Winter Tourism in Switzerland

Tourism in Switzerland stretches back to the early 19th century, when the once forbidding mountains of the Alps became seen as embodiments of a natural order and attracted literary figures from Europe and the Americas. Byron, Shelley, Dickens, Conan Doyle, Twain and many others found beauty and majesty in the landscape, and after them came those who would conquer the mountains, enjoy the summer scenery or recuperate in one of the Alpine spa towns. One enterprising St Moritz hotelier wagered some English summer tourists that they would enjoy the winter too, and they did, and sparked an increasing interest in winter tourism amongst the well heeled English middle classes. In adapting Nordic ski techniques, organizing competitions and convincing the railway companies to keep their cog railways running through the winter months, the English laid the foundations of the modern winter sports industry, although the Swiss also proved to be enterprising and extremely capable hosts.  Davos, St Moritz, Arosa, Leysin, Adelboden and the Jungfrau region were by the turn of the twentieth century well-established destinations for winter tourists.

Switzerland has the longest established and one of the most successful winter tourism industries in the world. It is also meticulously documented, and in July the review of the 2009 year in tourism, “Schweizer Tourismus in Zahlen”, was published by the STV, Switzerland’s Tourism Federation.

Tourism accounts for around 5% of Swiss export revenue, around 15 billion Swiss Francs in 2009. During the 2008-9 winter season, of a total 15.8 million overnight stays in the country, roughly 6.9 million were by Swiss, 2.8 million were by Germans, 1 million by people from the UK, 0.7m by French and half a million each by Americans, Dutch and Italians. Belgians, Russians and Nordics also spend more than a quarter of a million nights in the country.

Although overall more visitors come to Switzerland in the summer than the winter, the British come more in the winter. The most popular destinations throughout the year were (in order of number of overnight stays in hotels):

  1. Zurich (11871 beds)
  2. Geneva (10230 beds)
  3. Zermatt (6040 beds)
  4. Lucerne (5577 beds)
  5. Basel (5662 beds)
  6. Davos (5334 beds)
  7. St. Moritz (4196 beds)
  8. Lausanne (3869 beds)
  9. Bern (3516 beds)
  10. Interlaken (3084 beds)
  11. Lugano (2889 beds)
  12. Grindelwald (2949 beds)
  13. Arosa (2867 beds)

It is indicative of how important the tourist industry is that Zermatt attracts more visitors than Basel, a major international centre for exhibitions and the pharmaceutical industry, and Davos and St Moritz more than the capital, Bern.

The destinations which achieved the Families Welcome designation for  2009–2012 were: Diemtigtal, Haslital with Hasliberg and Meiringen, Lenk Simmental, Arosa, Brigels, Davos Klosters, Flims, Laax, Falera, Trin, Sagogn, Lenzerheide, Maloja, Savognin, Schwarzsee, Braunwald-Klausenpass, Toggenburg, Triesenberg Malbun Steg, Villars with Gryon, Bex, Aletsch Arena with Bettmeralp, Fiesch, Eggishorn and Riederalp Mörel, Bellwald, Crans-Montana, Grächen, Leukerbad, Nendaz, Saas-Fee/Saastal and Engelberg-Titlis.

The corresponding award for wellness resorts went to Bad Zurzach, Charmey, Scuol, Gstaad Saanenland , Leukerbad, Baden, and Weggis Vitznau Rigi.

The proportion of pistes with snow-making in 2008-9 made up over a third of the total, a trebling in only 5 years and a demonstration of how much the Swiss are increasingly investing in their winter sports infrastructure. Total skier days for the season numbered almost 35 million.

Around 180 Swiss ski and snowboard schools provided over 2 million lessons over the course of the season, Graubünden and Valais making up roughly two thirds of this number.

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Freeriding Switzerland

Switzerland has some of the best back country skiing and snowboarding in the world. If you’re prepared to don skins or snowshoes and trek beyond the higher lift stations you can enjoy virgin powder snow and spectacular scenery. If you prefer to have your ascents covered by lifts, however, there are still plenty of places where you can make your own tracks and escape the hoi polloi.

Many resorts in Switzerland have unprepared marked trails (denoted in yellow on piste maps) which, whilst ungroomed and unpatrolled are generally safe to use when open. Many slopes, such as those off Mont Fort in the Four Vallées ski area, at Engstligenalp near Adelboden or at Belalp-Betten and are often not even marked but require only modest care to use. There are spectacular off-piste runs from many other resorts which safely weave across and between pistes, although it should not be assumed that because virgin snow is close to a run that it is invariably safe to go there.

Some of the very best, accessible freeriding can be found  off Titlis at Engelberg, off the Gemsstock in Andermatt, off the Wissmeilen from Flumserberg or Pizol, from lenzerheide down to Arosa, above Zermatt and Saas-Fee, Piz Bernina in the Engadin and all around Davos. It should go without saying that all off-piste skiing and snowboarding has risks, and that local knowledge should always be sought before embarking on freeriding.

There is a huge amount of literature in German, and to a lesser extent, French, on skiing and snowboarding backcountry in Switzerland. The only comprehensive text in English is the 1963 translation of Walter Pause’s “Salute the Skier – the hundred best ski runs in the Alps”. I hope to revisit many of the Swiss runs he identified and update the information he provided, but interestingly I have so far found the guide to have dated far less than the colourful prose it employs. The major change is that many runs which required skins at the time are now wholly or largely served by ski lifts.

