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Help! The post-tourism tourists are here…

For better or worse, a new breed of “place consumers” is transforming Berlin’s neighbourhoods – we spoke to the city’s top expert, urban planner Johannes Novy, about the impact of these hipster nomads.

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The “creative class” on Admiralsbrücke. Photo by Stuart Braun

For better or worse, a new breed of “place consumers” is transforming Berlin’s neighbourhoods – EXBERLINER spoke to the city’s top expert, urban planner Johannes Novy, about the impact of these hipster nomads.

Not long ago, a tourist visit to Berlin meant ticking off the Brandenburg Gate, TV Tower, Museum Island and Hackescher Markt one after another. These days, plenty of visitors avoid the big sights altogether. Instead, they ‘experience’ the Berlin lifestyle, snapping pictures of street graffiti outside a Lidl supermarket, exploring underground art in Neukölln, taking a Sunday jaunt through Mauerpark’s flea market or soaking up elusive neighbourhood flair in Kreuzberg.

Say hello to the “new urban tourists” who are rapidly colonising far-flung parts of the inner city and sometimes even staying a little longer to set up an art space or bar before moving on to another life in another city.

Tourism in Berlin contributes around 7 percent of GDP. In New York, it’s around 3.5 percent. Many people would be surprised at this.

Tourism has become very prevalent in the city. Contrary to most other economic sectors, tourism has grown remarkably in Berlin since the fall of the Wall, and has had a powerful impact on the city’s rapid transformation ever since. This impact is, of course, most evident in the city’s central areas – most notably Mitte and City West – where most of the city’s top tourist destinations, like the Brandenburg Gate, are located. But it is also felt in areas that lack a large number of conventional attractions and were not planned – and until recently not marketed – as tourist zones, such as Kreuzberg, Prenzlauer Berg or even Neukölln…

How do visitors to these areas embody the “new tourism” you describe?

In Neukölln, for example, you can see – at least on its northern edges, where so many bars and galleries have recently emerged – how tourism has become a major source of very powerful transformation. Many of the popular bars that are currently altering that part of the city are not only frequented by tourists, but were even started by entrepreneurs who were tourists not too long ago. Residents in the conventional sense are not driving the process, it seems; without tourists, it wouldn’t be happening. So it’s not, as is often implied, that the process of gentrification takes place and the tourists follow.

I think in the case of Kreuzkölln, the argument could be made (though further research is needed) that tourism and gentrification frequently takes place simultaneously. We are observing the accumulated effect of what some colleagues refer to as the “cosmopolitan consuming class” – the hyper-mobile and typically affluent/educated consumers who now drive the transformation of certain inner-city neighbourhoods.

But are these new tourists actually tourists at all? Aren’t they the so-called “creative class” who come to Berlin because it’s cheap(er), because they can engage in cultural production while living here for a time?

The conventional wisdom is that a tourist is the opposite of a resident. However, I would argue that particularly members of this “creative class” also travel to Berlin to be at home. It could be said that in Berlin, certain residents use the city as if they were tourists, and certain tourists don’t behave all that differently from the way many residents do. Much of the discussion about tourism in this city wrongly builds on the idea that hosts and visitors, touristic and non-touristic behaviours, can be easily separated. Instead, I think that the divisions between tourism and everyday life in Berlin are becoming increasingly blurred.

But is “new tourism” all that new?

No. It’s rather that these different forms of tourism have become more prevalent in the city as tourism has grown and diversified. The niche has become mainstream, so to speak. But it has been happening for a long time. The slumming and flaneurism of the late 19th and early 20th century in Weimar-era Berlin essentially involved the activities we now call “new tourism”.

In the early 1960s, Kreuzberg was labelled Berlin’s Montmartre. During the Wall years, tourists ventured into the area to participate in, or simply gaze upon, the neighbourhood’s scene: the galleries, squats, pubs, ethnic markets and theatres. What’s actually new is that it has become such a powerful force of urban change in many places.

So what’s different… the scale of it?

Until recently, the change was rather subtle – many people actually didn’t take notice of it. Tourists in many parts of the city patronised the same shops, bars, cafes and cultural attractions as local residents and visitors from other parts of the city without attracting much attention or even being identified as stereotypical tourists (like the much-derided pub crawlers). So they remained largely invisible. But of course, there can be problems. Low-income people and other disadvantaged groups often lose out when rents start to rise, and as neighbourhoods have become ‘destinations’, there have increasingly been conflicts about the use of public space.

Places like the Admiralsbrücke?

The current clashes over the Admiralsbrücke in Kreuzberg, where people like to congregate and party at night, could be blamed on tourists and transients. However, the issue is not about tourists versus residents per se. It is about certain tourists and residents – ‘place’ consumers, so to speak – using the city differently than other residents, particularly those who sleep at night.

Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg’s mayor Franz Schulz has been vocal on the issue in his attempt to mediate the changes that “new tourism” has brought to his borough.

Schulz experiences firsthand how tourism, along with other developments, turned part of his jurisdiction upside down. He’s tried to mitigate the conflicts concerning the Admiralsbrücke that are currently making it into the newspapers every other day. He was, very early on, outspoken about the manifold implications of such tourism on the housing market. The rapid turnover on the rental market in Kreuzberg is also largely responsible for the rising rents in the area. This seems to be caused, at least in part, by transients who are willing to pay a lot of money for rather less attractive places, and thus allow landlords to raise rents.

You’ve said that 10,000 apartments have been taken out of the residential market and given to tourists in Berlin.

And there might be many, many more unreported cases. It is, to a certain extent, a Berlin-specific issue, one that has been happening since 2002, when the Oberverwaltungsgericht [administrative court] overturned the so-called Zweckentfremdungsverbot zoning laws, which usually prevents conversion of housing for uses other than residential use. The court’s argument was that Berlin’s oversupply of housing at the time didn’t justify keeping the policy in place. Now, we are seeing the consequences: not only has the market become increasingly tight, but some long-term residents – for instance, those along Wilhelmstraße – are now outnumbered by temporary residents.

But are Berlin’s city and council governments also trying to mobilize more of these tourists to generate economic activity?

The city’s marketing experts and other urban boosters have stepped up their efforts to market Berlin as a young, creative and cosmopolitan destination. Berlin Tourismus Marketing [BTM], for example, is devoting significant attention to off-scene attractions such as Kiezperlen beyond the traditional inner-city precincts [one such plan involves the co-promotion of artist-run shops and galleries in Friedrichshain]. BTM likes to highlight this image of Berlin as the great unfinished city, a location for “optimism and permanent change”. Travel guides also regularly cite such alternative, bohemian, creative and countercultural atmospheres as constitutive elements of the city’s particularity and tourist appeal.

Symptomatically, the new BTM CEO, Burkhard Kieker, who came into office in 2009, gave one of his first interviews near the Spree in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg. Moreover, the BTM’s Tourismustag, the annual industry convention, took place in Kreuzberg this year and was all about the tremendous importance of Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain and similar areas to the city.

But it is, of course, not only “official”, public sector-led policy. Think about the Berlin Biennale that opened in June. This year, the organizers chose venues in Kreuzberg – near Kottbusser Tor, for instance – and it’s going to be interesting to see what the effect will be.

But like the city’s beBerlin marketing campaign, will generic marketing and branding exercises from the likes of the BTM actually send the wrong message to the target demographic?

Excessive marketing often tends to destroy precisely those qualities that constituted the original attraction for consumers. Most tourists are happy with the city the way it is. They like it because it is not designed and artificially created. It will be a huge problem if young tourists decide that “Berlin is over”.

Does this mean stopping developments like the Mediaspree?

Nowadays, not only hipsters realize that existing resources like Bar 25, Yaam! and others are critical “unique selling propositions” (as marketing people would say) for Berlin – no matter how they generally think about property-led development approaches like the MediaSpree. In this particular case, it seems that many people agree that the MediaSpree was, as a whole, a misguided endeavour.

New tourism seems to be here to stay. Can it ultimately cannibalise the city, by spoiling what first attracted such people to Berlin?

In many ways, this influx of cosmopolitanism has benefited our city. It made it more exciting. These tourists are not necessarily the destructive force that they are sometimes described as. They are very interested in local identity, in local spaces, hence supporting them and allowing them to continue to exist.

The club industry is a classic example of how the city benefits from tourism. When people complain about tourists, they often neglect the fact that the club scene would not be able to exist if it weren’t for them. You wouldn’t be able to choose from 15 or 20 clubs on Tuesday night without having a certain critical mass of people who don’t have to work the next day.

But there are problems, of course. Community outsiders reap profits, there is an unequal distribution of costs and benefits, and gentrification and rising living costs negatively affect low-income residents. Ultimately, in a city like Berlin, tourists and residents should be allies in the struggle to defend a socially mixed, diverse and vibrant city, a place where tourism doesn’t turn neighbourhoods into a Notting Hill or Soho.

An urban planner in the Center for Metropolitan Studies at Berlin’s Technical University, Johannes Novy has been widely published about the effects of “new urban tourism” on Berlin’s rapidly shifting urban milieu. A former New York resident (he is currently finishing his PhD at Columbia University), Novy’s mission since returning to Berlin has been to deconstruct the city’s tripling of tourist numbers in the past 15 years. He argues that much of this growth is driven by a more invisible kind of tourism, a kind of hipster neo-colonialism that has elsewhere been described as “flaneur tourism”, “post-tourism”, “alternative tourism” and “the Easyjetset”.