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Germany's tourism workers hope for a return to normalcy

Andreas Kirchhoff
April 30, 2020

Germany is one of the world's most visited countries. These days, many communities that depend on tourism wonder when — or if — their lives and livelihoods will ever be the same.

a few people on the Baltic Sea resort town of Binz, on Rügen island
On the Baltic Sea resort town of Binz, on Rügen island, only local residents are allowed to access the beach Image: picture alliance/dpa/S. Sauer

In mid-March, the government of the western German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania was the first in the country to ban all travel for touristic purposes amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The government called for all vacationers already in the state to return to their homes.

"We were shocked, but followed the instructions and acted immediately," recalls Till Jaich, who runs a water park for holidaymakers on the Baltic Sea island of Rügen. On March 16, upon reading the government’s press release, he immediately evacuated all of the vacation rentals in his complex, which includes apartments, floating holiday homes and stilt houses in the port of Lauterbach, on the island’s southern coast.

At that time, his properties were already 80% booked — many regular guests were there, like every spring when the season begins. Most come for the quiet atmosphere; they take care of themselves or use the small restaurant on site.

stilt houses for vacationers on Rügen island, Germany
These stilt houses for vacationers on Rügen island have been empty since March 17Image: im-jaich.de/Florian Melzer

The employees, who were also surprised, asked the guests to leave immediately. Some of the guests stood, crying, in front of Jaich, asking him not to send them back to states like North Rhine-Westphalia or Bavaria, where the number of infected people was far higher.

But a day later, the facility was deserted. The guests complied with the evacuation orders and Jaich's company was forced to put its employees on partial furlough. "Since then we have had zero guests, zero sales," he says — and without any way to predict the future, "we are just playing it by ear."

If infection rates do not rise significantly, the state government is now looking at allowing hospitality providers to open again on May 11. But that does not necessarily mean that travel restrictions will be loosened.

Domestic travel first

The situation in the state of Schleswig-Holstein is similar. Travel for touristic reasons has also been prohibited here since mid-March. The government will start allowing residents to visit their own in-state second homes, vacation properties or seasonal camping spots starting in early May. By mid-May, state officials plan to announce a date when hotels or apartments can be rented again. But it will be some time before foreign guests are allowed to come back.

Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, Germany
Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, one of Europe’s most popular sights, sits waiting for visitorsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/K. J. Hildenbrand

The state of Bavaria, which is also very popular with holidaymakers, is one of the areas most affected by the pandemic. The state's travel restrictions, decided in mid-March, remain in effect until May 3. While retail trade and shops are allowed to reopen gradually, the catering trade has to wait until at least the end of May, Bavarian State Premier Markus Söder confirmed on Monday.

In mid-April, Söder had suggested that Germans consider taking their summer vacations domestically because a trip abroad would hardly be possible given the pandemic. He left open the question of when visitors could be accommodated again in his state. As elsewhere across the country, this depends on how the number of new infections develops.

Europe remains cautious

Old town of Venice, Italy
Venice is almost eerily quiet without visitorsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/G. Cosua

Europe's top travel destinations have already largely written off their summer business. Italy, Spain and France are cautiously easing exit restrictions, but tourism is not yet benefiting.

Italy recently confirmed the old saying that "necessity is the mother of invention" with a recent proposal involving plexiglass boxes around deck chairs on the beach. But the idea was canned by lifeguards and the general public.

Commentators in Italian daily La Repubblica said that the tourism industry, which is so important for the economy, is now "the great unknown." With foreign tourists not expected until next year, they suggested that opening up partially for domestic tourists could at least somewhat alleviate the depth of the crisis.

In France, it also remains unclear when hotels and restaurants will reopen. The travel restrictions there were recently extended to May 11.

Empty beach promenades in Palma de Mallorca, Spain
Empty beach promenades in Palma de Mallorca, SpainImage: picture-alliance/dpa/T. Reiner

In Spain, a campaign promoting domestic travel has made the rounds on social media under the hashtag QuédateEnEspaña ("stay in Spain"). Tourism to the Balearic Islands like Mallorca and Ibiza is particularly popular with Germans and Britons. The islands' tourism commissioner, Iago Negueruela, believes that tourism will return slowly — perhaps already in August. As among some German officials, his vague hopes apply to his own citizens, who will likely be the first to be able to visit holiday destinations in their own country again.

While domestic travel looks likely to gradually become possible again this year for many Europeans, traveling abroad remains unlikely in the short term. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas also confirmed this on Wednesday, extending the worldwide travel warning for German travelers until at least June 14.

The German government's tourism commissioner, Thomas Bareiss, has also said it is rather unlikely that European travelers could return to popular destinations like Spain, Greece or Turkey relatively quickly.

'Actually we live in a paradise'

portrait of Hospitality manager Till Jaich
Hospitality manager Till Jaich hopes that trips to Germany’s Baltic Sea island of Rügen will soon be possible againImage: privat

Back on Rügen island, hotelier Jaich is trying to find something positive out of the crisis every morning. But he is surprised to hear how many people complain about how difficult it is to adjust to working from home, while workers in the hospitality and tourism industries are doomed to do nothing or survive the verge of bankruptcy.

In his case, he is thankful to live on a beautiful island where he can enjoy nature. "Actually we live in a paradise," he emphasizes, counting his blessings. Every morning he walks with his dog through the forest, and when he walks along the beach, he doesn't meet people. He is glad to live on a quiet island rather than in a big city. And when he gets back to his office, guests call to book a stay for the future, hoping against hope they can travel soon.