Germany reinvents itself as tourist magnet

More than 20 years after the Berlin Wall fell, Germany is pulling in tourists as never before, setting itself up as a serious rival to more established European destinations like France and Italy.

The German tourism industry was in bullish mood Thursday at the world's biggest trade fair, the ITB, as holidaymakers flock in ever-greater numbers to see historic Berlin, Bavarian castles and Baltic coast beaches.

With a nod to Germany's reputation as an economic powerhouse and leading exporter, Ernst Burgbacher, secretary of state for tourism, crowed: "Now we can add 'holiday in Germany' to 'made in Germany'."

And the figures back up his enthusiasm. According to the World Tourism Organisation, the German tourism industry grew by 12 percent last year, with the number of visitors breaking the 60 million barrier for the first time.

"We've knocked France down to third on the podium" in terms of a holiday destination for fellow Europeans, said Petra Hedorfer, from the German National Tourist Office.

Reflecting countless years of neighbourly rivalry, a representative of the French tourist board snapped back. "France is and remains the most visited country in the world," sniffed Fabienna Javault.

Like many others, Germany - the home of the Munich Beer Festival - has seen a significant rise in the number of tourist from emerging markets such as China.

One of these Chinese tourists, Chen Yin from Shanghai, told AFP why Germany was her favourite European destination.

"Germany is safer and better organised than France or Italy, the people are nicer and more willing to help you out if you are lost and of course their mastery of English is a major plus," said Chen.

Hedorfer said the Football World Cup, which Germany hosted to great acclaim in 2006, had changed the image of the country and attracted the tourists.

"Germany is associated with different things than it was 10 years ago," she said.

Within Germany, the southern state of Bavaria with its fairytale castles and world-famous beer festival is still the most-visited region but Berlin, with 8.5 million visitors in 2010, is posting the highest growth rates.

And more than 20 years after the Berlin Wall fell and the country was reunified, the regions of the former communist East Germany are touting themselves as a new tourist draw.

"Before, the Dutch would go and do their sailing in France and then come to the Baltic Sea (in northern Germany)," explained Gert Brinckmann, from the tourism board of the eastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.

"Now they are coming inland."

The so-called "new federal states" are an untapped resource, said Brinckmann, with some 1,500 tumbledown castles and manor houses in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania that would make charming hotels and guest houses.

For the moment, it is mainly German tourists visiting these regions, which is helping to boost the figures.

In addition, visitor numbers include business travel, which skew the picture slightly given that Germany is Europe's biggest economy.

But there is evidence that Germans, who travel the most abroad of any nationality, are turning their attention - and their wallets - to their own country, experts say.

"We get the feeling that the population is getting older and that people are getting to the age where their big trips are behind them and they are rediscovering the regions of their own country," said Josef Muessig, promoter of the Tauber Valley region.

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