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Booming and bursting: How is tourism impacting Germany's Baltic coast?

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Booming and bursting: How is tourism impacting Germany's Baltic coast?
Usedom on the Ostsee is an increasingly popular tourism destination. Photo: DPA
17:44 CEST+02:00
From fish rolls and diving gondolas to hipster hostels and Romanticist harbour hotels, Germany's Baltic coast is a vibrant and changing tourism landscape. It is also just beginning to strain under its own success.

The pier at Sellin is a sight to behold. It begins in the town, high above the shore on the Eastern edge of the island of Rügen. 87 wooden steps lead down the steep slope, with a poky funicular for the faint-hearted. Brave the stairs, and you cross the beach first, white sand dotted with wicker beach chairs. From there, the pier itself strides out into the Baltic Sea, an elegant, wooden dame with white walls and dark grey turrets. Built in 1906, it was restored to its former Wilhelmine glory in 1992.

At the end of the pier is a Tauchgondel, or diving gondola. For a few euros, you can clamber into a windowed, metal capsule and dip beneath the waves to see what life is like underwater. Except that due to the algae content in the Baltic Sea, known in Germany as the “Ostsee” or “East Sea”, you can’t see much. So instead, the captain shows you a short film about the marine wildlife. Once it is over, you resurface and go about your day exploring the rest of Rügen. All a little underwhelming.

“There are only four diving gondolas in the world,” the captain says proudly. “The other three are in Zinnowitz, Grömitz and Zingst.”

It is probably testament to the peculiarity of the diving gondola that it has not managed to conquer any towns beyond the German Baltic coast. In many ways, it is typical of the Ostsee, a destination which appeals to tourists precisely because of its parochial harmlessness.

Holidaygoers on Sellin's lit up pier in the summer of 2017. Photo: DPA

The nation's bath tub

This, after all, is a region known as “the nation’s bath tub”, a beautiful bathing spot with the added benefit of having all home comforts. From Fischbrötchen to Tauchgondel the spa resorts and holiday towns which dot the coast in Mecklenburg-West-Pomerania and Schleswig-Holstein can be as tame as the Baltic Sea itself.

In many ways, the Ostsee remains much as it always was. The spa towns are a favourite among older generations, while the chalk cliffs of Rügen and woodland of Usedom appeal to those fond of hiking, that most German of pursuits.

The major holiday destination in times of restricted movement before the the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Ostsee remains as popular as ever in the former East Germany. In 2009, around 27 percent of all tourists from the “new” federal states headed to the Baltic Coast for their holidays, making it by far the most popular destination both in Germany and abroad. By contrast, only six percent headed to Berlin, and even less to the more dramatic shores of the North Sea.

Yet the Ostsee is also a region in flux. Increasingly popular among tourists from western Germany and even further afield, the number of tourists flocking to the Baltic coast is rising steadily. In 2013, around 5.5 million Germans holidayed on the Ostsee, and by last summer, that figure had gone up by around another million. That is before you even consider any foreign visitors.

Christoph Krause, owner of the Dock Inn in Warnemünde, told the Spiegel recently that he had invited a group of Finnish colleagues to the Ostsee, and they had been amazed by the “German Riviera”. “They didn’t mean it ironically either,” he said. 

Building boom

The Dock Inn opened just last spring, and provides hostel-style accomodation in repurposed shipping containers. Almost diametrically opposed in terms of appeal to Sellin’s diving gondola, it is only one example of a wave of new hotel builds which are springing up to deal with a steep rise in demand on the Baltic coast.  

New hotels are set to open in Kiel and Travemünde this year, while in Karlshagen on Usedom, a 300-bed hotel is planned for 2021, in which guests also have the option to stay in one of seven sailing boats which will sit on top of the roof. Other projects, such as the Port-Olpenitz development in Kappeln, have had to revise expectations which proved to be too high, but are still going ahead.

