Dachau tries to cast off shadow of death

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THOMAS SEIBOLD, a marketing executive, is proud of his birthplace, but admits there is room for improvement. "Businesses are not coming and tourists will not go into the town. That's the biggest problem," he says.

There are many others. Mothers go to nearby Munich to give birth, local car number plates attract crude jokes from fellow Germans, and having the country's third most frequented tourist attraction on your doorstep can also be inconvenient.

Not that the annual tide of 800,000 day-trippers can be noticed in the cobbled streets around the market square.

Arriving by train from Munich, 20 minutes away, or by coach, visitors head straight for the site that preserves the first concentration camp built in Germany.

After an average of two hours spent gazing at the barracks, the crematorium and the gas chamber, where the gas was never turned on, they flee from the cursed place, without so much as a cursory glance at the imposing Schloss. No time to buy a "Greetings from Dachau" postcard.

Now the town wants to change all that, and Mr Seibold's management consultancy has been hired for the relaunch.

For DM80,000 (pounds 28,500), put up mainly by Dachau businesses, the firm has conducted a survey and made some recommendations. The name can stay, he says, but Dachau must embark on a public-relations offensive.

Much time has already been wasted, Mr Seibold, 36, complains. "For 30 years we had here in Dachau a burgomaster whose view was that the memorial is not Dachau, that Dachau was a traditional town on the edge of Munich. And after 30 years came a BM that was young, dynamic. He went to Israel, sought contacts with potential twin towns."

He had his work cut out. Until his arrival, only Klagenfurt in Austria was willing to be twinned with Dachau.

The new mayor has already established fraternal ties with an Italian town, and the search is on for an Israeli twin. Discussions are said to be progressing well, and the new mayor, Kurt Pillar, was surprised by the warm welcome he received on his Israeli trip.

That was only the beginning. Mr Pillar invited discussion groups, Jewish musicians, and youth groups, and printed T-shirts bearing nothing but the name of Dachau.

The artists came and went, but still no one bought any of the T-shirts put up for sale at very reasonable prices at the tourist office. Earlier this year they were packed off to orphanages gratis.

It was at this point that the townsfolk began to despair. "Many said, `We are not satisfied with this situation, we want a change'," Mr Seibold explains. "Certainly, the town is a monument, and the town has a burdened past, but we want to go on the offensive. We can use it as a meeting-place, as a place of peace."

Mr Seibold's task was to identify the weaknesses of the product, as he would for any other client, and devise a strategy for improvement. Dachau, he established, is a prosperous town of 37,000 inhabitants, with the highest per capita income in the Munich region, and an unemployment rate of only 6 per cent.

But the old industry is withering away - the biggest local employer, the paper factory, keeps shedding workers. In the long term, he says, Dachau's future lies in the service sector.

If only the visitors would spend some of their money in the local shops, and if only businesses from other parts of Germany could be enticed to the 1,200-year-old town. The mayor is pining for an American company. Coca-Cola would be nice, he says.

Maybe tourists could break down some barriers. "We established that Dachau is in a good location," Mr Seibold says. "Its only 15 kilometres from the Oktoberfest - no great distance. But it has too few hotel beds in comparison to other towns, and even these beds are under-used.

"It's a very sensitive problem," he goes on. "How we do get the tourists to come to Dachau? We can't just say, `Come to beautiful Dachau'."

But perhaps they can be lured by cultural events, shows and programmes incorporated into their schedule. Take one of the biggest draws in Germany, the Oktoberfest. "We must consider whether those who go to the Oktoberfest might want to spend a night in Dachau. I think that might work."

There is, admittedly a grave danger of causing offence, so such packages would have to be handled with care.

"You cannot have a programme that says, `First day Oktoberfest, second day the memorial.' But if someone wants to spend a night in Dachau before going to the Oktoberfest - that should be all right.

"But the two must not be linked in a programme. And there will never be a poster at the Oktoberfest saying, `Visit Dachau'."

Mr Seibold sees Dachau's future as a resort. "We must have more hotels, better hotels, hotels with congress centres. We must become a small congress town.

"And we must bring shows to Dachau that can change the town's image - portraying it as a modern, open, tolerant town."

How to change that image is still to be decided. There are proposals for a poster campaign, featuring locals proclaiming "I am from Dachau". It is all down to marketing.

Selling the infamous town, Mr Seibold insists, is slightly different from his usual line of work, and more exacting than, for instance, selling washing powder. "With washing powder you have target groups: some want it, some don't. Dachau is more sensitive."

But essentially the techniques are the same, and it is being tried out in other locations that suffer from a negative image: Buchenwald, maybe Bergen-Belsen.

Compared to them, Dachau has some advantages. The German President, Roman Herzog, has already bought his retirement home in the town, a fact that the locals never cease to advertise.

"Dachau is a nice place," Mr Seibold insists. "People like to live there. It has some of the highest real-estate prices in the region, you know."