By Katharina Bart
ZURICH (Reuters) - Prospects are bright for Switzerland's winter tourism industry, which is pinning its hopes on a slew of new luxury developments and bigger, better ski resorts to get back to growth.
Aside from skiing, Switzerland has long been a prized winter destination due to an abundance of high-end shopping, luxury hotels and spas.
Resorts in western Switzerland compete with destinations across the border in eurozone France, including Avoriaz, Megeve and Meribel, where former Formula One champion Michael Schumacher suffered a skiing accident last month. Meanwhile, ski areas closer to Zurich have ceded ground to cheaper Austrian resorts. The persistent strength of the Swiss franc, which the central bank capped in 2011 to protect the economy, caused tourism to suffer.
Overnight hotel stays in mountain regions dropped off sharply and visitors from Europe declined at a particularly dramatic rate.
That has changed this winter, which is the key tourism season for Switzerland's mountainous regions. Think-tank BAK Basel expects a healthy 2.9 percent rise in hotel stays, helped by a rising number of tourists from Asia and Eastern Europe.
Here are tips for getting the most out of an upmarket Swiss skiing holiday from Reuters, whose 2,600 journalists in all parts of the world offer visitors the best local insights.
LET IT SNOW - IN STYLE
Switzerland began this season auspiciously. Christmas visitors included Madonna and Elton John (Gstaad), Princess Victoria of Sweden (Zermatt) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was taking it easy after a spill while cross-country skiing near Pontresina.
Switzerland's Alps got a plentiful supply of snow just as the winter season started but the franc still hovers perilously high against the euro and the U.S. dollar.
So what has changed to make Switzerland attractive again?
Far better infrastructure and greater supply of luxury accommodation to attract the upper crust is part of the answer but also savvy marketing techniques like cut-rate prices on ski passes even in the ritziest of resorts like St. Moritz.
Some projects are hugely ambitious and have been years in the making. Egyptian billionaire Samih Sawiris has spent eight years on an estimated $2 billion project in Andermatt, a sleepy village of just over 1,500 people in Uri that no one outside of Switzerland had heard of.
Sawiris, who runs tourist resorts and real estate projects for the sprawling Orascom corporate empire, is seeking to rouse Andermatt from years of neglect by reinventing it as a year-round resort with luxury hotels and apartments, chalets, spas and an 18-hole golf course.
Part of the plan is to merge Andermatt's ski slopes with nearby Sedrun's but that will not be finished until 2016 due largely to wrangling over zoning.
Another project has ski resorts Arosa and Lenzerheide consummating a merger later this month to form 225 km (140 miles) of slopes, which will put it among Switzerland's top 10 ski regions.
Further southwest in the Val d'Anniviers valley, resorts Zinal and Grimentz will be linked up this month via cable car.
Verbier, long popular with British tourists including Sarah Ferguson, and Crans-Montana are among posh Swiss resorts in French-speaking Switzerland that increasingly draw wealthy Russian clients to their slopes and après-ski nightlife.
The granddad of Swiss ski resorts remains St. Moritz with 350 km (217 miles) of prepared pistes, a winter polo tournament on its frozen lake and the fabled Cresta toboggan run.
St. Moritz is one of Switzerland's most expensive and exclusive resorts but it also offers the cheapest ski pass at 25 Swiss francs ($27.50) a day if you stay more than two nights.
The five-star Chedi in Andermatt, about two hours outside Zurich by train, seeks to update traditional alpine wooden architecture with modern sleek lines.
Its 134-square-metre (1,440-square-foot) Gemsstock suite features a fireplace, private wine cabinet and Acqua di Parma bathroom goodies for roughly 1,800 Swiss francs ($2,000) a night.
For those willing to venture further from Zurich, the InterContinental Davos opened late last year. The futuristic pod-like building will get a test run when world and business leaders descend on Davos for the World Economic Forum this month.
The upscale W Verbier opened last month, the brand's first attempt at a ski resort which it brands "Ibiza on ice." The project combines a luxury hotel with full-service residences, next to Verbier's main gondola. Catalan chef Sergi Arola collaborated on Arola, the development's restaurant.
A cogwheel train transports visitors to Zermatt's Riffelalp Hotel, which stands at 2,222 metres above sea level and advertises the elevation as part of its name. In winter, a snowmobile will bring your luggage.
Arosa's Waldhotel has won plaudits for a warm, cosy feel following a refurbishment featuring local Cembran pine wood.
Zai, which translates as "tough" in the local Rumansch, was founded by ski designer Simon Jacomet in 2003. It handcrafts skis with carbon fibres but also more traditional materials such as French walnut.
A trip to the Zai factory in Disentis, east of Andermatt, can be arranged on the company's website.
St. Moritz is a luxury shopping hub, with prestigious names such as Chanel, Gucci and Louis Vuitton clustered on Via Serlas.
Hatecke, a deli at Via Maistra 6 in St. Moritz, sells the dried beef specialities the region is known for. The sleek, minimalistic packaging makes them perfect gifts to take home.
Hanselmann, a 120-year-old patisserie at Via Maistra 8 in St. Moritz, reopened recently after a subtle facelift. It is famous for a caramel- and butter-loaded nut tart that is indigenous to the region.
The Nira Alpina Hotel in Silvaplana, just southwest of St. Moritz, is credited with bringing the cupcake to the area, although its bakery also offers a variety of more traditional breads and sweets.
Ristorante Murtaroel - a family-run restaurant in Plaun da Lej, a little further southwest of St. Moritz - gets daily delivery of fresh fish from Milan's market, including king crab.
The restaurant of Verbier's Cordee des Alpes, home to star chef Marco Bassi, is a mecca for gourmets seeking seasonal, fresh, locally sourced ingredients.
In Zermatt, Zum See at Wichjeweg 44 offers traditional Swiss and Mediterranean dishes but the Gault Millau-starred restaurant is particularly cherished for its desserts.
No word on opening hours at the cocktail bar of Verbier's Le Nevai hotel, but it features the Nevai Sunrise, a mix of cachaca, lemon and pineapple juice and strawberry, among its signature drinks.
The fabled - and immodestly named - King's Club at Badrutt's Palace Hotel in St. Moritz has no closing time and guests are instructed to "dress to impress".
The Dracula Club near St. Moritz's five-star Kulm Hotel has lost little of its lustre since 1974, when it was founded by Gunter Sachs, a German-born heir to the Opel car dynasty and a renowned jet-setter. The nightclub, now run by Sachs's son Rolf, is members-only.
The Diamond Club at Via Maistra 33 in St. Moritz, which has a DJ most nights through the winter season, is just as popular with night-owls and may let you in even if you're not famous.
St. Moritz opened what it calls the world's first yoga piste on Corviglia's Paradiso piste. Organisers say the yoga makes the skier slow down and maintain a more relaxing, calming rhythm. The courses are run by the Suvretta Snowsports School. Most major ski centres offer online listings of various cultural, culinary and sporting events, including St. Moritz , Verbier, Zermatt, Andermatt, and Davos.
($1 = 0.9092 Swiss francs)
(Stephanie Nebehay and Denis Balibouse in Geneva and Caroline Copley in Zurich contributed reporting. Editing by John O'Callaghan and Michael Roddy)