Berlin's unofficial slogan "Poor but sexy" attracted a record level of visitors in 2008. Can the German capital draw similar numbers this year as the global economic crisis hammers tourism worldwide?
Urban beach bars -- some with historic backdrops -- are one of Berlin's many attractions
As the International Tourism Fair ITB opens in Berlin on Wednesday, March 11, the city announced another record-setting performance in precisely that area. The metropolis attracted 7.9 million visitors in 2008 -- a gain of more than 4 percent over 2007 and the fifth year in a row a new record has been set.
The mood in the tourism industry is generally somber, with German travel agents reporting plunging demand with the outbreak of the global economic crisis.
The city hopes visitors will keep shelling out to see the sights
"At the moment, it's difficult, even impossible to predict because the market is indifferent," Christian Taenzler, spokeman for the Berlin Tourism Company, told Deutsche Welle. "Business travel is sluggish with trips being cancelled or shortened. But in the leisure area, the hotels are well booked."
Tourism is one of, if not the most important industry for the perennially cash-strapped German capital, and the number of annual visitors has more than doubled since the early 1990s.
In tough economic times, luxuries such as vacations are often the first to face the axe as consumers rein in spending. But Berlin tourism officials remain optimistic their city will defy the trend.
Taenzler said Berlin has advantages that should continue to appeal to potential visitors.
"Poor but cheap"
The city has profited from budget airlines
Berlin's tourist boom has been fueled by two major European budget airlines that allow weekend party-goers, for example, to pop over and enjoy the city's internationally famous club scene.
And it's cheap to stay in as well as fly to Berlin.
"We may take a cut, but Berlin is very competitive with cities like Paris or London in terms of what you get for your money," Taenzler said. "That goes from the price of a cup of cappuccino up to tickets for cultural events."
Hotel prices are roughly half of what they are in other European capitals, and in recent years Berlin has seen a virtual explosion in hostels, mostly located in the hip neighborhoods of Mitte, Prenzlauer Berg and Kreuzberg.
"At the moment, we haven't noticed any effects from the financial crisis," Simone Schueler, who operates the Pegasus Hostel in Berlin's Friedrichshain district, told Deutsche Welle. "We have to pay attention to our prices, but that's because the hostel market itself has grown so much."
"Poor but cultural"
Berlin has theaters of all sizes in nearly every district
Berlin also benefits from the number of cultural events on offer.
Recurrent highlights such as the Berlin Film Festival attract visitors with specific interests at certain times of year, while others are drawn generally by the theater scene, the music performances or the nightlife.
"Another difference to London and Paris is that ordinary people are usually able to get tickets for things they want to see," Taenzler said.
It also probably doesn't hurt that Berlin's bars are allowed to stay open round the clock.
"I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that, even in New York, Berlin is known as absolutely the place to be right now," Taenzler said.
"Poor but historic"
The city expects lots of visitors commemorating history this year
Ironically, the economic crisis may have come at the right time for Berlin since the city expects lots of visitors to mark the 20th anniversary of one of the last century's key events -- the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989.
That date has not escaped the notice of city tourism officials, who are doing their best to market the final days of Communism to potential travelers.
"The interest in the anniversary, especially abroad, has been very great," Taenzler said. "And we're already inviting journalists to the city in the hope that visitors will be inspired by their reports and follow them."
The tourist office has rolled out a bus, painted on the outside to look like the Berlin Wall, on the streets of Amsterdam to encourage nostalgic Dutch to take a sojourn to the German capital.
None of these efforts by Berlin's promoters is likely to change the fact that the German capital remains relatively impecunious compared with other major European counterparts.
But Berlin officials are hoping that the relative lack of money floating around in what used to be a Western island in the Warsaw Pact will turn out to be an advantage in times where many people have to budget their holidays more carefully.
Author: Jefferson Chase
Editor: Sean Sinico