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Travel

Dresden - still worth a visit?

Tourism in Germany is booming, with ever increasing numbers - apart from in Dresden. Tourists are increasingly avoiding this stronghold of Germany's anti-Islam movement, PEGIDA. Xenophobia just isn't good advertising.

An incomparable baroque ensemble made up of the Frauenkirche, the Dresden Palace, the Zwinger, the Semper Opera House and the Dresden Cathedral. Tourist guide Claus Kemmer can't imagine a better workplace. When he leads his groups through the reconstructed old town center, he is not aware of reduced numbers of tourists - his tours are well attended. "Maybe it's different for me as I tend to have a lot of foreign visitors," says Claus Kemmer, adding that "my impression is that the number of foreign visitors is actually on the increase rather than on the decline."

Numbers and facts

The statistics agree with him: in the first half of 2016, Dresden recorded an increase in foreign visitors of some 7.7 percent. That figure sounds good, but international visitors account for only one fifth of all tourists here.

The biggest market is accounted for by German visitors. And they are increasingly avoiding Dresden: in 2015, their numbers declined by 5.1 percent and in July, that number went down as far as 10 percent. 

That was before a September bomb attack on a mosque and before Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Joachim Gauck were verbally abused in Dresden during Germany Unity Day celebrations on October 3. Following these events, a further drop in visitor numbers is feared by the tourism industry in Dresden.

Pegida demonstrators in front of the Semper Opera in Dresden (picture-alliance/dpa)

PEGIDA demonstrators in front of the Semper Opera

Semper Opera House: a favorite PEGIDA staging post

Every Monday for the past two years, supporters of the anti-Islam and xenophobic movement PEGIDA have gathered on the Theaterplatz in front of the Semper Opera House to spread their message of hate. At its peak, some 25,000 participants gathered, but now their numbers have shrunk to a few thousand.

"I sometimes I stay late in my office on a Monday to watch the people that gather on the Theaterplatz. PEGIDA demonstrations are a catastrophe for Dresden!" says Uta Neidhardt, an expert on Dutch painters at the Old Masters Gallery in Dresden. She is responsible for the current special exhibition "Paradise on Earth - Flemish landscape paintings from Bruegel to Rubens." This should have been a highlight in the cultural metropolis of Dresden, but the decline of visitors is also noticeable in the rooms hosting these masterpiece paintings.  

Jan Breughel II: Paradise landscape with the creation of animals (Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden)

Jan Breughel II: Paradise landscape with the creation of animals

Dresden - a paradise on Earth?

"When we decided to give the exhibition this title a year and a half ago, it seemed powerful and attractive," Uta Neidhardt says. But now, particularly after the attack on the mosque, I get the impressions some see it as cynical" - which obviously wasn't the goal. The exhibition shows works by artists who were persecuted: "As religious and economic refugees they created great works of art in their new homes. That was what we wanted to show with this exhibition,"  Neidhardt says.

Culture as a ray of hope

In December, the new culture center Kulturkraftwerk Mitte will open. The industrial memorial of a former power station from the 19th century will be transformed into a modern theater district. The Staatsoperette Dresden state opera will find its new performance venue here.

Kraftwerk Mitte Dresden (renderwerke
renderwerke
renderwerke
renderwerke)

New cultural area with theaters, artists' studios, bars and clubs

Conductor Andreas Schüller is actually looking forward to his new place of work, but the atmosphere in Dresden is spoiling the mood. "The image problem can not be talked under the carpet," says Schüller, adding:"when I work in other cities then I'm always asked about PEGIDA." He always answers that all theaters in Dresden are trying to come up with ideas on how to counteract the infamous movement.

Particularly the Semper Opera, as the protests take place on the opera house's doorstep, has made its position very clear: it switches off all external lighting during the PEGIDA marches. It has displayed banners with slogans like: open your eyes, hearts and doors! "Culture is the best way to approach this problem - you can only encounter a lack of culture with culture," says Schüller.

Way out of the crisis

Dresden's town center is deserted as of the afternoon on Mondays: restaurants and cafés are abandoned. Locals and tourists avoid the town center when PEGIDA supporters gather. The catering trade has incurred huge losses. The city's hotels are also complaining: with only 57 percent capacity in the first half of 2016, they will not be making any profit this year.

To counteract the declining visitor numbers, representatives of Dresden's tourist sector got together and at the end of October and implemented a list of measures.

Seven weeks of Striezelmarkt Christmas market

A bonus card is to be introduced for visitors to Dresden which will encompass all relevant museums, palaces, castles and parks as well as public transport. The city will be aiming to book more big concerts which will be held at interesting venues on the Elbe shoreline or in big parks.

Dresdner Striezelmarkt 2009 (picture-alliance/dpa)

Striezelmarkt: Christmas market with 2.2 million visitors in four weeks

And last, but not least, the Striezelmarkt, Dresden's famous Christmas market, is to be extended from four to seven weeks.

Only time will tell if these measures will be able to improve the city's damaged reputation.

However, they will not have solved the core problem, says Johannes Lohmeyer, chairman of Dresden's tourist association: "We have been demanding for some time now to stop to the PEGIDA marches from making use of the picturesque backdrop of the town center. These die-hard protesters are damaging our image as an open and tolerant city."

Kirstin Schumann, Kerstin Schmidt