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German Vacation Habits (April 1, 2004)

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Once Castro, today Westerwelle

On average, 70 of 100 Germans spend their long [annual] vacation out of the country. That the number was smaller last year (62%) was chiefly due to the fact that many did not have the money. Above all, East Germans listed money shortages as their reason for staying home. Their eagerness to travel has dropped about as rapidly as the unemployment figures have risen. Before 1989, however, they were no less mobile than the West Germans, as Heike Bähre writes in her scholarly work on tourism policy in the transformation of the political system [Tourismuspolitik in der Systemtransformation].

East Germans were open to the world, but the world was not open to them. Except for Bulgaria, Romania, and Czechoslovakia, they could take vacation only in their own country. In return, however, the state did everything it could. Trips were supposed to be possible for everyone. That every enterprise had to maintain its own vacation home was just as foolish, economically speaking, as the fact that locals in the shopping centers “marched up to the cashier past the line of vacationers and were given preferred service.” The state-promoted economy of scarcity led to peculiar conflicts. For example, one clerk in East Berlin who sold underpants and children’s socks complained in a letter that the “foreign tourists, especially Poles, are buying up certain lines of goods.”

Klaus Wenzel survived the Wende equally well as his Hotel Neptun in Warnermünde on the Baltic Sea. It rises into the sky as one gigantic block of concrete; all rooms have a view of the sea. “Before the Wende it was international here, Egyptians came, Americans, Australians, and New Zealanders, our employees were trained in three languages,” says the hotel director. In East Germany, the Neptun was a contractual hotel of the union, Wensel greeted guests like Fidel Castro. Today, the guests are almost exclusively Germans – like Guido Westerwelle,* for instance.

[ . . . ]

With the same ideology that it used in the sixties and seventies to convert the developing countries in South-East Asia and North Africa into touristic sellouts (“We bring money and jobs”), the Western tourist industry moved into the new states after the fall of the wall. The Hotel Neptun, for example, has changed ownership five times so far as a “tax saving model.” At the same time, the Baltic Sea, especially the coastline in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, has become the Germans’ most popular domestic vacation destination. And in the process it has relegated Bavaria to second place.

After the hot summer of 2003, hardly anyone is still carping about the bad weather. In his own country, however, the German is an even more difficult guest than elsewhere. While he will tend to come out of his shell a little under the southern sun, becoming a little more relaxed and generous, here at home he remains a realist. He has no penchant for riotous behavior and, as Klaus Wenzel puts is, he is constantly on the road with the price-value ratio in his head. “In this, the Leipziger is no different from the Hamburger.” The German vacationer feels entitled to expect that everything in the eastern part of the country will be cheaper; for his satisfaction the employees should be friendlier and more competent than in the West.

* Guido Westerwelle is a German politician and the leader of the Free Democratic Party of Germany (FDP) – eds.

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