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Germany

With a Shrinking Population, a German Island's Future Imperiled

More than 500,000 people visit Helgoland each year, but the island’s youth population are fleeing to the mainland in droves to find better opportunities for education and work on the mainland.

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Helgoland's red sandstone cliffs are an important symbol of postwar Germany.

It once played host to Goethe, the father of modern German literature. It's where Hoffmann penned the German national anthem. It's the place where Heisenberg went to do the quantum physics thinking that landed him the Nobel Prize.

But today, Helgoland, a small North Sea island off the coast of Germany, is in the greatest danger of extinction since the British used the island for bombing tests after World War II.

Half the inhabitants on the island, a favorite destination for German day trippers enjoying its dramatic red sandstone cliffs and duty free status, are over the age of 50. Less than a quarter are under the age of 30. What’s more, the island loses 30 people a year, with the population shrinking from 1,950 residents to 1,650 over the past decade.

"The biggest cause is the exodus of youth," Mayor Frank Botter told DW-WORLD. "They leave for school because you can’t complete a college prep degree here -- they have to go the mainland and they usually don’t come back."

Limited schools, opportunities

The nearest college prep school is at least two-hours away from the island by ferry. In a problem typical of other North Sea islands, parents must foot the bill if they want to send their children to schools on the mainland.

The average cost of putting students up in a boarding school is at least €7,200 ($8,700) a year, said Botter, whose own daughter spent four years at a mainland college prep school. He's banded together with other islands to get state and federal governments to reimburse parents for the cost of sending their kids away for basic schooling.

Taking action

In response to the youth drain, Helgoland politicians have launched an offensive to convince their young people to stay put and to attract newcomers to the island. In order to tackle Helgoland's tight and expensive real estate market, the island is partially funding a €2.3 million project that will bring inexpensive housing to young workers and families.

Die roten Felsen von Helgoland mit Thumbnail

Helgoland's gorgeous red cliffs.

In contrast to the mainland, demand often exceeds supply for low-end jobs. Indeed, the island -- measuring just one square kilometer -- has only 52 unemployed. The half-million tourists that flock to the island from harbor cities like Bremen and Hamburg everyday bring in most of the €85 million in annual revenues.

Though the bustling tourism industry brings many jobs, they tend to be in the service sector and unattractive to those who leave Helgoland for a higher education.

"They don’t come back because there aren’t adequate jobs for people who have completed a college education," says Manfred Augener, an editor for the Pinneberger Zeitung, a newspaper distributed on Helgoland. "If you study biology you can get a job here, but otherwise the opportunities are limited."

Seeking more employers -- and a dentist

The island’s renowned international marine research laboratory, with 170 workers, is a major employer. The island is also negotiating to land the fleets of the planned European Union coast guard as well vessels from the German Federal Border Guard and environmental protection agencies on Helgoland, which would bring new jobs and, officials hope, more families. Mayor Botter says he is also seeking to attract companies that service the offshore windparks in the North Sea region, which would open up other possibilities for highly trained workers.

"We want to create a future for our kids," he says. "We have to give them opportunities -- not just education, but also jobs and affordable housing later on."

Despite the overall dearth of professional jobs, they do come up occasionally. Problem is, it can be hard to find workers, given Helgoland's geographical isolation. Helgoland's only dentist recently retired, meaning patients with an aching tooth must now take one of only four ferries a week that ply the waters in winter to the mainland. And when the island's minister left his post last year, it took six months to find a replacement.

A German symbol

At stake is the future of an island that has been a symbol of German tradition and culture for more than a hundred years. Though people have lived on the island for 2,000 years, it’s only been firmly in German hands since 1890, after shuffling between the Danes and the Brits.

"Helgoland is tied to the grand traditions of poets and thinkers who used to travel to the island at the turn of the century," says Augener. Later, Hitler expanded the island to become a major war port; the subsequent allied bombings took a devastating toll. "There

Europafahne über Helgoland

German students raise the German flag over Helgoland in 1950.

was the bombardment, the occupation and then, at the worst point, the British tried to destroy the island completely with their ‘big bang’ tests," said Augener. The island has been resettled since 1952.

In the end, Botter hopes Helgoland’s initiatives will increase the local population to 1,700, a figure he says would be a success.

Meanwhile, journalist Augener says he believes Helgoland officials are starting to take the crisis seriously. "People have recognized that tourism can’t be the only possibility for the island," he said. "You have to offer people more, they have to do more to keep their people."

That will be the key to Helgoland's long-term survival.

"If the youth don’t come," warns Mayor Botter. "The lights here are going to go out someday."