Switzerland has the most competitive travel and tourism sector in the world, according to a new index compiled by the Geneva-based World Economic Forum.
The alpine nation, which this week announced its best tourism figures since 2000, outstripped 123 other countries on the back of its safety record and high-quality staff.
"Switzerland is an extremely safe country, with excellent health and hygiene indicators, as well as environmental regulation that is among the most stringent and effective in the world," noted the WEF's first Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Report.
"And in a country that has some of the most well regarded hotel management schools in the world, the quality of the country's human resources is second to none, ensuring an adequate supply of high-quality staff for the industry."
The report, published on Thursday, said the Swiss transport system and tourism infrastructure were among the best in the world. It added that the country's natural and cultural resources were among the richest in the world – the country is home to six World Heritage sites.
Switzerland was followed by neighbours Austria and Germany. Iceland, the United States, Hong Kong, Canada, Singapore, Luxembourg and Britain completed the top ten.
Countries were judged on 13 categories including safety and security, rules and regulations, plus the priority given to travel and tourism.
The one black mark for the Swiss was on price competitiveness where they ended up in 115th place. Last month Hotelleriesuisse, the main Swiss hotel association, complained that costs were being kept high by excessive regulations, isolation and protectionism.
Switzerland finished in 62nd place for "national tourism perception" and came 21st for policy rules and regulations, but made it into the top ten in all other categories.
Jennifer Blanke, senior economist of the WEF's Global Competitiveness Network, stressed that the study should not be seen as a "beauty contest" or a statement about the attractiveness of a country.
She said the aim was to measure the factors that make it attractive to develop the travel and tourism industry of individual countries.
Blanke added that the top rankings of Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Hong Kong and Singapore demonstrated the importance of supportive business and regulatory frameworks, coupled with world-class transport and tourism infrastructure, and a focus on nurturing human and natural resources.
The timing of the report couldn't have been better for the country's tourism chiefs who on Monday announced their best figures since 2000.
"The number one ranking of Switzerland... underlines the efforts that have been accomplished in recent years by the Swiss tourism industry to improve and develop the quality of its infrastructure and services," Switzerland Tourism spokeswoman Véronique Kanel told swissinfo.
"It will encourage the Swiss tourism industry to promote the development of favourable economic conditions to continually increase the attractiveness of our country."
Last year saw 34.8 million overnight stays – an increase of almost six per cent on 2005. Foreign visitors accounted for just under half of them.
The Germans, British and Americans head the list but tourists from the so-called BRIC nations – Brazil, Russia, India and China – are arriving in ever-increasing numbers.
Graubünden, Zurich, Valais, the Bernese Oberland and central Switzerland attracted the bulk of overnight stays. The most popular destinations were Zurich, Geneva, Zermatt, Lucerne and Basel.
Hansruedi Müller, head of Bern University's Research Institute for Leisure and Tourism, says the WEF report is interesting and credible but aimed primarily at investors.
"It's probably the reason why the index doesn't include a chapter on gastronomy because it's not relevant for investors," Müller told swissinfo.
He pointed out that it was somewhat unfair to mark down Germany and Austria in the human resources category while many Austrians and Germans work in the tourism sector in Switzerland.
swissinfo, Adam Beaumont in Geneva
According to the WEF, travel and tourism is one of the world's largest economic activities.
In 2006 the sector generated 10.3% of world gross domestic product, providing 234 million jobs or 8.2% of total world employment.
According to the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), the number of international arrivals grew from 25 million in 1950 to an estimated 763 million in 2004 – an average annual growth rate of 6.5%.
The Swiss tourism industry generated SFr23 billion ($18.85 billion) in income in 2005.
Half of the income is made in the winter season, even though it is only four months long.
In compliance with the JTI standards