Tourists are a lightening rod for local discontent: attracting the sharp end of the Berliner Schnauze for everything from dithering on the U-Bahn to the destruction of all that was once unique and wonderful. The prominence of the issue can be clearly traced alongside the rising tide of tourism in the city, which has trebled since the early nineties and continues to rise sharply now. Berlin recently became the third most-visited city in Europe, receiving almost ten million visitors in 2011, and 2012 is set to be another record-breaking year.
Berlin is an expansive city with solid infrastructure yet people are concerned that the visitor count is spiralling out of control. Not least because the official tourist board is on a mission to continue smashing its record. Visit Berlin spokesman, Christian Tänzler, believes that there is enough space for more tourists and aims to hit 30 million overnights stays per year. He explained: “When the Wall came down in 1989 Berlin was not a tourist destination and this has changed in the last 20 years. It was a very fast development with all the pluses and negatives, but tourism is nowadays the most valuable economic factor here with 230,000 employees. Berlin is not an industrial city but it has become a well-functioning tourist destination.”
Perhaps an unsurprising stance given that Visit Berlin is funded largely by the hotel and travel industry, as well as the City of Berlin, which hasn’t failed to notice the estimated €10 billion that tourists spend each year. So after reunification and the economic miracle that never was, it might seem strange that tourism, as the only shining light in the economic gloom, has now attracted so much ill-feeling. Visitors are seemingly blamed for rising prices and the waves of gentrification across town, but how does tourism actually fit into the bigger picture of a changing city?
Wild horses of gentrification are often seen to have a corporate or state-sponsored master, cracking the whip of financial opportunity. Yet Berlin has proved something of a leaky bucket when it comes to large scale investment. Public money from West German coffers has bankrolled much city development but, lacking a strong economic base to sustain wholesale private speculation, Berlin better fits the hungry-artist model of gentrification. People big on adventure and ideas, but low on cash and standards move into post-Mauerfall Prenzlauer Berg or Mitte, for example, and slowly things change until there’s a suit slurping frozen yoghurt on the corner, or worse yet, it’s turned into Berlinland. (See how many cliches you can spot in the picture below).
Tourism is not seen as a driving force in this paradigm rather as an end station. Once an area is sparkling and sanitized, it is deemed visit-worthy and then commercialised beyond recognition. Yet this overlooks the role played by the tourist, particularly in Berlin, which attracts huge numbers of so-called neo-tourists, i.e. tourists desperately trying not to be tourists. Also labelled as post-tourism tourists, this group like many of us, want authentic experiences rather than sightseeing trips. Visitors are naturally less price-conscious than residents, which might edge a beer over €3 but it isn’t exactly fuelling mass gentrification. Rather it is the proliferation of holiday apartments that has become a key battleground. Last year academic research in a paper called the Tourism-led Gentrification of Berlin-Kreuzberg, found that homes rented out through companies like Airbnb are squeezing the city’s housing stock, pushing up rents and forcing out long-term tenants. The protest camp at Kottbusser Tor is evidence of the dissatisfaction, yet officials seem uninterested.
Since 2003, the City of Berlin has withdrawn its additional help to tenants in the social housing surrounding Kotti and they seem to be turning a blind-eye to to the semi-legal holiday rentals in the area too. These short-term visitors are not counted by Visit Berlin but recent estimates reckon on between 15 and 20 thousand holiday flats in the city, accounting for an additional 10-20% of the tourist industry. As they are concentrated in the inner-city, this tourist black-market appears to be turning the screw on poorer residents in Berlin’s more desirable districts.
Opposition politician, Simon Wachelski, said that the Senate is not doing enough to protect low-income groups and that vacation rentals are making the problem worse. The Pirate Party member said: “It’s not even allowed. You can’t change a building which is marked as residential into a commercial property, which those holiday flats actually are…The living situation is quite tense at the moment.”
Dr Luis-Manuel Garcia, a post-doctoral fellow at Freies Universität, is investigating tourism and nightlife in Berlin. He has also highlighted the problem of holiday apartments and suggested a way forward: “If the City focuses on residential policies in Berlin, it would get to a lot of the root issues. The tourism debates and gentrification debates…are symptomatic of a core issue in Berlin, which is the fight over urban space, in particular over the living space. The best thing the City could do to tackle issues of tourism and gentrification would be to work on ensuring affordable and available housing.”
Social scientist, Dr Andrej Holm of Humboldt University, in his journal article — Urban Renewal and the End of Social Housing — documented the City of Berlin’s increasingly neo-liberal policies that are pro-business at the expense of disadvantaged sections of society. Noting Prenzlauer Berg as the archetype example, he wrote: “The traditional social-democratic orientation of German housing policy was abandoned; urban renewal policy no longer seeks to supply ‘wide circles of the population,’ but instead promotes the better off.”
There are now concerns that the Berlin Senate sees tourism as the miracle to save its finances and it is again ignoring the plight of its poorer citizens. Dr Garcia was also critical of City officials: “They’ve been a bit too enthusiastic and haven’t stopped to think much about the possible negative repercussions and I would agree that they’ve been very pro-tourism with a certain degree of optimism around the idea that more tourists equals a better economic outcome.”
The situation regarding holiday apartments, however, shows that it’s not always a case of the more the merrier and that there are real knock-on effects for Berlin’s residents. Yet having said that, the tourist-hate remains a misguided shot by disaffected people, as tourists are the most obvious but often least culpable actor in this gentrification saga. The anger and discontent would be much better aimed at the Senate of Berlin, which continues to ignore the ever-more desperate housing needs of many broke Berliners.