As vaccinations increase, Germany is experimenting with tourism in one of its most-visited coastal regions. The popular island of Sylt and other resort areas are allowed to welcome guests — under strict stipulations.
From zero to 100 — hotelier Karsten Werner had never before experienced a reopening like this after a six-month enforced break. The managing director of the StrandGut Resort Hotel in the coastal resort town of St. Peter-Ording rented out all 98 rooms on the first weekend after the lockdown, with 200 guests arriving.
"That was a challenge for all of us, because we can't afford any mistakes. After all, everyone is looking at the model region," he said.
The rooms were not booked before, and many guests queued early in the morning from the reception area to the parking lot. They patiently waited to check in, complying with the numerous requirements demanded by the model project. "Everyone was relaxed and cooperative. Everyone was craving a little bit of freedom," said Werner.
North Frisia is a coastal area in the German state of Schleswig-Holstein
Together with more than 300 guest houses in St. Peter-Ording and the surrounding area, he and his team are part of the North Frisia test model region, where tourist stays, visits to restaurants and cafes are once again possible. The popular North Sea islands of Sylt, Amrum, Föhr and Pellworm are also included in the model region. More than 5,000 businesses in North Frisia have registered, with more to follow.
Two weeks ago, the first test model region on the Baltic Sea was a success: this included the Schleiregion with Eckernförde. Now the North Sea test project is following suit. For the head of St. Peter-Ording's tourism office, Katharina Schirmbeck, it is also a new start. "There is finally something happening again in St. Peter-Ording. All businesses have prepared in detail and are now happy to welcome guests," she said.
To be allowed to book overnight stays in the model region, guests must agree in writing to an extensive set of rules before they arrive. These include: presenting a negative rapid antigen COVID-19 test when checking into the hotel, consenting for test results and personal data to be recorded and evaluated and willingness to submit a new negative test result every 48 hours.
While the rest of Germany remains in a strict lockdown, North Frisia's tourism is starting up and visitors are delighted. But health authorities and medical experts are closely monitoring the situation on the North and Baltic Seas on a daily basis. If the number of infections in a region rises above 100 for three consecutive days, the project will be canceled and tourists will have to leave.
To prevent this from happening, large-scale test centers have been set up — at the StrandGut Resort, at the spa gardens and at many beach crossings. In St. Peter-Ording, there are 10 with a quick test station for cyclists.
In the restaurants, the QR code of a current quick test is scanned or the personal details are recorded via the Luca app, which enables digital tracking of contacts of confirmed coronavirus cases via smartphones in direct exchange with the relevant health office.
Those who are fully vaccinated do not need be tested. Large signs in the pedestrian area, as well as on the pier and along the promenade, remind people that wearing masks is compulsory. Security service employees remind anyone of the proper mask rules in a friendly but firm manner. The model project is scheduled to run until the end of May, with the prospect of being extended.
"We just wanted to get out of Bavaria," said Claudia Hartmann, with a laugh of relief. She and her husband, who both work in in geriatric care and have been fully vaccinated, immediately booked a place for their camper van when they heard about the test project. They planned to stay for two weeks at a local campsite and cycling along the North Sea coast.
"It's a little bit of freedom. We enjoy it so very much," explained the 57-year-old tourist. They would have loved to travel to the Alpine Allgäu region, but now fate it has taken them to the far north. The restrictions don't bother them: "If that's the price we pay for freedom, then we're happy to accept it," said Hans.
Lea Jansen and her boyfriend were both enjoying the first Sunday in May, a cool sunny day, in a beach chair at the North Sea. They traveled from Hamburg for a day out to get some fresh air, to escape the strict big-city lockdown and get away from it all. They picked up fish sandwiches and coffee to go at the pier, a meal for which they did not need a negative COVID-19 test.
The StrandGut resort manager, Karsten Werner, supports this protocol, and said those who want can also buy takeaway snacks and drinks at an on-site sales stand in front of his hotel.
Werner is not worried that something will go wrong. "With three different meal times, distancing rules and partitions in the restaurant, we already ensured the safety of our guests and staff here last summer," he said. Surveying the well-filled area in front of the pier, he looked relaxed. "Experience has shown that Ascension Day and Pentecost are when it really gets crowded here."
Hotelier Marco Lass has also reopened his 60-room Strand Hotel in the center of St. Peter-Ording. He is operating at 70% capacity and the phone at reception has been ringing off the hook.
"Many regular guests are asking if we are really open. Some are canceling or rebooking; there's a lot of movement in bookings," he said. His guests also have to choose a time slot for breakfast and dinner.
As part of the model project, he is aware of the responsibility he and everyone else here has for the entire industry. "It's not a problem. We can do it, everyone just has to play by the rules," he said.