Economy & Politics

Pandemic tourism industry: boom and crisis at the same time

Holiday home on the German Baltic coastimago images / penofoto

Despite high occupancy in some places, the German tourism industry is still a long way from overcoming the Corona crisis. This does not only apply to the cities that are still largely visitor-free, the cruise ships lying empty at anchor and the almost idle aviation. Even on the coast, where visitors occasionally pushed to the beaches, and in the countryside, where the holiday farms were completely booked out, the crisis is still clearly noticeable.

The tourism industry is one of the most important economic sectors in Germany. It employs almost three million people, which corresponds to every 15th job. During the lockdown from mid-March to mid-May, almost all businesses that had anything to do with travel were idle. Overnight stays across the country plummeted by almost 90 percent as a result of the tourist ban. But even in the summer months they were still well below the previous year’s level across Germany. The pictures of some overcrowded beach promenades are deceptive: only a few regions were actually able to achieve growth compared to previous years. The worst hit cities, where in the high season only half as many guests stayed as before the pandemic.

Here are four different perspectives on the tourism industry:

Live “from everything that is now forbidden”

“Six registrations for tonight, none for tomorrow and so far two for Saturday”, the look at the booking calendar for her “whore tour” in the red light district of St. Pauli is sobering for Gerritje Deterding. The agency owner, organizer and even a passionate Hamburg city guide cannot even cover her costs with this – and has not been for months. She has to pay the 80 Euro fee for the tour guide, which takes around two hours, regardless of the number of participants. In Hamburg and other major cities, tourism collapsed massively in spring. Even after that, there is hardly any sign of recovery. The occupancy of the hotels is barely more than 20 percent, even in summer. City guides who make a living from showing tourists, business travelers or congress visitors to the metropolises are particularly hard hit.

“Our business lives from what is now forbidden or canceled,” says Deterding: Cruise ships, which in normal times bring thousands of tourists to the Hanseatic city at one time, will be firmly anchored for the foreseeable future. Trade fairs and congresses have been canceled. Hamburg’s musical theaters are closed, the Elbphilharmonie only plays for a few hundred, mostly local, guests per concert. There are hardly any alternatives for the tour guides. Trying to get locals interested in tours in their own hometown has largely failed. “Apparently they think they already know everything,” reports Deterding. The city guides, who had not given up yet, often worked – when they deduct travel and other costs from the ticket income for a handful of tour participants, “for less than one coffee” per tour.

There is hardly any improvement in sight. “Normally summer is the high season in which we tour guides have to generate a large part of our income,” explains Deterding, who is also the chairwoman of the Hamburg Guides association, an association of around 80 colleagues. Without Christmas markets and celebrations, the winter season this year is likely to be even worse than usual.

Occupancy to 110 percent

On May 18, the police cleared the way to Sylt again. The officials, who rigorously enforced the ban on accommodation that had been in force until then and had already intercepted all tourists who wanted to get to the North Sea island on the mainland and sent them home, withdrew their patrol from the train station in Niebüll, the most important access point to Sylt. “From that day on, our business was 110 percent, well above the level of previous years,” says Oliver Suchy, owner of the hotel and restaurant “Altes Zollhaus” in Westerland and operator of numerous holiday apartments.

The usual first highlight of the season, the Easter break, was completely canceled due to the lockdown. The repayments due for the cancellation of already paid stays brought many restaurateurs and hoteliers like Suchy into serious liquidity problems. But after that – thanks in part to the excellent weather – all the more guests came. From the usual dent in the shop after the Easter to the beginning of the summer holidays, there was nothing to be felt this year. And bookings for the off-season are also going well. Not only the regular guests have almost all returned and made up for the visits that were canceled in the spring, reports Suchy. In addition, many new guests became aware of German holiday destinations who “otherwise traveled to Croatia or Greece”, reports the hotelier and is optimistic that many of them will become regular guests in the coming years.

However, the situation for Suchy is not entirely unclouded. Because only the accommodation, especially in the holiday apartments, can run “to 110 percent”. The associated restaurant is limited to a good half of its capacity due to the distance regulations that still apply. The fact that the hotels and holiday apartments are full all over the island, but the restaurants have to remain half empty, leads to resentment among some holidaymakers who cannot find a place for dinner. Suchy looks worriedly into the coming months: “Despite the excellent workload, I’m just afraid of having to register short-time work for some employees again.” Because in the summer months he was still able to use the large terrace for his restaurant. With the colder and stormy weather on the North Sea coast, these places will soon no longer be available.

