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Artificial lake
A post-industrial part of eastern Germany is being re-vampedImage: Caitlan Carroll

Coal lakes

March 11, 2011

A lot of the big cities in eastern Germany receive a steady stream of money from tourism every year. Other areas in the East, like the former mining stronghold of Lusatia, struggle to appear as vacation destinations.


As spring starts its slow arrival, many winter-weary Germans turn their thoughts to sun, fun and summer vacations. Regions throughout the country are courting tourists in a variety of ways, enticing them with the Baltic Coast's white sand beaches or free walks through the Black Forest.

In eastern Germany, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) south of Berlin, there's a relative newcomer to the tourism scene: the Lusatia region. This area used to be known solely for its mining, but now residents are using the area's industrial past to create a holidaymaker's paradise.

Karsten Feucht
Karsten Feucht organizes tours of active mines for interested touristsImage: Caitlan Carroll

An economy based on coal

Before the Berlin Wall fell, Lusatia residents made most of their money providing East Germany with power gleaned from brown coal, or lignite. But building the region's economy on coal came at a high price. Often entire towns were uprooted to make room for more mines.

"About 80 villages in Lusatia were destroyed because of mining in the last 150 years, and about 40,000 people had to leave their villages," says Janine Mahler of IBA, a group managing the restoration of Lusatia.

After the East German government collapsed in 1990, most of the mines were abandoned. Many people in Lusatia lost their jobs and livelihoods. Over the past decade, German authorities have spent more than 8 billion euros ($11.1 billion) to rebuild the economy here. Many of the development plans rely on tourism.

Mining makes way for tourism

"Welcome to the desert, the German version of the desert," says Karsten Feucht, standing on the edge of a sandy pit that stretches for miles. He works with IBA and runs tours of one of the few active mines left in the area.

Visitors can take Jeep tours or walks through what he calls the "pocket Sahara," and Feucht hires locals as guides to describe the region's industrial past.

"There is someone in the group who lived there about 20 years ago, and he said to me with tears in his eyes, 'This is where my school was here, and this must have been the road.' And the other people from Berlin who come to see our 'pocket Sahara' get astonished and shocked," says Feucht.

Visitors can learn more about Lusatia's industrial past while climbing to the top of a massive mining machine, the F60. At night, lights flash and recordings of sounds from the former mines drift out to provide atmosphere.

This kind of industrial tourism has worked well in other parts of Germany, like the Ruhr and Rhineland regions. But Lusatia is also using its former mines to create something totally different - Europe's largest artificial lake district.

View from the top of the F60
Visitors to Lusatia can tour one of the world's largest mining machines, the F60Image: Caitlan Carroll

"There are more than 23 lakes and every lake has its own special idea," says Katrin Winkler from the local tourism office. "You have a lake for speed-boating and a lake for nature."

Much of the redevelopment funds have gone toward this difficult process of creating lakes out of the old mining pits.

This is how it worked: big machines scraped away dirt and sucked out water to expose the brown coal below the surface. Once the mining stopped, water seeped back into the pits. But that water was highly acidic – not something you'd want to swim in. So engineers diverted fresh water from nearby rivers to help dilute and fill the lakes.

Entrepreneurs dive in to tourism

Because the lakes are attracting more out-of-towners, entrepreneurs are taking the plunge and opening businesses. There's a scuba diving school, new hotels, and even food tourism is beginning to flourish.

Jo Waiditscka from Ziegenhof Ogrosen produces goat's cheese in a small farm and sells it online and at farmers' markets in Berlin. He also caters to a weekend crowd from the big cities.

Katrin Winkler
Katrin Winkler is creating a holiday-maker's paradise in eastern GermanyImage: Caitlan Carroll

A few weeks ago, a group from Berlin spent a day on the farm and ate a slow food dinner made with local ingredients.

"That kind of tourism works really well here," says Waiditscka.

An uncertain future

Such start-up businesses could be the key to Lusatia's economic revival, but not everyone is so optimistic.

Reinhardt Hüttl is a geoscientist who worked as consultant on the mine reclamation process. He notes that unemployment still hovers around 15 percent and young people continue to leave the region to find jobs elsewhere.

"It's wonderful during summer. It's terrible during fall and winter," says Hüttl. "So half the year functions well for tourism and the rest of the year doesn't."

It's still unclear whether tourism will take hold in Lusatia. But one thing is for sure: these projects do make life a little better for people who live here all year round.

Author: Caitlan Carroll
Editor: Ben Knight

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