Germans have always been eager tourists, so why are so many now opting to stay at home, asks Simon Calder.
To find the heartland of tourism in Germany, all you need is a road map. Besides the predictable tangle of Autobahnen and Bundestrassen, a few intriguing threads stand out from the rest. They are touring roads, scenic routes of which the Germans seem particularly fond.
The oldest claims to be the Schwarzwald Hochstrasse – the Black Forest High Road – meandering through arboreal loveliness just east of the Rhine. But the aristocrats of touring roads are the Deutsche Alpin Strasse – the German Alpine Road – and the Romantische Strasse, the Romantic Road. Both run for hundreds of miles through fine countryside on journeys punctuated with historic towns. The two routes meet just once, at a town within walking distance of the Austrian border: Fuessen. So, from the western terminus of the Alpine Road in Lindau on Lake Constance, I set the controls for the heart of German tourism.
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The road rises quickly away from the placid inland sea, swerving through a succession of landscapes showing middle Europe at her lyrical best – broad meadows speckled with flowers, muscular hillsides carved by streams of melting Alpine snow, and a sense of order and contentment bestowed by stout and well-turned-out farmhouses. Why, I thought to myself – as tourists so often do when they discover somewhere new and beautiful – why would you ever leave? Now it seems Germans have been asking themselves the same question.
Each January a social trends foundation – funded, oddly, by British American Tobacco – asks a representative sample of 4,000 Germans about their travel intentions for the year ahead. This year, for the first time in a decade, one in five said they had no holiday planned yet. When asked why, the main issue was security – which they rated as more important than weather or value for money. The research also predicts that 2016 will see one in three Germans taking their main holiday at home – a proportion not seen for decades.
The drive to Fuessen takes two glorious hours, and reveals a handsome Altstadt – old town – protected by a riverside fortress. Townhouses the colours of cream and honey decorate a lattice of cobbled lanes beneath steeply-raked roofs. In a cavern-like tavern where dirndls and lederhosen are compulsory (for the staff at least), each guest gets a bib, a tankard of beer and a plate of pork knuckle so generous that eating it almost requires a military campaign. But the town’s main draw is its role is as base camp for the campest castle in Christendom: Neuschwanstein.
The hilltop citadel, built for Ludwig II of Bavaria, is the most recognisable castle in Europe. You’ll probably have seen its playful twirls of towers and turrets decorating a postcard, a tourist brochure or a guidebook cover. And if you haven’t? Well, one word sums it up: Disneyesque. Walt himself chose Neuschwanstein as the model for the Sleeping Beauty’s castle, and copies of it decorate theme parks from Florida to Japan. Even early on a Sunday morning in late March, the queues of eager visitors are formidable.
Crowd-control techniques borrowed from theme parks get tourists flowing through a complex designed not by architects, but by theatrical set designers who shared Ludwig’s obsession with Wagnerian opera and medieval knights. The king dreamed of a castle where he could “breathe the air of heaven” – but the breathtaking scale and intricacy of his vision took Bavaria close to bankruptcy. So 15 years after work began at Neuschwanstein, and before all his grandiose plans were fulfilled, the state’s political leaders had the King of Bavaria declared insane. He had lived for less than six months in the castle, in a bedroom that feels like a Byzantine chapel – with cherubs and starlight to lull a weary monarch to sleep.
Shortly afterwards, the beautiful dreamer died in mysterious circumstances – along with his doctor. Just seven weeks later, Neuschwanstein opened as a tourist attraction – in spite of the king’s description of it as “holy and unapproachable”. Since then Ludwig’s artistic extravagance has repaid the taxpayers many times over. Bavarian tourism, with the castle as its beacon, reached a record 34 million visitors last year.
With such man-made marvels and natural good looks close by, German travellers are choosing to stay at home at a time of instability abroad. But if the nation that has always been at the forefront of tourism has passed the point of “peak Wanderlust,” other countries will suffer.
The traditional trade arrangement has been: the Germans make plenty of money exporting great cars, then they export themselves on foreign holidays to spend that cash. Now, it seems, they plan to spend more time at home with their Schlosses. And as I watched the spires of Neuschwanstein melt into the Alpine mist, I could understand why.
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