Basel – Tourist Heaven or Tourist Hell?
What really interests and fascinates Basel’s tourists? Sex and crime tours, the beautiful old town and the Basler’s modesty? Christian Rieder, CEO of Visit Basel, tells us what tourists like, what they detest, and how they continue to surprise him.
By Philipp Probst
Why should people visit Basel?
Basel has an authentic medieval city centre, which is unique throughout the whole of Europe. Walking past the old houses and through narrow alleys of Basel, visitors can really get a feel for the city’s long history. Particularly Americans are impressed by this and Germans even more so, as their cities were nearly all destroyed during the war. It is such a shame that some newer buildings have been constructed that do not fit at all into this medieval setting, especially on the Kleinbasel side of town. If it weren’t for those buildings, Basel would probably be one of the most beautiful medieval towns in Europe. From a tourism perspective, Basel would be in competition with cities like Vienna, which thrives off its impressive 19th century architecture.
Now you are exaggerating. Basel is really just a small town.
Why do Baslers always think like that? Of course we are not a big city, as there was never a king or an emperor residing in Basel for any length of time. Nevertheless, our region attracts a lot of tourists, and as far as being a humanist city, we could be a lot more proud of that than we are.
And there was even a Pope elected here once!
Precisely! There is no doubt about the fact that we were once a big city, but as I said before, there was never a king’s or an emperor’s residence here. That would have been great for the development of the city. For tourism, the region needs to be seen as one: Basel in connection with the Black Forest and the Alsace – or the other way around.
There are many different organisations that provide tourism offers across the three countries. What role do you play as a private company?
We concentrate on the commercial part of toursim. We offer city tours and all kinds of events.
And are you, therefore, in direct competition with Basel Tourismus.
Of course! Competition livens up business, increases diversity and ensures a higher quality offering. But we really do have a good relationship with Basel Tourismus, in the same way that hotels are part of their organisation, we are members too. From an operational point of view we complement each other in many areas. Don’t forget that Basel Tourismus’s core business is to market Basel’s tourism offerings locally and around the world, and this is funded by tax payers‘ money and membership fees. Our core business is purely to create a service here in Basel.
With the difference from Basel Tourismus being that you don’t get any funding!
No. We are a stock company like any other, so we are driven by making profits. However, our shareholders are not out to make a profit; they do it for the love of Basel.
What is your best product?
An amusing city tour followed by a dinner in a picturesque location in the old town.
With a guide dressed up as a knight in armour?
No, our most successful tours feature lots of information combined with some fun parts. For example our Basel beer tour. You can find out a lot of interesting facts about Basel’s history. And, of course, drinking in a pub is part of the tour too.
Are traditional city tours not in fashion anymore?
Were they ever in fashion? Standing in front of a window of the Münster for half an hour explaining everything in great detail to an audience of people…. no, that hasn’t worked for a long time. Good tours are all about getting the audience to understand the context – for example, why a city was built in a specific way, or why a church looks the way it does, and so on. Basel is particularly interesting for city planning in the late Middle Ages. If one understands Basel, one also understands other big cities. And then there are lots of anecdotes and small facts that amuse the guests.
Do you know where the expression „shut up“ comes from?
It comes from the choir chairs that used to make loud noises in the churches if the choir stood up and didn’t hold on to them.
City tours around the topics of sex and crime are always popular, as well as tours through Kleinbasel. There are so many nooks and crannies that not even the Baslers know of. But here again, at the end of the tour, our guests get to sit down with the locals in a pub and enjoy themselves.
Not at all. That is Basel for you. The people here don’t simply pretend to be modest, they really are modest. Millionaires sit in the same bar next to tourists and workers, government councillors next to immigrants. That’s wonderful, and our guests really appreciate that: you could even say that this truly fascinates them.
Basel likes to promote itself as a cultural city. How important is culture for you and your clients?
Culture is important, but it‘s not our key selling point, if you mean culture in the sense of museums and shows, unless it is a special exhibition or event. Usually visitors don’t come to Basel especially for that reason.
Why do they come then?
They see the benefits of everything that comes with visiting Basel. It is in the middle of Europe. In no time, you can be in Paris, Milan, Berlin or Vienna. Basel is a city of fairs and economics. The Black Forest and the Alsace are just round the corner. To top this off, there are the old town, the museums, the theatre – perfect.
Cuckoo clocks and wellness in the Black Forest, wine and picturesque villages in the Alsace, culture and social life in Basel – is that what you mean?
Exactly. That attracts tourists. And if you look at the region as a whole, it has a great advantage not only for tourists, but also for people who come here to live and work. It is a centre surrounded by idyllic countryside. People who come from bigger cities may prefer the city life, people who grew up in the country may prefer the countryside. Or the other way around. Whatever the case, Basel offers both.
