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Baltic resorts stretched to their limits

Anja Steinbuch
August 4, 2021

Resorts on the Baltic Sea are seeing record numbers of visitors, but staff shortages are slowing down summer business — including in Kühlungsborn. Join us on a visit to the seaside.

Guests crowd the beach on the Baltic coast
Holidaymakers have been thronging Germany's Baltic coastImage: Bernd Wüstneck/dpa/picture alliance

This summer's attraction in the Baltic resort of Kühlungsborn is located in the middle of the beach promenade: a 60-meter-high (197-foot) Ferris wheel. Every three minutes, it transports visitors to dizzying heights and opens up sweeping views of the turquoise-blue sea. The endless white sandy beach stretches eastward to the horizon.

Ferris wheel on the beach promenade in Kühlungsborn
Kühlungsborn, and its Ferris wheel, are fully booked this summerImage: Anja Steinbuch

Indeed, the outlook for July and August in almost all seaside resorts along the Baltic Sea points to a perfect summer: blue skies, temperatures around 25 degrees Celsius (77 Fahrenheit). The water has warmed up to 18 to 20 degrees and there is a pleasant breeze. Amid crashing waves and screeching seagulls, the beach chairs have been neatly lined up — and almost all of them are occupied.

With most German states are on vacation, almost all hotels and guesthouses are booked up until the fall. Many Germans do not want to travel abroad during the pandemic, providing the coastal regions with an extraordinary boom in visitors.

Aerial view of Kühlungsborn beach, Germany
The beach and promenade in Kühlungsborn, Germany's longest waterfront promenade, stretch over 4 kilometersImage: Anja Steinbuch

Staff shortages

"I could serve many more guests in my restaurant, but I lack service staff," complains Albrecht Kurbjuhn, a restaurant operator and hotelier for 30 years in Kühlungsborn. He can only open his restaurant, Bülow's Steak Restaurant, in the evenings and is limited to only occupying the tables in his establishment for two times two hours with a reservation. More is not possible in his fully occupied Hotel Polar-Stern on Ostseeallee.

He has never experienced such a roller coaster of emotions as this year. "We can no longer recoup the losses from this spring, but demand this summer is enormous." Even so, he says, "what we need most now is an ability to plan ahead for me and my team."

The hotelier would like to see commitments from politicians for his industry, which would allow hotels and restaurants to stay open even if COVID cases increase. Otherwise, he says, it could lead to employees leaving the industry once more. In the meantime, he has taken on an apprentice from Uzbekistan. In order for him to stay at the Baltic Sea after his training, apartments specifically for tourism sector employees are urgently needed.

Albrecht Kurbjuhn sits on the stairs of his hotel
Hotelier Albrecht Kurbjuhn is lacking service staffImage: Anja Steinbuch

Staff shortages are widespread in the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. The problem, which has persisted for years, has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Hotels and restaurants, boutiques, cafes and snack bars are desperately seeking workers. The prestigious Röntgen coffeehouse, situated on Strandstrasse, has some 10 jobs advertised, ranging from pastry chef to management and sales staff. The popular cafe has to close its doors at 5 p.m. and turn away guests, even though it usually offers evening snacks and drinks.

Delayed reopening criticized

The hospitality industry and hoteliers on the Baltic Sea claim the state government in Schwerin is partly responsible for this dire situation. According to a survey by the state tourism association, almost three-quarters of tourism businesses felt the decision to lift pandemic restrictions in mid-June came too late.

While neighboring Schleswig-Holstein opened up to visitors as early as May 17, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania had to wait until mid-June. This led to resentment and many cancellations. Nevertheless, according to Kühlungsborn Mayor Rüdiger Kozian, 75% to 80% of the 20,000 guest beds in Kühlungsborn were already occupied at the time of the reopening. 

Sought-after holiday destination

Low incidence rates, relaxed hygiene measures and good weather have turned northeast Germany into a sought-after holiday destination. Karola and Christian Nettel have traveled up from the Bavarian city of Augsburg in their camper van. "We usually like to go to Italy, but safety is important to us during the pandemic, so we decided to explore the Baltic Sea resorts in Mecklenburg," says Christian. 

Karola and Christian Nettel, Tourists from Augsburg, Germany
Karola and Christian Nettel from Bavaria have discovered the Baltic Sea as a holiday destinationImage: Anja Steinbuch

Campsites and fields in the region are full but well run and clean, he says. "Beaches, streets and sites are remarkably well maintained here," adds Karola. On the beach promenade next to the Ferris wheel, the two Bavarians order a flatbread pizza, as a band plays in the background. They are glad to have come here on holiday. "That's pure relaxation for us here, even if we're only staying a week." They want to come back next year.

"People are also longing for culture," says Franz Norbert Kröger. The gallery owner and music lover has just staged a jazz festival at the Baltic resort's Kunsthalle arts center. The hunger for culture is great, Kröger says, adding: "Concertgoers listen raptly and enjoy these moments." Although only 60 visitors can be admitted at a time, the atmosphere has been exceptional, he says.

For another concert series in August, Kröger found it very difficult to find local accommodations for the international artists. He is happy about the many guests in town and pleased to see interested and discerning visitors in his gallery in Dünenstrasse, where he sells works by Armin Mueller-Stahl, Udo Lindenberg and other well-known German creative personalities.

Nature beach near Heiligendamm, Germany
Leafy branches cool the shore in front of HeiligendammImage: Anja Steinbuch

In the afternoon, it gets crowded on the beach by the pier in Kühlungsborn. Physical distancing becomes almost impossible. Not so, however, in Heiligendamm some 9 kilometers (5.6 miles) to the east.

There, a natural beach stretches out behind a leafy forest just outside the former 2007 G8 summit venue. In the middle lies the Deck Beach Club — complete with beach chairs and paddleboards. Thanks to the hidden location and trees, there is plenty of room for everyone to spread out and enjoy the relaxing sunsets. 

Seclusion is an advantage

"When the world ends, I'll move to Mecklenburg, where everything happens 50 years later." The quip attributed to Otto von Bismarck has become Marc-Martin Ahlborn's motto, who fully embraces the state's laid-back charme. Ahlborn runs the idyllically located Hotel Schloss Gamehl — a historic manor house in neo-Gothic style — near Wismar, barely 20 kilometers from the hustle and bustle of the Baltic Sea coast. 

"We are considered a safe haven because the [COVID] cases here have always been very low," says the hotelier, whose establishment is almost fully booked until the fall. The seclusion of the romantic castle is proving to be an advantage amid the pandemic. Guests have plenty of space in the garden, or can go explore local cultural sites and nature. And there is no danger of getting too close to other travelers in the spacious dining room or on the terrace at Schloss Gamehl.

Hotel Schloss Gamehl near Wismar, Germany
Seclusion is an advantage for the Hotel Schloss Gamehl near WismarImage: Anja Steinbuch

No one in the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania knows how the upcoming fall and winter season will turn out. Current infection rates and the way politicians are dealing with them mean industry players and prospective tourists are not very optimistic about the future. 

"You have to expect the unexpected, that's what we've learned," says Ulrich Langer of Kühlungsborn Tourism. So far, guests are hesitant to book accommodations for the winter season. Once again, hosts and hoteliers face an uncertain future.