a married woman, etc.
What does Switzerland to attract even more tourists from the Gulf countries?
Tschuppert: Switzerland, or better Switzerland Tourism does arrange Fam-Trips from time to time. Travel agents, journalists and event managers can explore hotels, restaurants or local attractions. We also promote ourselves and build up good business relationships by travelling to Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates. We introduce ourselves personally to travel agencies and build up a relationship with them. We also participate in tourism fairs such as ATM in Dubai, ITB in Berlin and WTM in London. Switzerland also has products on site that are very popular. When I was in Riyadh and Jeddah I saw for example: Mövenpick, Lindt, Kambly, Kägi Fret. La Prairie cosmetics, Moussy beer – non-alcoholic of course – and in Riyadh there is even a “Heididorf” café where you can eat the famous raclette cheese.
You sell Switzerland to Arabs and take Swiss people to Saudi Arabia or the other GCC countries. What is the difference between the desires of the two groups?
Tschuppert: Pearls of Switzerland offers individually arranged private round trips from mid-October to the end of April and accompanies travellers on request to Saudi Arabia or the other GCC countries. Since Toni Riethmaier lived in Jeddah for ten years and I have visited Saudi Arabia again and again since 2017 to inspect hotels, restaurants but also museums and sightseeing places. We are competent partners for trips to Saudi Arabia and enable culturally interested people to get to know the country and its people. We put together unforgettable experiences so they can make lifetime memories. When guests from the Arab countries travel to Europe or Switzerland, they want to have a relaxing holiday, a medical and health treatment or send their children to a summer camp. Arab guests focus on shopping, relaxation and good food while experiences and culture are important for European guests.
Interview: Kemal Çalık