Dining on herbs and mud, China's ultra-rich discover Switzerland

VIP tourists opt for wild and wacky tours - and they don't come cheap, although some visits are paid for by Swiss banks to cultivate business

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 July, 2013, 3:26pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 31 July, 2013, 3:46am

A Swiss bank has paid for some 20 "high net-worth" clients from mainland China to travel to its Alpine headquarters and collect mud and grass that they will later eat.

The invitation reflects how the central European country has found a unique way to appeal to an increasing number of mainland VIP tourists roaming the world for a novel experience.

Among the quirky tour options, visitors can be guided by a "crazy cook who calls himself an alchemist", said Peter Zombori, founder of Premium Switzerland, a service provider that caters to the ultra-rich.

Avant-garde chef Stefan Wiesner, owner of the Gasthof Rössli hotel, "takes groups on horses, rides with them into nature, collects herbs and soil, and he puts the meat into the soil and prepares lunch for them", said Zombori. 

"We kind of force them to do that," he said. "They don't have that in mind right away. If you live in Beijing, there is no nature. It's just big skyscrapers and lots of traffic." 

Of the 500 to 600 clients Zombori said he had hosted last year in Switzerland, 40 were Chinese with assets above US$50 million. A year earlier, the figure was only 15. An additional 100 to 120 Chinese of his clients last year were affluent with a "few million plus", he said.

The number of Chinese visitors to Switzerland reached 60,821 in May, an increase of 18 per cent from a year earlier, according to the Swiss Federal Statistical Office. 

Swiss media have also noted the booming trend. About 100 buses of Chinese tour groups cross from Switzerland into Italy every week, Swiss daily Tagesanzeiger has reported. And 8 per cent of the guests at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Zurich are Chinese, the local Neue Zürcher Zeitung said last month. The number of Chinese tourists in Switzerland's commercial hub increased some 40 per cent last year, from 2011.

But the Alpine nation, known for its discreet bankers and dashing timepieces, has set its sights on China's richest. China has an estimated 1.3 million millionaires and 851 households with more than US$100 million in private wealth, the Boston Consulting Group said in May.

Chinese account for 4.5 per cent of summer guests at the Kempinski Grand Hotel des Bains, one of Saint Moritz's finest, said the hotel's Betina Welter. "The number of Chinese individual guests has been continually increasing," she said. 

Unlike Zombori's Russian or Arab clients, who travel on their own account, most Chinese VIP visits are by invitation from banks, he said.

"It depends on the efforts of the Swiss banks. They are very much focused on the Chinese market," he said.

The typical wealthy Chinese tourist spends three to four days in the country, and then travels to Milan, London, Paris or Germany's Trier, where Karl Marx was born.

Zombori rents out chalets that cost HK$250,000 to HK$2 million a week. He also organises tours to watch manufacturers and cheesemakers, as well as hikes through the pristine Alps.

He hosted his first Chinese client five years ago and recalls how over the years, the Chinese have continued to surprise him. His first Chinese client, "the owner of a very large internet search engine, was not our typical Chinese top VIP".

"He was low-key, until he passed a watch store and spontaneously bought two watches the price of a house," he said.

One Chinese family chose to travel by train from Paris on their first trip to Europe, which Zombori facilitated. He took them to Gstaad, a picturesque mountain village of 7,000 inhabitants, where the son asked to buy a Ferrari.

The father and son left the village for Milan in a red two-seater, while the rest in their group took the train to the northern Italian city, Zombori said.

Another recent trend is seeing rich Chinese heading to Switzerland for medical treatment including post-cancer rehabilitation and as an anti-stress remedy, he said. A week-long stay can cost HK$420,000.

The next challenge for Switzerland will be to convince China's richest to enroll their children into Swiss boarding schools, some of the world's most prestigious and expensive private schools. But, Zombori said, it's difficult to convince Chinese to stay in the country long-term.

"It's so clean that you can eat from the street, but I could imagine that Switzerland is not the most dynamic place," he said. "It's a place of escape. They are happy to go back to their culturally safe environment."