Travel agencies in crisis

What are travel agencies for when you can book almost everything yourself on the Internet? In the spring, Thomas Gatzsche’s customers were able to experience what for: At one o’clock in the morning the managing director of the “Travel Lounge” in Wermelskirchen called a family to inform them about the general Corona travel warning for vacation trips that had just been imposed. The first of hundreds of such conversations. For many customers, some of whom were deeply concerned and who were already abroad, Gatzsche and his employees organized the return trip, and for those who had not yet left, the cancellation and reimbursement of payments already made. The phones hardly stood still for three months.

Nevertheless, the travel agency took practically nothing during that time. There are no new bookings. On the contrary: Gatzsche had to repay tens of thousands of euros in commission to the tour operator. He can hardly reduce the fixed costs, especially for rent and for the booking system. The “Travel Lounge” survived that – unlike thousands of other medium-sized travel agencies – because “the company has been operating very solidly for decades and had high reserves,” says Gatzsche. Even after the lockdown and the temporary lifting of the travel warning for many European countries, business is not picking up. The classic travel agencies are not feeling much of the boom in some German holiday regions. “Travel agencies like ours live from long-distance travel and cruises,” says Gatzsche. Of his former team of seven employees, there is only one mini-job left and he himself – on short-time work.

At the end of summer, Gatzsche is also about to give up. But he makes one last attempt: In a letter, he asks his customers for support. “I didn’t beg, but asked whether our service was worth it and what it was.” The response is overwhelming. Within a short period of time, around 120 customers transfer a total of five-digit amounts. This not only gives Gatzsche the financial means to keep the “Travel Lounge” open for several months. The loyalty of these customers “brought tears to his eyes,” reports the experienced travel agent. This willingness to help and many conversations with customers gave him the strength to hold out until the crisis was over. Because in the long term Gatzsche is optimistic about the future of the tourism industry. “Right now in the crisis we can feel how great the will of the people is to travel,” he says. He is certain that those of the travel agents who survive will emerge stronger from the crisis.

Safety for people and animals

She was still missing, says Ute Mushardt, “that someone would bring the coronavirus into our yard here”. As the manager of a farm with ten holiday homes, 310 hectares of arable land, dairy cows, grazing cattle as well as horses, chickens, rabbits and farm dogs, she could not afford that. The protection of humans and animals from the virus is paramount. And the holiday guests not only showed understanding for this, says Mushardt, they even thanked them for being able to go on holiday with a feeling of reliability during these times. The farmer’s wife “coaches” the vacationers not only on the extensive hygiene concept on the farm, but also on how they can move around in the area, which beaches and which restaurants they can visit at which times without hesitation. “Since we were able to resume accommodation in May, we have been fully booked” – despite noticeable restrictions. “For example, we can no longer do the usual tour of the farm to get to know each other.” Additional information material cannot, of course, completely replace personal contact. But safety comes first in the yard.

Holiday farms like Ute Mushardt’s are almost fully booked this summer across Germany. According to the Federal Working Group for Farm Holidays and Rural Tourism, of which Mushardt is honorary chairman, there were still vacant holiday homes in a few regions such as the Münsterland or Lower Rhine. It doesn’t look any different for the autumn break. According to Mushardt, if one of the nearly 10,000 holiday farms was not fully booked, it was often due to a lack of internet connection. In order to benefit from the great demand in the crisis, it is crucial to be present online and also bookable. But even in 2020, some rural regions in Germany have no usable data connections. “For some it is hardly possible to use an online booking system,” reports Mushardt. Slow connections could result in annoying double bookings.

But even at the courtyards, which have been fully booked since May, the corona crisis is not leaving its mark. The loss from the lockdown time can no longer be made up this year. In addition, Mushardt has completely stopped receiving day visitors, such as school classes and other groups. And the crisis is also affecting agricultural production. The malting barley that Mushardt cultivated for breweries in nearby Bremen has to be sold at significantly lower prices than cattle feed because of the beer sales crisis.

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