On Saturday 10th November 2012, several Berlin groups of the German Green party organized a one-day conference to talk about tourism and its consequences for Berlin. The context is important: in 2011, before the Berlin elections, there had been several very controversial public discussions on tourism, which were covered by the media (1)(2)(3) and led to a substantial polarization of the discussion. I did not manage to stay for the whole conference, but I was on the initial panel and would like to repeat here what I said:
To begin with, it is important to simply state that tourism in Berlin is here to stay. Gone are the days when Berlin was a quiet parochial city, with the occasional tourist looking at the remains of the Wall. Tourism started booming after 2000 and it has been growing constantly since. There is no reason to believe this trend will come to an end soon, though I am sure we will see important qualitative changes. That means, we’d better learn to live with tourists. Germans (Berliners), world champions in tourism, see the game reversed, with them in the position of objects as well as subjects – and they seem to have a hard time accepting it. Ask the Mallorquinos or the Cretans what they think… This obviously does not mean that we have to accept everything or simply remain passive and not try to somehow steer the development. Here there are three points that I want to make:
First, our research has shown (4) that in Berlin it is often hard to make the distinction between tourists and locals. Rather, what we have is a continuum between, on the one end the one-off tourist and on the other the Berliner who’s never left her neighbourhood. In between there can be many very different variations of the visitor. Researching a small sample (132 people) in bars in a particular area in Berlin-Kreuzberg (Wrangelkiez), where conflicts between tourists and locals were reported, we found the following:
46 out of the 132 people we asked could not be identified either as tourists or as locals. The research team created the word “Visitors in residence” to describe them. These were international students who are in Berlin for an Erasmus semester or a couple of years; they were people working in temporary projects in co-working spaces – rather different profiles of mostly young people who had one thing in common: they were in Berlin for a while, working or studying, but without being residents of the city. The former category “business traveller” is by no means enough to describe them. Why is this finding important? I see two reasons: a) It is important conceptually. By creating a false dichotomy between “us” and “the others” we miss the point. We struggle imaginary fights and risk falling into the trap of weird localisms. b) It is important in terms of policy-making. If we decide that we do want to steer the local effects of tourism, then we need to know who these “visitors” are. Reaching people who’ll never come again or conversing with those who have some bonds (albeit loose) to the place makes all the difference.
My second point relates to the economics of tourism. I am sure that Visit Berlin (the Berlin tourism organization) has good figures that show a lot of the details we need. Usually though, rough economic data fail to convey the broader consequences of a phenomenon. There are several factors we need to take into consideration: not only how much money is spent by visitors, but also how much has to be spent by the community, mostly in terms on infrastructure, to accommodate this additional, temporary population. My guess is that in Berlin (as in most large cities with their high density) the calculation will be positive. But there is more: how is this economy integrated, i.e. what stays locally and what does not (e.g. through tourism related imports); which branches profit and which do not; who exactly are those who work in tourism and what are their work conditions etc. Only by conducting this kind of detailed research can we assess who profits from tourism and how. Saying that the “city profits” in general, does not make much sense. Knowing who profits is rather important when you start thinking of how to involve local players in managing tourism.
Thirdly, we need to be realistic about what we can do and what not. The masses of tourists make it almost impossible to take a stroll on the street “Unter den Linden” or the Museum Island. I don’t like it, but I hardly think there is anything we can do about it. Born and raised in a city marked by tourism (Athens), I know that you learn to think of certain areas as “tourist territory” and avoid them. Not ideal, but hardly manageable. Then there are very practical things you can deal with. Placing public toilets in the right places; making sure tourist coaches don’t pass through the narrow streets of residential neighbourhoods; prohibiting disturbing uses etc. These are not as limited as it seems at first sight, so you need to identify them and find the necessary budget. Of course with massive cuts in public administration this is an almost impossible task. And finally there is something more complex that needs to be addressed. There are indeed conflicts between locals and visitors (notice how I avoid the word tourist), that we must take seriously. The solutions though, will have to be highly differentiated and probably local, i.e. in the places where these conflicts arise.
But let’s not hold tourism responsible for every development in the city. For example, I am not convinced that the explosive rise in real estate prices in Kreuzberg is linked to tourism – or at least I am unable to understand the correlation. If I am right, then fighting tourists to stop gentrification is not likely to produce any of the desired results.
PS. I had writen an article on se same subject a while back “Gentrification in Berlin (again)“