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The Swiss tourism industry is worried about its summer season. Tourists from overseas are sorely lacking. The country's mountain summits look deserted, and the coffers appear to be empty on our trip to Engelberg.
A cable car crosses over the last mountain ridge on its journey. At the summit station on Titlis Glacier at 3,000 meters above sea level, a magnificent Alpine panorama lies at its visitors' feet. Even in mid-summer, there's snow making crunchy noises under your shoes.
There's plenty to do here as well: First, you can take a selfie at dizzying heights on the Cliff Walk – Europe's highest-lying suspension bridge, then take a brief look deep into an artificial glacial grotto, experiencing a back-to-the-Ice Age moment.
The Mount Titlis Cableway, which was the world's first rotating cable car, offers an all-round view on the trip to the summit
And that's what a trip to the region was like for many tourists from overseas before the pandemic – with many coming from Asia, in particular India. Among the highlights of their tour of Europe was invariably Engelberg's Mount Titlis in central Switzerland.
Frequently used as a backdrop in Bollywood films, it's become better known in Asia than it is in Europe. At one-second intervals, modern cable cars used to take visitors in hiking gear or in saris to the summit, with up to 5,000 tourists visiting a day.
In the summer of 2021, it's all quiet on Mount Titlis. The overseas tourists are lacking – and not only there. Hotels across the country complain that they run at 20% capacity because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It's a historic drop in numbers: "Not since the Second World War have there been so few overnight stays in hotels," says Jörg Krebs from Switzerland Tourism.
At the height of summer in 2021, most of the Titlis cable cars with the Swiss national flag decorating its sides remain empty. "In May and in June, we've normally had cable cars packed with visitors from Asia," says Fabian Appenzeller, sales manager of Titlis Mountain Railways. "This enabled us fill out the usually quieter summer season really well. As a result, our cable cars were working to capacity all year round. We probably won't see productivity levels like those before the pandemic until 2023," Appenzeller explains.
Engelberg reports that it has registered about 50% fewer overnight stays in its hotels in 2020 – and that actually means it's doing comparatively well. The town has been able to compensate at least to some extent for the lack of visitors from overseas.
"We have seen a marked increase in guests from Switzerland, Germany, France and the Benelux countries," explains Andres Lietha, managing director of Engelberg Tourism.
Engelberg now wants to increase the options it offers to Swiss visitors and other Europeans, appealing both to families with children and individual tourists seeking to experience closeness with nature. Alpine chalets, climbing parks and charming hotels are now offering complimentary holiday programs in summer and autumn so children can go climb and cycle, experience treasure hunts and explore farms under supervision, while their parents can enjoy their own tourist agendas for a few hours while going hiking or relaxing in a spa.
The operators of the Brunni railways on the other side of the village started focusing on families holidays several years ago already. This strategy is now paying off. On Mount Brunni, a summer toboggan run and Alpine playground have been established. Rock climbing, hiking, paragliding, and tours on e-mountain bikes are all on offer.
And on this side of the valley, they don't just pay lip service when it comes to sustainability: their cable cars and chair lifts are Switzerland's only carbon-neutral mountain cableway service, receiving their energy supply from the company's own solar power plant.
Nicole Eller Risi, director of Engelberg's Valley Museum is convinced that "looking back at the past sharpens our view of the future." The small museum informs visitors about the rise of this once-unsightly mountain village with a monastery at its center, focusing on how it turned into a sophisticated mountain holiday resort.
By the late 19th century, a couple of grand hotels had been built in Engelberg. The village developed into a gathering place for European high society – until the First World War broke out, and the decline of the luxury hotels began. At that time, the village discovered winter sports as a powerful tourist attraction, and decided to provide access to its highest local peak, Mount Titlis, using modern cable cars.
Nowadays, Engelberg is one of Switzerland's most popular tourist resorts in winter and summer alike. Surrounded by 3,000-meter peaks in a high mountain valley, the village with its 4,000 residents is easy to reach, located about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Lucerne and 80 from Zurich.
It has its own railway station as well as a well-developed, long-standing, independent infrastructure. In addition, it boasts 2,000 hotel beds, several hundred holiday apartments and houses as well as a camping site that's open all year.
In the early 1990s, tour operators from Asia discovered Engelberg as the ideal destination for day trips. Coach trips from Lucerne up to Mount Titlis became a fixed item on the agenda for tourists from overseas traveling in Europe. This turned into an important source of income for Engelberg.
COVID-19 has now made more than clear how great the dependence on that additional source of income actually was. Without visitors from Asia, the town's coffers remain empty. Deserted mountain summits and empty hotels cannot provide job security.
And because of that, Engelberg is now harking back to the qualities it's always been known for: the tradition of its spas and luxury hotels, and its proximity to nature.
With the flow of overseas tourists drying up, a fresh emphasis is now being placed on attracting families and vacationers who want to enjoy nature and the outdoors. A small cable car that seats eight people runs from the far end of Engelberg valley to the Fürenalp.
One cabin goes up, as another comes down. That's it. The operators have consistently dismissed proposals to install larger cabins, saying mass tourism is unsuitable for the region and that it would destroy the area's rustic character.
Once you reach the summit, it's a short hike to the nearest Alpine chalet, which offers cheese tastings - or you can stay and spend several days hiking there. Engelberg's Alpine Cheese Trail runs nearly 50 kilometers through the picturesque countryside, connecting seven cheese-making dairies.
André Wolfensberger from Engelberg Tourism calls the Surenental, a high mountain valley that winds all the way to the neighboring canton, "Little Patagonia." Four farmers and their families associated with the Surenen Alpine dairy cooperative graze their 120 cows here. They spend their summers up here, and also offer family accommodation.
To get an impression of work in the mountains, where hay is sometimes still turned and bundled by hand, anyone interested in the mountain farmers' strenuous daily routine can spend the night in mountain inns and take a Buiräbähnli Safari - a multi-day hike combined with a ride on the Buiräbähnli, the cable cars once used by local farmers to transport materials.
Tourism managing director Andres Lietha is convinced that "regardless of the pandemic, there will be a shift from group tours to individual travelers." The idea is to attract well-heeled city-dwellers from all over the world to the mountains. Much is being modernized and newly built in Engelberg to that end.
One showcase project is the "Kempinski Palace Engelberg Titlis Swiss Alps" hotel, a centrally-located and newly renovated grand hotel that used to be called the "Europäischer Hof." Even the abbot of the 900-year-old monastery has given it his blessing.
With sumptuous rooms and suites, it targets a wealthy, international clientele. Opening it during a pandemic is risky, but hotel director Andreas Magnus is taking a restrained approach: he plans a gradual start for the 5-star hotel with its 129 beds. He doesn't yet plan to run at full capacity. The bar, restaurant and winter garden will also be accessible to outside customers.
Engelberg, however, is also juggling to reconcile the differing needs of all its visitors: Some are concentrating on luxury and grandeur, while overseas tourists are used to seeing highlights at a lightning pace. Meanwhile, family holidaymakers from Europe want some peace, quiet and relaxation in the seclusion of the mountains.
The break from business-as-usual enforced by the pandemic provides an opportunity for Engelberg to re-think its strategy for the future. The ultimate objective of Engelberg is to find the strength to become resilient to future changes and potential crises.
The question of whether tourist groups from Asia will once again start to travel to Mount Titlis for single day trips and then return to their hotels in Lucerne or Zurich, and whether this will be part of the mix of future success stories of the town, remains unanswered for now.