The boom is not all good news, however. Usedom, for example, is straining under the weight of tourism, particularly when it comes to traffic. An island split between Polish and German territory, Usedom is linked to the German mainland only by road, and regularly sees thick, endless traffic jams on its bridges in the summer months. A rail bridge which allowed a direct train connection from the island to Berlin was never rebuilt after World War II. It is only now, with the Ostsee booming in the age of tourism, that this has become quite so problematic.

Overcrowded islands

“It has been a problem for ten to fifteen years, but it has become unbearable in the last five years or so,” local Green Party politician Kristin Wegner told Die Zeit. Usedom has high proportion of AfD voters, many of whom, she told the newspaper, are simply voting out of protest. A reporter at the regional Ostsee-Zeitung told The Local that she once spoke to an AfD voter on Usedom who, questioned on her motives, called to her partner over her shoulder: “Honey, why did we vote AfD again?”

Grumblings in Usedom are also directed at the Polish side of the island, which profits from a greater deal of EU funding. A flagship project to build the “Swine-Tunnel”, which would connect the Polish town of Swinemünde with the Polish mainland, is a concern for German Usedomers who feel it could further exacerbate the traffic problem on the island. Whether on the EU or the national level, the prevailing consensus is that there is a dearth of strategic thinking when it comes to tourism infrastructure.

Last year, the number of visitors to Mecklenburg-Western-Pomerania actually went down, with some blaming the extreme situation on the islands. A strategic regional approach, though, is beginning to take shape, according to Maik Wittenbecher, chief executive of the city marketing department in Greifswald.

Many beach chairs dot the sand of Sellin. Photo: DPA

Quality, not quantity

Greifswald, a university town which lies just inland from the coast between Usedom and Rügen, markets itself primarily on its cultural history, rather than its proximity to the sea. The birthplace of Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, Greifswald’s vibrant cultural scene is expanding, and the city’s marketing department are keen to place Friedrich and romanticism at the heart of its appeal. The idea, says Maik Wittenbecher, Greifswald’s marketing chief executive, is to play to the town’s strengths as “the home harbour of Romanticism”.

While that involves advertising all over the country and beyond to tourists interested specifically in the cultural side of things, it also means working with Usedom and Rügen to draw day-trippers to Greifswald in the summer.

“We’re not going to turn a tourist who has only come for the beaches into a culture tourist,” says Wittenbecher. But for those who do want it, there has to be the best programme possible. Rather than simply building beach huts without the necessary infrastructure, Greifswald has moved in the direction of cultural institutions such as the Caspar David Friedrich centre, the Pomeranian State Museum, and even plans for a new German Romantic themed Hotel.

“It’s about quality not quantity,” says Wittenbecher. “We want things that fit our approach, like the Romantic Hotel”.

Quality not quantity is a cry which seems to pop up everywhere when people talk about tourism on the Ostsee. After the boom years, the region is hoping to kick on in a positive direction.

On the regional level, money and growth has often flooded in to certain areas at breakneck speed, leaving others to catch-up. While Mecklenburg-Western-Pomerania  gratefully received investment which flooded into the former East Germany after reunification, Schleswig-Holstein was left comparatively underfunded.

“There was an enormous lot of catching up to do in the East which meant that nobody invested in the West German coast for a long time,” tourism researcher Edgar Kreilkamp told Die Zeit in 2014. The boom in the last decade, he said, is partly down to the two regions evening out. Yet the two federal states still run separate ships when it comes to tourism. There is no unified Ostsee tourist board, and some reports little co-operation between tourism authorities in Mecklenburg-Western-Pomerania and Schleswig-Holstein.

The diving gondolas, at least, do span the state border. While Sellin, Zinnowitz and Zingst are in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Grömitz at least is in the former West. “The brilliant idea of the diving gondola was first realised in 2006,” declares the captain proudly. Brilliant or not, it is certainly unique. So too the German riviera, with its gentle waves, spa towns and crowded roads. A unique tourist destination with a unique history and at times unique people. Only its problems make it like so many other tourist spot.

 
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