Berlin - The end of the corona crisis is finally in sight and Berlin is back to the business of wooing tourists. Easyjet, the airline with the biggest presence at BER, is preparing to ramp up flights. But some Berliners have welcomed the virtual absence of tourists in the city during the pandemic. Meanwhile, the airlines have come increasingly under fire in the climate debate, as the Green Party candidate for chancellor, Annalena Baerbock, campaigns for the discontinuation of short-haul flights. We chatted with Burkhard Kieker of Visit Berlin and Stephan Erler of Easyjet on what the future holds for one of Berlin's key industries. For them, the central question is: What kind of city do we want?
Berliner Zeitung: Mr Kieker, corona has almost wiped out Berlin tourism. Apart from a few business travellers, the hotels have been empty for months. As the head of Visit Berlin, what have you been up to all this time?
Burkhard Kieker: Like on a ship's bridge in a storm, we had our hands full. We tried to do what was possible for Berlin tourism under pandemic conditions and the associated restrictions. We still had 67 per cent of the usual business last year. But of course, corona has halted the decades-long upward trend in Berlin tourism for the time being.
In the corona crisis, Berlin slid seamlessly from overtourism in a few places to the harshest city-wide undertourism
I have the impression that many Berliners aren't particularly sad about the lack of tourists.
Burkhard Kieker: In the corona crisis, Berlin slid seamlessly from overtourism in a few places to the harshest city-wide undertourism. And this undertourism has a bitter taste, because many families have lost their source of income. Everyone's taken note of that by now, including those who like to turn up their noses at Berlin's visitors. The culture scene has also been affected. Our culture monitoring showed that 75 to 95 per cent of visitors to cultural events in Berlin came from outside Berlin. That's why it is so important for the culture scene that Berlin hotels are allowed to welcome tourists again. During the crisis, Berliners have learned that what we perceive as the flair of this city is largely paid for by our guests. And that this biotope quickly dies out if no one comes.
Ok, so the corona crisis has triggered a learning process among Berliners. But I still think many locals prefer to keep to themselves. They don't want tourists around.
Burkhard Kieker: For us at Visit Berlin, they are guests. Or better put: short-term citizens. That's a term that suits Berlin. Because Berlin continues to be a city that welcomes guests - apart from individual scenes that are self-sufficient. During the pandemic, Berlin realised how strongly the city's DNA is geared towards receiving, caring for and interacting with guests. We must now let this welcoming culture blossom again. I am sure that we'll succeed quickly.
Stephan Erler: The Berlin lifestyle has suffered from the fact that personal contact was hardly possible for months. Tourists and businesspeople stayed away. Conferences and trade fairs were cancelled, students stayed at home in their hometowns in Baden-Württemberg and Thuringia. This mix will come back.
The past 15 months have been the most exhausting period I have ever experienced.
Mr Erler, the corona crisis also hit aviation hard. Were you at least able to take a few months off as Easyjet's Germany boss?
Stephan Erler: No, quite the opposite. The past 15 months have been the most exhausting period I have ever experienced. Sure, many employees had to be put on short-time work. But we in the administration had our hands full. We had to shut down the flight schedule, look for funds, prepare the re-start. We sold aircraft and partly leased them back. There was a lot of anxiety: how would we get through the crisis? But also a lot of energy. Today we can say that Easyjet is in a good position. We have raised more than €5bn through borrowing and issuing shares. That helped us get through the crisis without state aid. We were a very healthy company before the crisis, and we remain so. Easyjet is one of the few airlines that have such a good rating that investors give them money. Nevertheless, this crisis has been a massive challenge.
How much have Easyjet flights declined in Berlin and elsewhere?
Stephan Erler: At times last year flights were down to zero. In March, April and May 2020, we completely shut down for weeks. For the first time in the company's 25-year history, there were no commercial Easyjet flights. Calculated over the entire financial year, passenger volume fell to around 15 per cent. However, we expect a significant increase in the summer.
To what extent has corona damaged the Berlin hotel sector?
Burkhard Kieker: Many hotels are closed, and for some it is uncertain whether they will reopen after the pandemic. The big picture is still foggy, but this fog will lift in the course of the summer season. People want to travel again. Many hotel workers who lost their jobs will return to their old workplaces.
A lot of people in tourism were made redundant in the pandemic. Does that get to you?
Burkhard Kieker: Very much so. Right at the beginning of the first lockdown in 2020, we at Visit Berlin quickly switched gears and went into rescue mode. We ramped up our call centre and, together with Investitionsbank Berlin, were the point of contact for the industry. We did a lot of explaining, a lot of listening. We also had to do a lot of counselling work, and there were some days when I needed a schnapps in the evening. Our team was confronted with an enormous personal stories. The city guide specialising in architecture who no longer shows guests around. The bar owner who liquidated his grandmother's savings account to realise his lifelong dream. These were just two examples.
What's the situation like elsewhere?
