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Bargain-hunting tourists flock to Heligoland

The small German island of Heligoland in the North Sea gets visited by 250,000 day trippers every year. But why do these tourists travel eight hours to stay less than half a day? DW's Christoph Gunkel found out.

The boat trip from Hamburg to Heligoland, a German island in the North Sea, takes almost four hours, but for some tourists the effort is well worth it. "Ulli, come here, quickly," says a women who's just stepped off the ferry, tugging excitedly at Ulli's sleeve. "Look over here!"

The reason for her excitement is not a stranded seal, a fulmar, or one of Heligoland's infamous colorful booths. It's cigarettes - and lots of them, offered by a shop right next to the dock. A carton of Winston, Lucky Strike or Pall Mall for only 29 euros ($40), that's an unbeatable price by German standards.

Heligoland doesn't charge value-added tax (VAT) on alcohol or tobacco, in contrast to 19 percent in the rest of Germany. It's a remnant of British rule that makes the little island a paradise for bargain hunters.

Cigarettes for a song

A vendor stands in front of his duty-free shop in Heligoland

Vendors advertise their duty-free goods to new arrivals at the docks

By now, more and more tourists have stepped off the boat and are flocking to the first duty-free shop they see. The vendor knows he has to act quickly. Only a few meters behind his store there's a whole street lined with duty-free shops, and they all sell the same products.

"Listen, you'll get a bad weather discount because the wind just gave you a good shake," the vendor shouts. With 19 degrees Celsius (66 degrees Farenheit) the weather isn't bad at all and the North Sea is calmer than ever, but his special offer seems to be working. A carton of cigarettes is now one euro cheaper.

Ulli and his wife decide to buy some when the vendor makes yet another offer: all goods can be put on hold until the tourists leave the island three and a half hours later.

An eight hour boat trip for a three and a half hour stay - is that even worth it? There are some people who doubt it. One of them is Madleen Claasen, a Heligoland native. She knows the daily tourists very well. She regularly commutes the 40 kilometers (25 miles) between the mainland and Germany's only deep-sea island. And not because she enjoys it, but because Heligoland doesn't have a vocational college or a high school.

From the 10th grade onwards, Madleen has had to go to school in the small city of Cuxhaven on the mainland. And since then, her impression of Heligoland's day trippers has been reinforced time and again.

Skyline of colorful houses at the Harbor of Heligoland

The island's colorful house facades greet visitors arriving in the harbor

Wrong expectations

There are those who already get wasted on the way to Heligoland and often underestimate the rough sea, says Madleen. "I've witnessed boat trips where 90 percent of the travelers were puking."

Madleen doesn't understand why people don't inquire about the conditions at sea before going aboard. Or why they start drinking on the ferries where the alcohol isn't even cheap. Or why some of them take out their bad mood on the locals.

"They complain about the wind, the waves, the rain, everything. And then they say Heligoland is boring and stupid." Madleen gets mad just talking about it. "It's really annoying, I mean what are they thinking? It's a deep-sea island. And they only come for a couple of hours and expect that the sun is shining," the 17-year-old says, adding that you really need five days in order to appreciate the island's charm.

Sandstone cliffs on Heligoland

Visitors can walk along the sandstone cliff coast or check out an old bunker from the Third Reich

She has a point. At first, the island appears to be rather barren and unwelcoming. But on closer inspection, it has a lot to offer. The spectacular coastal cliffs, made of red sandstone, are a perfect breeding site for thousands of sea birds.

And there is an underground bunker from the Third Reich, which was built when the Nazis were trying to make Heligoland into an impenetrable naval base. Not to mention a neighboring island only one kilometer away, which has some of the most beautiful beaches in the North Sea, and where visitors can watch gray seals.

Souvenirs rather than real nature

But that's exactly where the problem with day trippers starts, according to Madleen. They don't have enough time to take a boat to the island, go swimming there, watch the seals, and then take a boat back, or even to walk the three kilometer long cliff circular track.

Those who only stay for one afternoon will most likely only get to see seals in the form of fluffy toys sold in one of the many souvenir shops. And that's the majority of tourists; out of 319,000 visitors that Heligoland had in the past year, 250,000 were tourists on a day trip.

Northern gannets breeding on Heligoland

Heligoland is a breeding ground for many rare bird species

When day trippers flock in, they walk from the harbor to the only village past dozens of duty-free shops, which sell ouzo, gin and vodka in form of four liter bottles. However, visitors are only permitted to take one liter of hard liquor per person back to the mainland. "We can just drink this on the way back," one tourist says jokingly while holding up a huge bottle of whiskey.

"You can't buy alcohol so cheaply anywhere else in Germany," proclaims the website of Heligoland's tourist administration. "Smart shoppers can not only recoup the price of the ferry but even have enough money left to stay the night." To put this grandiose promise into context: the ferry from Hamburg to Heligoland and back costs 75.90 euros ($103).

Enjoying the nature and sniffing some sea air? That's possible on Heligoland as well, even though it's not advertised as enthusiastically. The side of Heligoland seen on postcards begins just behind the village, with its numerous fish sandwich booths and aggressive, sandwich-stealing seagulls.

There are distant views of long, white beaches; peacefully grazing sheep and birds flying against the wind. When the sun suddenly breaks through the clouds, there's an explosion of color and the cliffs begin to glow in a bright red light.

No tourists, no income

View of the dune and the North Sea

Heligoland has more to offer than cheap alcohol and tobacco

As annoyed as many locals are with the crowds of day trippers, Heligoland is dependent on tourism. The tourism industry makes up around 75 percent of the island's yearly income. Madleen is aware of that as well, but she's happy when the masses of tourists leave to go home.

"Once they're all gone, suddenly everything becomes quiet again. Even the sea gulls leave because they know they won't be able to get more food now," she says. It's Madleen's favorite time to enjoy the sunset and the endless views of ocean and sun. "There's no better place in Germany for people who are in love."

Once the sun has set into the North Sea, the day trippers have long since departed for Hamburg or Cuxhaven. But one thing is certain: a new day will bring a new hoard of tourists.

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