Rain or shine, blizzard or flood, Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) media spokesman Roland Binz says, federal rail passengers reach their destinations about 96 percent of the time with less than five minutes delay.
It’s this obsession with clockwork arrivals and departures that gives the Swiss a major head start as hosts to foreign tourists.
The advantage has become a major selling point since the Berne-based Swiss Travel System (STS) opened a SBB subsidiary office in London in 1989.
STS head Hugo Furrer pointed out the vital role of punctuality. The main STS marketing tool, Furrer says, remains the reliability of all mass transit in a small alpine nation with integrated barrier-free transfer rights.
The STS message to English-language tourists in London (the largest segment of arrivals in this alpine country) as well as visitors already in Switzerland: buy a Swiss “all-in-one” ticket or “Swiss pass” and avoid holiday delay nightmares.
At the heart of this strategy, the STS head says, lies a means of speeding up crossovers at rail, bus, lake cruiser, alpine cable car and funicular transfer points. It takes effect upon entry within Swiss borders — and well before tourists reach their hotel destinations.
First, Furrer says, the program aims to assure seamless arrivals at major Swiss railway centers. That’s where travelers will step out of coaches from neighboring countries.
But the tourist may wish to enjoy excursions along the way without needing to worry about his luggage. Let’s say it’s a visit to the William Tell Museum in the Swiss heartland town of Bürglen and later a stopover at the Jungfraujoch “Ice Palace” high in the central alps.
The all-in-one ticket, or Swiss Pass, serves as the passenger’s proof-of-payment at each transfer point. The sightseeing venture could involve an SBB train, a postal bus, a lake cruiser and a private cogwheel railway to the ridge of the towering Jungfrau. Yet the flash pass, as Metz explained, permits quick-and-easy boarding at each point along the way.
Furrer says STS offices sold more than 241,000 “all-in-one” tickets in 2007 — a figure earning the SBB outlet SFr. 59.3 million. Observers expect this figure to increase in 2008.
One crucial reason: the reluctance of many incoming foreign tourists to pay new airline surcharges including baggage fees if they can book rail tours instead.
In some resorts – for instance, Davos — hotels may offer guests complementary bus passes to relieve congestion on the town’s busy shopping promenade. And Engadine tourists can buy half-price skiing tickets for cable cars serving slopes at Corvatsch and Diavolezza. Free bus tickets aren’t provided at Interlaken hotels. But “all-in-one” ticket-holders can now gain entry to museums nationwide.
SBB media consultant Metz admits that there’s always behind-the-scene grumbling from all-in-one ticket partner firms claiming that they’re short-changed in their share of compensation funds received. Yet these carriers lack the SBB’s marketing resources, so they usually settle for their allotments without serious protest.
In rare cases, a community like Davos may pull out of the program because, as Furrer puts it, “it doesn’t see the advantage of taking part in it.” The STS official says his agency has received “a lot of complaints from British customers” over the Davos pullout. He obviously hopes the town that hosts the World Economic Forum will reconsider its move.
However, Furrer calls the pullout by Davos and a few other Grisons resorts “exceptions.” At the same time he concedes that the STS hasn’t had “big success” in integrating local bus service within the all-in-one ticket “because hotels don’t market it enough.”
Other European countries — the Dutch particularly — might be expected to offer the Swiss stiff competition to the STS “all-in-one” travel plan. Furrer agrees, but the Netherlands has mounted no strong challenge so far.