Burkhard Kieker: In many cities, the lights went out immediately in the tourist centres at the beginning of the corona crisis. In New York, more than half of the tourism workers had to be laid off. Berlin is better in that respect. The economy department knows that we promote one of the most important industries in Berlin. It provided us with enough funds so that Berlin advertising can really take off again. The campaign "Finally back. Berlin." campaign, which we have been preparing for months, has just been launched in Germany and will later be played out abroad. Berlin is back, that's our central message.
For me, Germany is clearly among those nations that have done better than others.
Were the corona measures in Berlin and elsewhere in Germany too harsh?
Burkhard Kieker: This extraordinary situation, for which there is no precedent and in which all those responsible had to improvise, was managed well. Corona is a disease that you can only really understand when someone in your circle of acquaintances is seriously ill. Visit Berlin staff also lost people close to them in the pandemic. For me, Germany is clearly among those nations that have done better than others.
Stephan Erler: Countries have reacted differently to the pandemic. I don't think anyone has done it perfectly, but there are good approaches. The UK experienced the most severe crisis in its post-war history at Christmas 2020, but drew the right conclusions from it and procured a lot of vaccine. We don't want a situation like Brazil. At Easyjet, we supported the lockdown and we did what the authorities asked us to do. But we need predictability and a strategy so that we can look forward.
How is Easyjet in Berlin preparing for the end of the corona measures?
Stephan Erler: For this summer, we have our sights set on flights from Berlin to around 70 destinations. Currently we fly to around 40 destinations from BER. We're trying to cover all popular routes, albeit initially with reduced frequencies, which will then be increased if there's sufficient demand. We're optimistic. But we must not forget that only about a third of Germans have had their first vaccination. We're not out of the woods yet, by a long shot.
In Germany there is a recurring debate over whether short-haul flights should be banned. The Green Party's candidate for chancellor, Annalena Baerbock, is in favour of a ban. Some Berlin politicians agree. How would such a ban affect Berlin tourism?
Burkhard Kieker: I think that we first have to talk about a fundamental question: what kind of city do we want to be? Tesla is building a factory for electric cars in our region because BER offers good international flight connections. Siemens is investing more than €600m in the Siemensstadt 2.0 campus because there are many outstanding scientists in Berlin. The companies follow the talent, and the talent wants to be internationally networked. Berlin needs good flight connections, also within Europe.
Aren't good rail connections enough?
Burkhard Kieker: If we want to revitalise Berlin, it won't work without cooperation with the airlines and Deutsche Bahn. But the railways won't be able to do it alone. Sure, no one needs to fly from Berlin to Nuremberg. Corona will change travel behaviour, but we humans have been social beings who want to meet for many thousands of years. And Berlin shouldn't underestimate the symbiosis this city has with air travel.
Würde es für bestimmte Destinationen keine Nachfrage geben, weil es eine attraktive Bahnverbindung gibt, würden wir sie nicht anbieten.
What do you mean by that?
Burkhard Kieker: Berlin tends to be navel-gazing. We should be orienting ourselves towards London, Paris, New York. We should always ask ourselves: how would they decide and act? If we want to continue playing in that league, we have to play by the rules.
Mr Erler, what do you say to the discussion about short-haul flights?
Stephan Erler: How are they defined at all? Berlin-Copenhagen would possibly belong to them. But not everyone wants to travel such a distance by train or car and ferry. We only serve the demand that exists. If there was no demand for certain destinations because there was an attractive rail connection, we wouldn't offer those routes. For us, it's less relevant whether the distance is 500, 1,000 or 1,500 kilometres. We contribute to the connectivity of Europe with our routes.
Does this mean that you're not interested in the discussion on global warming?
Stephan Erler: On the contrary. We welcome the fact that there is more and more discussion about the climate. Two years ago, Easyjet was the first major airline in the world to start offsetting carbon dioxide emissions as a transitional solution. For every passenger, no matter where they fly to and at what price. Easyjet also has the largest fleet of Airbus Neo aircraft in Europe, more than 50 aircraft, all of which are very efficient. We aim to fly with electric or hydrogen-powered aircraft in the future. The discussions at the moment can only be helpful in raising awareness among politicians, in the industry and, above all, on the part of consumers.
Will Berlin tourism change after corona? Or, to put it another way: should it change?
Burkhard Kieker: The importance of quality tourism will continue to grow. Our average guest is 41 years old. This is not the clubber who flies in, dances the night away and leaves the next morning without staying in a hotel. As a rule, it's a highly interested, well-educated clientele that comes to Berlin to get culturally recharged, eat well, sleep well and be inspired. Berlin was already well attuned to this core target group before corona, and this will continue to strengthen. Because the number of long-haul flights to BER is expected to increase, Berlin will also see more guests from Asia.
And that brings us back to the beginning of our conversation. Will the complicated relationship this city has with tourism change?
Burkhard Kieker: There are some misunderstandings. On behalf of Visit Berlin, a survey team visited tourist spots like the Admiralsbrücke in Kreuzberg or Boxhagener Platz in Friedrichshain - places that many Berliners consider prime examples of overtourism. The astonishing result was that 70 per cent of the respondents were locals and not tourists. So please, no prejudices along the lines of: if there's half a Currywurst on the floor, it can only have been a tourist. As far as issues like cleanliness are concerned, we have to look at our own noses first.