Berlin Becomes International City, Whines About It

Titled ‘A Victim of Its Own Success: Berlin Drowns in Tourist Hordes and Rising Rents‘, this Der Spiegel article is a distillation of a lot of the bitching you hear from Berliners.

This new city could soon become the actual city. If that happens, Berlin will no longer be primarily a home for Berliners, but a stage for an international audience. Some ugly terms to describe this new city have been making the rounds in Berlin, with some calling it a “giant Ballermann,” a reference to a notoriously rowdy beach bar on the Mediterranean resort island of Mallorca. Others call it a giant Disneyland, because of a growing sense of artificiality and absence of authenticity.

The ‘tourist hordes’, goes the argument, are gentrifying Berlin into an expat playground at the expense of the locals. They push up rents and genericize neighborhoods, pushing out the artists and layabouts that made these neighborhoods vibrant in the first place.

There’s something kneejerkically appealing about this argument. If you’ve lived in a neighborhood for 20 years through thick and thin (and Berlin has seen some thin, son), then it must be irritating to see a bunch of rookies show up the minute the place becomes livable. Hearing people rave about ‘low cost of living’ when you’ve barely been getting by in a 300-euro-a-month apartment has got to sting.

But if you think about it any harder than that, tourists and expats moving here is a sign of progress, not destruction.

First, Berlin doesn’t actually have all that that many interlopers. In Berlin, 13.5 percent of the population was born somewhere other than Germany. In London it’s 33 percent.  In Paris, 19.5 percent. London has significantly more tourists, expats and short-termers than Berlin. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who lives there who considers this a bad thing.

Second, tourists and expats contribute disproportionately to quality-of-life services like restaurants, cafes, nightclubs and art galleries. They support citywide events like the Berlin Festival, and incentivize city leaders to organize more of them. Think of how much Munich gets out of the annual Octoberfest, both in terms of easy income and city branding. Smart Berlin politicians should start coming up with Berlin equivalents.

Last I read, unemployment in Berlin was 13 percent. According to this irritating brochure, tourism employs 300,000 people in Berlin and Brandenburg, and contributes 17 billion euros to the economy. Every fanny-packed tourist taking pictures of the Brandenburg Gate represents a string of businesses that might not have a chance in Berlin without his dollars, rubles or yen.

It’s understandable that Berliners are wary of how their city is changing, and miss the Berlinier Berlin of yore. But all of this is a symptom of the fact that Berlin is finally becoming a place that people want to live. That brings rising rents, yes, but it also brings jobs and quality-of-life upgrades. Legitimate concerns about the impact of rising tourism should acknowledge the broader context of the city and its economy. A lot of what makes Berlin so terrific wouldn’t be sustainable without the tourists.

Der Spiegel paints a dystopian future for Berlin: ‘Perhaps the day will come when the budget tourists will realize that they aren’t experiencing a Berlin party, but a party in Berlin.’

Not unlike, in other words, a party in New York, London or Hong Kong. Berlin is the 4th largest city on the world’s most economically and culturally important continent.  Eventually it will have to get used to that.

1 Comment

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One response to “Berlin Becomes International City, Whines About It

  1. Qualtinger

    I read an article last week on the disneyfication of cities (unfortunately can´t recall where), according to which this has already happened to London, Paris and New York among others to some degree. I don´t completely disagree. It´s a slippery slope for a city from embracing tourism to losing its soul and becoming a sterile, branded plastic version of itself.
    Once more, some kind of middle ground what should be aimed for, but in the face of the almighty euro/dollar it´s hard to find.