Beyond simply going off-piste Switzerland provides some of the most spectacular ski mountaineering and ski touring supported by a network of 153 mountain huts managed by the Swiss Alpine Club which provides almost 10,000 high altitude beds throughout the year. Bill O’Connor has published a series of books entitled “Alpine Ski Mountaineering”, available from Amazon, which provide the most authoritative English-language guides on the subject.

An excellent series of Freeride maps, based on the maps of the Swiss Federal Office of Topography, are available from Not cheap, but useful since they are in English. Many books are available on freeriding Switzerland, but not in English.

But probably the best way to enjoy backcountry skiing and snowboarding in Switzerland is to do it with somebody who has done it before. The English Forum bulletin board is a good place to seek experienced English-speaking skiers and snowboarders who may be open to having you join them. Also The Ski Club of Great Britain has representatives in eight resorts who will guide members on-piste, and sometimes off-piste for free. Ski guiding from experienced guides does not come cheap, but for a group it works out realtively affordable, and many ski guiding companies organise trips that are open to anyone with the required minimum technical skills. A good place to start is the Swiss Mountain Guide Association who have literally hundreds of members to choose from.  Some other organizations offering ski touring include:

Freeski Guide – West Switzerland

Snow & Rock – Valais

Alpine Ski Touring Holidays

Mountain Tracks


Saas-Fee Guides

Mountain Guide Office Saas-Grund

Active Dreams Mountain Guides Weissmies

St Moritz

Suvretta Snowsports

Val D’Annivers

Mountain Reality Bergschule Uri


La Fantastique Mountain Guide


Verbier Sport


Zermatt Alpine Centre

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Green Skiing and Snowboarding

On the face of it hurtling down a mountain amidst all of it’s natural splendour under your own power appears to be making the most of the environment. It isn’t. Getting there has had an environmental impact. According to SnowCarbon a typical round trip to the Alps from London by plane produces around 180kg of CO2 per person, whilst an average car will produce 450kg of CO2. The round trip by rail, in contrast, would produce only 20kg of CO2 per person.

Here are the climate impact per passenger kilometre in grammes of CO2 for various means of travel as reported by the Swiss Public Transport Association and TimeforaChange: long distance rail 7, regional rail 13, motor coach 53, regional bus 107, passenger car 187, air 375.

Snow Carbon provide rail-based holidays to a number of Swiss Resorts. Ski Freshtracks from the Ski Club of Great Britain offer environmentally-friendly holiday options, and Crystal, include an optional carbon offset fee to make their flights carbon-neutral. Responsible Travel provide a large number of eco-friendly holidays, including winter sports in Switzerland.

There are also some eco-friendly places to stay once you get to the resorts. Perhaps the best example is Whitepod above Villars.

In the resort itself there is much that can be done to reduce the environmental impact. Put plastic bottles in PET waste rather than regular waste, use recycle facilities wherever possible and avoid littering the slopes.  Thomas Allement, project leader of the Summit Foundation, quoted in SwissInfo said of the areas around the bottom of ski lifts: “You can find up to 30,000 cigarette ends at such places… and when you know that depending on where each one is it can pollute up to 500 litres of water, you can imagine the impact that has. And remember they can find their way into the intestines of fish, cows etc., it’s a whole ecosystem that’s affected.”.

Many parts of Switzerland, such as Lenzerheide and Engelberg, have resisted pressure to create “mega resorts” because of environmental concerns.  And many resorts have adopted environmental measures to reduce the environmental impact of tourism. The Ski Club of Great Britain publishes a register, provided by SaveourSnow, of many resorts and their environmental credentials. In summary, based on a checklist of recycling, green power user, traffic reduction, sewage properly managed, climate policy and green building policy, these are the ratings of Swiss resorts in the register:

Arosa 6
Davos 6
Flims 6
Laax 6
Saas Fee 6
Adelboden 5
Grindelwald 5
Verbier 5
Crans Montana 4
Engelberg 4
Lenzerheide 4
Murren 4
St Moritz 4
Wengen 4
Gstaad 3
Les Diablerets 3
Villars 3
Zermatt 3
Leysin 2
Chateau d’Oex 1
Kandersteg 1
Klosters 1

It’s a very rough guide to environmental measures and I recommend you sign up to the Ski Club or SaveourSnow to find out more. Summit Riders  also provides a guide  to the environmental policies of Swiss resorts here.

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Airolo Re-opens

Image courtesy of

Airolo, the largest ski resort in Ticino, re-opens this year after being closed for the entire 2009-10 season. Weather permitting, the resort will be open at weekends from 4th December and throughout the week from the 18th December. The resort boasts 30km of piste and is the home ski resort for Lara Gut, amongst others.

After it’s closure, Valbianca SA, financed by the canton and local commune, acquired the Airolo-Pesciüm site at auction for SFr 70,000. Although the facility is estimated as being worth Sfr 7m, it has required a huge investment to bring it up to the standards required to be both safe and attractive to winter sports enthusiasts.

Airolo-Pesciüm lies on the south side of the Gotthard Tunnel and has a rail station, making it a convenient ski resort to get to from Northern Switzerland.  The resort is covered by the discounted Swiss Railways Snow’n’Rail scheme, and a complimentary bus service is provided from the rail station during the winter sports season.

The ski region infrastructure comprises one gondola, one chair lift and two surface lifts. The top station is at 2250m and the vertical descent is almost 1200 metres, with the six pistes largely catering for intermediate skiers.

Airolo Piste Map
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