Watching crowds of revelers gathered on Kreuzberg's busy Mehringdamm intersection this August felt like a throwback to those carefree pre-pandemic Berlin summers many have come to miss. With numerous fast food joints, restaurants, countless convenience stores and bars, this vibrant neighborhood has been always been popular with locals and visitors alike. Judging by the lively hubbub, then, one might be tempted to think Berlin's tourist sector has bounced back from the pandemic-induced slump of 2020. But has it?
In 2020, the city recorded some 12 million overnight stays - not even half of what they were in 2019, prior to the pandemic. So far, this year looks even grimmer. According to the Berlin-Brandenburg Statistics Office, some 2.5 million overnight stays were recorded between January and June 2021 - a 61% drop compared with the same period last year. These are disappointing figures after an already tough year.
Burkhard Kieker, of visitBerlin, the city's marketing agency, estimates the capital's tourist industry lost some €150 million ($178 million) in revenue each week during the first half of 2021.
This does not come as a surprise, however, as Berlin's hospitality and cultural sector remained largely shut during the first six months of this year. Hotels and other lodgings were allowed to host business travelers only. Restaurants were restricted to selling takeaway meals, with inside and outside dining prohibited. In addition, individuals wishing to enter Germany from the EU and Schengen Area could do so only for urgent reasons. To help contain coronavirus infections, Germany had effectively pulled the plug on tourism.
Figures by the Berlin-Brandenburg Statistics Office paint a clear picture. Between January and June 2021, not even 20% of Berlin tourists hailed from abroad. By comparison, in 2019, almost half of all visitors came from outside the country.
Tough Summer Season
Businesses reliant on non-German tourists have taken a beating, as Lindenbräu restaurant manager Philipp Davidoff can attest. Located inside Sony Center on Potsdamer Platz, his establishment specializes in traditional hearty German fare and beer. Normally, the restaurant is frequented by a wide range of international guests from places like the United Kingdom, the US, Spain, Italy and France. To make up for this year's drop in foreign visitors, Davidoff began offering a lunch service to attract local office workers. "That worked quite well," he said. Even so, business has fallen far short of pre-pandemic levels.
Cole Reulbach, an outgoing 28-year-old American who runs English-language tours of Berlin, knows the feeling. He told DW the summer season has been slow and "wildly unstable." The summer months, he said, are usually the most lucrative. It is during this time that the greatest number of tourists tend to visit the capital. "Normally, this time of year I guarantee at least, 10 to 15 people on a weekday, 15 or 25 on a weekend." Reulbach, who moved to Germany at 20, never got his hopes up for this year's summer season. "Basically, it's met my expectations in the sense that it hasn't been great."
The tourist trade has, however, picked up since Berlin began easing restrictions on everyday life. Hotels and other lodgings reopened to holidaymakers in May. Restaurants and bars once again began serving patrons, though outside only at first. By early June, authorities gave the go-ahead for indoor dining as well. Cinemas, theaters, opera houses and concert venues opened their doors, too. Even Berlin nightclubs were permitted to crank up the music and welcome back partygoers, albeit with strict hygiene and testing rules in place. And Europeans could once again enter the country for non-essential trips.
"Berlin waited a long time to open back up," visitBerlin's Kieker told DW. "Now, in July and August, we have seen pent-up demand [to visit the city manifest itself]."
Thomas Lengfelder, who heads DEHOGA Berlin, the capital's hotel and restaurant association, concurs. Industry figures show hotel occupancy rates rose to over 66% in August 2021, up from 44% that same time last year. Nevertheless, this is still significantly lower than August 2019 levels. Lengfelder told DW August had been an auspicious month but warned the hotel sector faces growing uncertainty, as bookings now tend to be very last minute.
Not All Doom And Gloom
Some businesses, meanwhile, have coped better with this uncertainty than others. Antonello Melis and his wife Maria Angeles run a Ceviche restaurant in Berlin's bustling Kreuzberg district. Melis, who prides himself in the quality of their cuisine and excellent reviews, told DW it has been a strong summer so far. "I can't complain, I'm pleased."
He thinks people were longing to get out and visit restaurants after being cooped during the most recent lockdown. Melis admitted he and his wife were worried when they shut their establishment during the very first lockdown last year. They were unsure how to stay in business, as tourists had made up a considerable part of their clientele. But over time their customer base changed. Laughing, the jovial Italian said they are now seeing more and more Berliners come in to enjoy their meals instead.
Hotels, tour operators and other such businesses are pleased to see the tourist trade showing signs of recovery now that Berlin has reopened. The last thing they want is to endure yet another lockdown.
Photo and Text Courtesy: DW News