Here’s where travelers are heading now

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As soon as the snow starts to fall in Switzerland – and it should happen any day – Todd Truitt wants to fly to Europe.

“I like the Alps because I can fly to Geneva for almost the same price as a flight across the United States, and the resorts are easily accessible by train,” says Truitt, an Arlington lawyer, in Virginia.

Zermatt, an emblematic ski resort in southern Switzerland, is on her wishlist this winter.

Like almost every other destination, the Swiss tourism sector is in recovery mode in 2022. But unlike other parts of Europe and the United States, many visitors come here during the colder months, drawn by its wintry landscapes and unparalleled skiing and snowboarding.

This year, some travelers are not expecting snow. Cities like Basel and Zurich are reporting a surge of tourists taking advantage of festivals and shopping. Switzerland has lifted all of its COVID restrictions and is more affordable than it has been in years, experts say.

Why is Switzerland famous for tourism?

Switzerland is on the tourism map for many reasons. It’s not just the country’s famous cheeses, chocolates and artisan watches. It has some of the most spectacular alpine scenery in Europe, and the mountains offer excellent hiking opportunities in summer and perhaps the best skiing area in the world in winter.

Switzerland also has postcard-worthy lakes, charming villages and one of the highest standards of living in the world. Of course, perfection comes at a price: holidays in Switzerland are traditionally among the most expensive. But that is also changing. More on that in a minute.

Are there any travel restrictions in Switzerland?

There are no COVID-19 related entry restrictions for visitors to Switzerland. No proof of vaccination, recovery or testing is required. Switzerland has open borders with its neighboring countries, so there are generally no barriers to entering the country.

Basel gets busy this fall

Basel in northwestern Switzerland is seeing its biggest drop in visitors since 2019. Visitors come to this quiet town near the French and German border to enjoy the vibrant fall foliage and the Herbstmesse (flower fair) ‘fall).

The festivities, which end this weekend, attract travelers from all over Switzerland, southern Germany and Alsace. Artisans sell everything from handmade candles to Christmas decorations. And there are plenty of traditional dishes, including Leckerly (gingerbread) and a sweet pastry called Magenbrot.

This year’s autumn fair was packed not only with locals, but also with American and British tourists cruising the Rhine. Riverboats dock just half a mile from the fair, giving them a welcome break from cruising food.

“Basel has a reputation for art, and that’s one of the reasons visitors come here,” says Natascha Martin, spokesperson for Basel Tourism.

Street art is everywhere, from the spray-painted Bentley parked in front of the Hôtel des Trois Rois to the huge murals painted by the Art4000 collective.

And, of course, there’s the Kunstmuseum Basel, said to be the oldest public art collection in the world. A fascinating display of Zerissene Kunst (shipwrecked modernism) acquired during World War II is among its current exhibits.

Basel may also be one of the few places where you can cycle around three countries in one afternoon. Pick up an e-bike from the Hauptbahnhof (main train station) and cross the Rhine into Germany to visit the Fondation Beyeler, the famous museum of modern art. Then turn left and cross the Rhine into France to see Huningue or Saint-Louis, then cycle back to Switzerland.

Tourism officials say December will be one of the busiest months. The main attraction is the Christmas market, one of the oldest and largest in Switzerland and recently voted one of the best Christmas markets in Europe. Other winter attractions include the various live shows at the Palazzo Colombino and, of course, the Basel Carnival in February and March.

What’s going on in Zurich?

In Zürich, Switzerland’s largest city, there are also events and new attractions to attract winter visitors. Zürich has its own Christmas market, which rivals some of the best in Europe. The event, which runs from November 24 to December 24, takes place in the Old Town and next to a 50-foot-tall Christmas tree at Christkindlimarkt at Zurich Central Station.

The new FIVE Zürich hotel opened this summer and is in full swing this autumn. Dubai’s offshoot of the hip FIVE Palm Jumeirah is by far the most Instagrammable property this side of the Alps. Neon lights light up the hallways, hand-blown glass artwork hangs from the ceilings, and floor-to-ceiling murals of celebrities who stayed at the hotel before it became FIVE adorn the walls. The former Atlantis Hotel has hosted rock stars like Freddie Mercury and sports icons like Muhammad Ali.

“People come to shop, see the sights and enjoy the nightlife,” says managing director Markus Rapatz. And they are already arriving in large numbers in high season. Hotel occupancy is running at 85% this month, he said.

In winter, the city also becomes a stopover for visitors to Swiss ski resorts. Tourism officials say it’s possible to stay in town and head to one of the nearby resorts in the morning. But there are essential experiences — waking up in the morning to make the first tracks in the snow and après-ski in the evening — that you would miss.

Zürich is an attractive destination even for skiing widows and widowers — spouses who prefer not to ski or snowboard. In addition to shopping, which is not for the weak, there are cultural attractions worth seeing. These include the Landesmuseum Zürich, which features exhibits on Swiss history, and a historic old town that dates back to Roman times, when the city was called Turicum.

There are also several new attractions, including an extension to the modern art museum, Kunsthaus Zürich, and a new chocolate museum, Lindt Home of Chocolate.

Is travel to Switzerland affordable for US visitors?

Switzerland doesn’t exactly have a reputation for being affordable. I spoke with Bernard Gademann, who runs the Institut auf dem Rosenberg boarding school, and he estimates that a holiday in Switzerland is generally 30-40% more expensive than in other parts of Europe.

“The question is whether a holiday in Switzerland can add more value,” he added. “I think so.”

But visitors like Truitt are already seeing that value through the economy.

“Lift tickets are much cheaper than in the United States,” he says. “I also find the cost of accommodation to be very reasonable compared to the cost of accommodation at western ski resorts.”

Wait, Switzerland is a valuable destination? As counterintuitive as it may sound, there’s something to it, says Jakub Kasperczyk, managing director for Switzerland at Blueground, a serviced apartment rental company.

“With high global inflation, rising interest rates and increasingly expensive global travel, Switzerland could potentially benefit from an increased influx of visitors,” he said. “Compared to other places, a stay in Switzerland costs less than in recent years.”

But everything is relative. Adam Roy, CEO of Swiss luxury vacation property provider The Volla, said demand remains high at the top of the market – where the likes of Truitt are.

“However, the middle market has tapered off in recent months in what we see as a response to the rising cost of living and the strength of the Swiss franc,” he says. “However, the domestic market is still buoyant and we are seeing US demand more than ever.”

Roy says if you’re interested in visiting Switzerland, you shouldn’t wait until the last minute to book. He says the traditional ski season runs from December to Easter. But it peaks around Christmas, New Years and Spring Break.

“Availability is often scarce and can also be more expensive,” he told me. “If you are traveling during this time, I recommend that you book your accommodation and any restaurant reservations in advance to ensure you are not disappointed.”

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