James Shillinglaw | September 28, 2015 12:00 PM ET
Zermatt's Magic Mountain
It remains one of the most spectacular and most photographed mountains in the world, familiar to most as an icon of the Switzerland and the Swiss alps. I'm referring here, of course, to the Matterhorn, also known as Mt. Cervin and Mt. Cervino, to use two of the country’s other languages.
And it was under the Matterhorn in Zermatt last week that Switzerland Tourism staged its 18th Swiss Travel Mart (STM), the first to be held in a mountain destination and also the first to be held outdoors.
More than 1,000 delegates, including 500 tour operators and travel trade journalists from over 50 countries, as well as 350 Swiss suppliers representing regional travel and tourism products, met in small chalets specially constructed for the event in the center of town.
The North American delegation of buyers and media turned out to be the largest, which is perhaps fitting because the U.S. and Canada continue to be major source markets for Switzerland. Indeed, tourism from the U.S. to Switzerland is surging, with overnight visitors up 5.5 percent in the January-July period this year compared with the same period last year, according to Alex Herrmann, director-Americas for Switzerland Tourism. The increase in visitors is due at least in part to a better exchange rate, with the value of the dollar against the Swiss franc rising 3.1 percent from the same time last year and 4 percent since 2012.
Switzerland also is benefiting because it has tourism products that appear to address the latest travel trends, with visitors focused on pre- and post-river cruising, active travel, wellness, scenic train journeys and family travel, among other forms of travel. The country's newest travel campaigns also have resonated by promoting the “Grand Tour of Switzerland,” a 1,000-mile drive tour using a GPS, and the “Grand Rail Tour of Switzerland,” which uses the country's excellent rail system and scenic trains to explore key destinations.
For me, however, the fact that STM was in Zermatt was a huge draw. I first visited the mountain resort town with my family when I was 7 years old. We were living in Switzerland at the time and I instantly fell in love with Zermatt. Over the years I've probably visited Zermatt 15 times to hike and to ski. Indeed, I learned how to ski in the mountains around the town, up around the Gornergrat cog railway and the Matterhorn itself.
I also fell in love with the Matterhorn, which became my favorite mountain to draw or paint when I was a kid. Later on I began taking lots of photos as well, from nearly every angle and in all kinds of weather conditions. Last week I kept up with the photos, taking shots of the Matterhorn at dawn, during the day, at dusk and even when it was partially obscured by clouds. I've been fascinated with the beauty and history of the mountain for a good part of my life.
PHOTO: The Matterhorn remains one of the most photographed mountains in the world. (Photo by James Shillinglaw)
Zermatt this year celebrated the 150th anniversary of the first ascent of the Matterhorn by a team led by Englishman Edward Whymper. Unfortunately four climbers on that team were killed on the descent, though Whymper survived to tell the tale. Other climbers have perished on the mountain as well over the years; you can find their last resting places in the graveyard next to the Church of St. Mauritius in Zermatt.
These days the Matterhorn is considered to be a far easier climb and many have succeeded in reaching the summit. But the allure of the mountain remains for hikers and skiers. You just can't take a hike or ski down a run without stopping multiple times to gaze on the sharply angular peak that dominates the skyline.
And last week I was able to see the Matterhorn from multiple angles--from my hotel, the Parkhotel Beau Site, located on the other side of the river in town, with a beautiful view of the mountain; from the Gornergrat; from the top of the cable car parallel to the mountain (although it was largely obscured by clouds); and during a hike down from the Furi cable car station to the town.
Zermatt itself has changed over the years, as befits a major and highly popular mountain destination. Where once the town was mostly located on the right side of the valley on one side of the river (when looking at the Matterhorn), development has now been extended across the entire valley, with new hotels, chalets and restaurants.
Zermatt's main ski areas—on the right side of the valley (Rothorn), at the top of the Gornergrat, just to the left of the Matterhorn (Matterhorn Glacier Paradise) and Schwarzee—are now completely connected by an intricate and speedy series of gondolas and chairlifts. They are even building a new run down from the ski area on the right side of the valley.
There are now nearly 150 hotels in Zermatt averaging about 50 rooms each, though new hotel development has slowed in recent years. Yes, there are still the five- or four-star-plus classic properties, like the Grand Hotel Zermatterhof, the Mont Cervin Palace, the Hotel Monte Rosa and the Parkhotel Beau Site, where I stayed and which has spectacular views of the Matterhorn. There are also relatively new five-star properties, such as the Cervo Zermatt and the Omnia.
But there are a number of great three- and four-star properties that also deliver a great guest experience and spectacular views as well. Most of these are still family owned; you won't find chain hotels in Zermatt! Indeed, such Zermatt families as Biner, Herren and Julen continue to dominate the hotel scene. I even sat with members of all three families at the closing gala dinner last week.
These families have chosen to live and work in a place that draws thousands of visitors every winter for skiing and every summer for hiking. And every day they wake up to the same glorious sight that entrances those visitors—the jagged, snowy rock known as the Matterhorn. If ever there was a mountain that embodies a country, it's the Matterhorn, which truly is the symbol of Swiss tourism.
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