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Germany

"Butter Trips" On the Way Out

EU enlargement will bring about many changes. For bargain hunters fond of cruising duty-free zones along the Polish border, it will mean the end of an era. Tour operators reliant on the trade are bracing for the blow.

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Cruising the aisles of savings will soon come to an end.

Duty-free zones offering liquor, cigarettes and luxury items tax-free sprang up in Germany in the mid-1950s -- mostly in airports, but also on ships travelling in international waters. One such zone is on the Oder River that separates Germany and Poland. Since 1998, a small section of the water on the Polish side has been duty-free, and a lucrative business has built up on-board ships travelling in the area. Such an excursion has become known as a "butterfahrt" -- literally “butter trips” -- because they started out as a way for people to get cheap butter.

Last year over one million Germans travelled to these tax-free waters. But with Poland's entry into the European Union on May 1, the duty-free law will no longer be valid: Germany's "butterfahrt" industry seems doomed to melt away, leaving a puddle of unemployment, deserted ships and empty buses in its wake.

Free lunch and big savings

On a chilly April morning in Berlin, double-decker buses lined one of the main boulevards as far as the eye can see. The passengers on the buses were destined for a "butterfahrt" on the Oder.

Currently a "butterfahrt" costs just a few euros, with the shipping companies paying subsidies of up to 50 percent to the bus companies that cart people their way. "The 'butterfahrt' is an excursion package of bus and ship travel," Anna Wiese, marketing director for Berlin-based Holiday Travels agency, told Deutsche Welle. "Our buses pick up guests in Berlin and bring them to various ports on the Oder, where they board the duty-free ships. One tour also supplies lunch and a surprise gift to each guest."

In the buses, bargain hunters study the flyers announcing the latest sales awaiting them on-board the floating supermarkets. Brand-name liquor and cigarettes can be bought for a fraction of the price paid in German shops. For example, a carton of Philip Morris cigarettes costs just €8.50 ($10). In Germany, the same carton fetches up to €36.

A culture of savings

The incredible bargains make the "butterfahrt" irresistible, bus driver Dieter Draht said. "Some guests take the trip every day, just to buy duty-free cigarettes, whisky, and who knows what else," he told Deutsche Welle.

Butterfahrt auf einem Passagierschiff

Passengers on a recent "butter trip" boat on the Oder River.

The "butterfahrt" has developed into nothing less than a tradition among Berlin’s urban poor. Its popularity reflects the state of Germany’s economy. It has also become something of a social occasion, part of the rage for discount shopping that permeates Germany.

"Good quality and cheap," said one customer when asked why he had come along on the trip. "All of us here are modest earners and people dependent on social welfare and unemployment money or retired."

Get it while the goings good

But starting in May, there will be no more subsidies for the bus companies or free lunches for the travelers. The price of the trip will double and all goods bought on board will be taxed. So in the final weeks of duty-free shopping, "butterfahrt" business has been booming.

Holiday Travel said they were sending out twice as many buses a day, with customers cramming in as many cheap shopping trips as they could before the good times were over. "Last week we went three times, and this week we are going twice," said one customer. "We’ve got to take advantage of these last weeks as much as we can."

End of an era

One of the regular guests was indignant about no longer being able to get around Germany’s high tobacco tax. "Smokers are supporting the nation," he said.

The shipping industry is just as unhappy about the situation: Hundreds of jobs will be lost after May 1. Still, some hope to keep the "butterfahrt" alive by attracting a new clientele -- one just as interested in the scenic bus and boat ride as in cheap booze and cigarettes.

Anna Wiese from Holiday Travels pointed out that only time will tell. "We will see a large chunk of our business fall away, but we will still continue to offer the 'butterfahrt' excursions -- but at a higher price," she said. "We must see what our guests are prepared to pay." Goods on-board the ships will become more expensive, but they will still be cheaper than in Germany, Wiese added.

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