And we have great museums.
Of course. But we have to be aware of something: people do not visit Basel purely because of the museums. Although that may be a reason too! I have been in this business for a long time; nevertheless, I am amazed by what visitors request. Usually it’s about food. Lots of people simply want to find out what people in Basel and Switzerland eat and drink and how they live. Just to make it clear, Basel without museums would be like the old town without the Rhine; it’s the combination of the offerings that attracts!
How important are the big fairs (e.g. Basel World) for you?
Unfortunately, they are not so important for us anymore. Usually the visitors of the fairs come here, tend to their business and leave again. There’s no funding for entertainment anymore. If you’re lucky the visitors go for dinner in the evenings. However, even the restaurants are not so happy about that, as exhibitors often book tables in four different restaurants and decide spontaneously which one they will go to. So the tables in the other restaurants remain empty, and often they don’t even get a call to cancel the reservation. It’s like a lottery. The hotels and the transport companies make the most profit from the fairs.
Basel has a harbour. Do you profit from the cruise ships?
They are extremely important for us, as they are a popular way to travel; however, it is a little tricky for us: often ships only embark or debark in Basel. Such passangers never get to see the city centre. And the other thing is that our harbour is a disaster for cruise ships!
What do you mean by that?
Ok, if you dock in Kleinhünigen, where do you want to go then? You’re standing there as a visitor somewhere in the middle of an industrial zone surrounded by containers and oil tanks, far away from the city centre. Look at the harbour in Cologne; that’s in the middle of the city. And if you look how nice the harbour in Breisach is, some ship owners might even wonder if they should bother going up to Basel at all.
Ships can also dock at St. Johann harbour.
That depends on the size of the ship and how many ships plan to dock there at the same time. Even St. Johann is not ideal. You’re just arriving a few meters up the Rhine. The amazing thing is that big cruise ships are occasionally allowed to dock at central points of the Basel Rhine banks; for example, at the Hotel Trois Rois, but only if there is a big fair on. I don’t understand that at all.
So Basel is more interested in economy than tourism.
I’ll give you an example to answer that: at least once a year, Daniel Egloff, director of Tourismus Basel, and I talk about the bus station problem. Why can other cities that have perfect infrastructure offer bus stations in the city centre, and we can’t[W1] ? Sometimes I get the feeling that Basel doesn’t really want to promote tourism. That makes it difficult for Egloff too, who is very engaged in making Basel an attractive place for tourists. Let’s take another example: try changing foreign currencies during a weekend in the city centre.
How easy is it to promote Basel Fasnacht to tourists?
An event like Fasnacht is a dream for every tourist. You have everything: tradition, history, excitement, humor and entertainment. There are hundreds of things that we could explain to guests. Simply explaining the art of the „Schnitzelbängg“ would fill a whole evening (Schnitzelbängg are humourous texts that are sung in a Cliquenkeller throughout Fasnacht). On top of that everything is new every year. Fasnacht is not just an old ritual; it presents today’s Basel…
We do offer Fasnachts tours, but only just before Fasnacht as an introduction. Our Fasnacht is not an event for tourists only. Baslers do Fasnacht for themselves.
The carnival in Venice is legendary, and many tourists travel to Venice the whole year round because of it. Why is Basel not the same?
Because Baslers don’t want that. I repeat Fasnacht is not for tourists, it is for us. Apart from that, Fasnacht is not Basel’s biggest and most important event.
What is the most important event then?
The Autumn Fair attracts more than a million visitors from Switzerland and abroad. But the fair is an exception. Baslers have lots of their own activities, for example, the theatre. It’s a great institution with world class performances that are important for the region but unfortunately that’s as far as it goes. Making the Theater Basel as famous as the opera house in Zurich would require a lot of funding. But let’s be honest, Basel doesn’t want that. It seems to give us enough satisfaction that the Theater Basel is highly spoken of in an international audience. We are the only ones who go there.
How important are visitors from Asia?
They have become increasingly important. At the moment there are lots of Russians visiting our city. In contrast to the stereotypical tourist, they[W2] are very sophisticated and inquisitive people. We experience the Chinese differently than the stereotypical Asian tourists too. The Chinese enjoy the social life, the relaxed atmosphere Basel has, and they like sitting in bars in the evenings, eating good food and seeing how we live here. We are seriously considering offering tours in Chinese soon.
Why is your web site and your partner web site baselinsider.ch only in German and not in English?
The online portal Basel Insider is actually something all of us do in our spare time. We tell stories and write historic texts about Basel. It would be very expensive for us to translate it all. Although, I must say that most of our readers are locals. Baslers simply have a special connection to their city. Baslers are our best and most important clients, and yet 40% of our city tours, which we do for companies, are done in English, as this is what our clients want. Basel has become more and more international. We see this as an interesting development for us.