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Germany

Structural winds of change blowing on Heligoland

Tourism, traditionally the main pillar of Heligoland, is declining, and the island is looking for a new source of income. Offshore wind farms bring new jobs and income for the island in the North Sea.

Most of Heligoland's inhabitants have traditionally lived from tourism. Visitors to the island have provided a living for hoteliers and restaurant owners as well as service providers like craftsmen. But the golden era of Heligoland tourism when there would be 10,000 guests a day is over. On peak days there are now some 2,500 tourists on the island and officials on the island have realized a new source of income is needed.

Heligoland sees its future in a change to "offshore service island" where it hopes to get new jobs and income. And it is working: in addition to employees at the WindMW, Eon and RWE energy companies, there are other businesses coming to the island to participate in the offshore boom.

Relocation to Heligoland

In February 2012, the 30-year-old Alexander Matern moved from the western German city of Bochum to Heligoland. A skilled motor mechanic, he used to repair cars but now does maintenance for ships, so-called crewtenders, which travel the 23 kilometers (14 miles) back and forth between Heligoland and the offshore wind farms.

The crewtenders are always on duty and when they fail, it gets expensive for the energy companies that own them. The turbine technicians cannot be brought to the wind farms and their installations could be delayed. That makes maintenance important, Matern said.

7317 Alexander Matern auf Helgoland, Thema Offshore, Foto: Grit Hofmann (DW), Oktober 2013

Alexander Matern on Heligoland

Plenty of perspective

Matern is employed by a company from Rendsburg in the state of Schleswig-Holstein. But he rarely works there. He is the one-man branch on Heligoland. He is hired by the energy companies to keep their ships running. The ships require regular maintenance after a certain number of operating hours. Matern specializes on engines work: the hydraulic systems, oil change and hoses. He often works nights since the crewtenders are at the wind farms during the day.

Martens sometimes gets on one of the boats he tends for a trip to the wind farms as well. Additionally to the ship engines, he repairs the emergency generators and the measuring poles at the wind farms that collect viable data like wave heights and wind speed.

At night, he is mostly on his own in the southern harbor of Heligoland. There is hardly any nightlife on the island. The tourists that do come to Heligoland are looking to relax on the beaches, cliffs and out in nature during the day, then head to restaurants and finally fall into hotel beds in the evenings. That is what Matern and his wife were looking for when they moved from Bochum to Heligoland, out of the industrial urban area into village life with some 1,500 neighbors.

Watch video 04:52

Wind power: a new course for Heligoland

Technicians instead of tourists

Matern is not the only one benefiting from the island's offshore boom. Hotels rent their rooms for years to the technicians from the wind farms. Notably, the Atoll Hotel, a modern building with four-star rooms that are regarded as among the best hotel on the island. Instead of tourists, the technicians from WindMW will be living there for the next 10 years. Other hoteliers offer full-service for the technicians who live in the newly built apartments. The service includes everything from breakfast to cleaning the apartment. A laundry cleaning service opened near the helipad in the south of the island. The owner hopes that the technicians do not want to do their laundry after a 12-hour shift.

Tourists tours to the wind farms

Deutschland Brasilien auf der Frankfurter Buchmesse 2013 Impressionen vom Pavillion BRASILIEN bei der Frankfurter Buchmesse Foto Förde Reederei Seetouristik GmbH & Co. KG

FRS catamaran on the way to Heligoland

The offshore market is obviously a niche, said Birte Dettmers from Förde Redderei Seetouristik (FRS). But it's a lucrative one. The company from Flensburg runs a daily catamaran from Hamburg to Heligoland. The ship is mainly used by hotel guests and depending on the season, it speeds with up to 70 kilometers per hour to the island to get visitors there in time for lunch. The return voyage starts at 4:30 p.m. The time in between is dead time, the catamaran lies in the southern harbor of Heligoland.

That will change in 2014 when the "Halunderjet" turns into a wind farm shuttle. "In August this year we had a test run during an offshore conference on the island. The guests have been very interested in it," Dettmers said. A ticket for the tour to the wind farms will cost 25 euros. The ship will have to stay 500 meters away from the wind farms themselves, but the 100-meter tall wind turbines still look impressive. FRS has planed 10 tours in 2014 starting in April. But is it really profitable with increasing fuel prices? "It is cost-effective. If not, we would not do it," Dettmers said.

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