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Saas Fee – could it be close to in-destination visitor travel perfection?
8th September 2023
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Oh heck. I’m giddy after a meeting with Matthias Supersaxo, head of Sass Fee Tourismus (and a big thank you for your time Matthias).

In short… OK, Saas Fee “the pearl of the alps” is a bit drop-dead gorgeous… mountains and glaciers keeping guard over the village, traditional timber barns and houses mixed in with inevitable newer visitor accommodation buildings.

Entrance into Saas Fee

But the bit making me giddy is the transport & tourism stuff. I’m here to dig underneath both Saas Fee being car-free and the Saastal Card.

Sass Fee was only connected by road to the rest of the Saastal valley in 1951. The community – in an example of pretty progressive thinking at the time I am assuming – decided that the village was going to remain car free to preserve its sense of calm and safety. All hail the Saas Fee community of the 1950s! Being practical, whilst cars could squeeze through the village, it would have made a mess of things. I guess this has been locked-in since through spatial planning – new developments designed without cars. I am still drafting the “so what does the visitor experience of traffic-free destinations feel like” – so will leave that for now.

It’s the Saastal Card than really made my jaw drop. OK, as an overnight visitor, I pay €7 visitor levy. But here’s the auto-generated email response I received after booking my accommodation:

Please send us the names and dates of birth of all the guests and an email address so that we can prepare and send you your SaastalCard! With SaastalCard you can use IN SUMMER all cable cars (excl. Metro Alpin; skiing not incl.) in Saas-Fee and Saas-Almagell as well as PostAuto buses in Saas Valley for free. Moreover, there are other discounts with the SaastalCard (parking, swimming, minigolf…)

I am still waiting to find the downside. Just to be clear, this lets me get anywhere I want to go while I’m here.

Whilst objectively this sounds great, what it does is take the cost element out of deciding what to do. This afternoon, I’m taking a cable car to then go for a long(ish) run (er, maybe bit of a plod) across Alpine pastures, gazing at glaciers to drop into the main Saastal valley, then get the postbus back to the village. It’s back to that “quality of visitor experience” thing… do I need to say anything else?? Which postbus? when will it leave??… it really doesn’t matter – they come along at least every 30 minutes, which means that the “worst” that might happen is that I’m forced onto the terrace of a local cafe for cake and/or a beer. Hellish life. There’s something going on here about a social contract as a visitor – because the destination is making it easy to have a brilliant day out for “free”, I am more than happy to spend in its local cafes; it’s hardly a drag anyway, but the decision will be tipped. It’s real-world Cialdini Reciprocation (but in a good way) for the marketeers out there.

Matthias pointed out that part of their destination marketing – in places like Zurich – includes the Sasstal Card providing free mobility – including cablecars; this has great appeal particularly to families and I can understand why… we (well, I) am designing our return visit already.

Don’t think that’s enough though. Later this year they are replacing all local buses with electric ones and increasing their frequencies. Oh, and they start at about 6am and run till about midnight. Ish. Oh come on… do the details really matter when things are this good?

I am finding that I am both inspired & giddily optimistic and in despair. The latter is when I compare this with places in the UK. The arguments against visitor levies in the UK just look bewildering from here. I asked Matthias – as I also did with Karmen Mentil (Alpine Pearls) a few years ago – about local business attitudes to the visitor levy. The both looked at me oddly and turned the question backwards, asking why busineses wouldn’t like it; businesses see the Saastal Card – and all of its benefits – as a key component in how they market a holiday to Saas Fee & Sasstal. It is this incomprehension – that I even raise the question – that is more intersting than their answer.

How about turning this back to the UK? To hell with it – it needs saying… Take the Lake District – about 15m visitors per year, and (I’m guessing – so forgive the bucket chemistry) – 5m overnight stays. Let’s drop €7 to say £5 – and I think that nets about £25m per year. In comparison, the 4-year GoLakes Travel programme had a total budget of about £7m – so <£2m per year. Pull visitor cars back to entrances, make all travel within free – which also means free travel for residents. And with £25m, this means early-morning to late-night, high frequency shuttles pretty much everywhere. For the Lake District, I’d add in (subsidised?) boats, bikes, ebikes and Werfenweng-style “fun e-mobility”. I’m am not a marketing professional, but how does that compare with the current situtation?

And the downsides? Matthias said construction was difficult in a car-free village with narrow streets. Whether you like cable cars & their infrastructure is a personal matter of course (but the access it gives is pretty incredible…). The big dirty elephant here is the 3000 space car park on the edge of the village; yes, most people get here by car as the railway didn’t make it this far. Let’s just accept that for now (I’ll be spending plenty of time looking at the (high carbon) car-based approach travel to places) and just celebrate a mountain visitor destination just getting it right – but also start really focussing on what this tells us about how we start cracking the nut of UK destinations.

 

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