It’s the middle of June and it feels like a perfect summer day in Warnemünde. The pretty canal-side promenade is thronged with people eating fish and chips out of paper cones and gorging on soft Danish ice-cream (a speciality here). Gaudy tour boats drift breezily along the canal every few minutes, and shops selling everything from surfing gear and jewellery to locally made clothing have their wares out on show on the cobbled streets. The terraces of the town centre’s many cafes and fish restaurants also seem full, with people basking in the sunshine. The only obvious signs that the Coronavirus is still with us are the masks worn by shopkeepers and service staff.
This small German town, officially part of Rostock, with its quaint fisherman cottages, striking 19th-century lighthouse and sweeping two-mile beach lapped by beautifully clear water, is one of many pearls strung along the country’s Baltic coast, or Ostsee (East Sea) as it’s known here. Part of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern – one of Germany’s most popular states for domestic travel, thanks to a generous spread of forests, lakes and beaches – the town and broader region are now seeing the return of tourism after a couple of months described to me more than once as “catastrophic”.
Tourists reclaim the sands of a Baltic Sea beach last week. Photograph: Stefan Sauer/AP
Despite having one of the lowest infection rates in Germany (with almost a quarter of a million inhabitants, Rostock, has only had around 100 cases ) and no stay-at-home orders for locals, the area has been hit hard in terms of both domestic and international tourism. The season normally begins here around Easter, but on 17 March it was announced that all tourists had to leave within 48 hours. Since then, businesses have scrabbled for loans, liquidity aid, tax breaks, protection and stabilisation funds, as well as the German Kurzarbeit scheme through which employees can work limited hours and claim top-ups on their wages to avoid unemployment, in order to survive.
“In Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, every fifth job depends on tourism”, points out Tobias Woitendorf, CEO of the region’s tourism board (TMV). “Here, the closure of accommodation and catering establishments, as well as leisure and cultural facilities, can only be described as dramatic. And it is still difficult, not only for businesses but for local employees too – especially those with children as this isn’t a full return to school until August.”
The 19th-century lighthouse in Warnemünde is among the many attractions along the Baltic Coast.
“Right now we are trying to look ahead,” adds Tobias. “May 25 marked the re-start of tourism in our region, and 15 June for international guests. Summer vacation in Germany begins on 20 June and interest in a vacations here is finally very high again. In some areas, such as camping, parking spaces are already becoming scarce, but there is still room for improvement in the international arena.”
At industrial-chic container hostel the Dock Inn, one of a handful of accommodations in town that have been able to open with all the new safety measures installed – Plexiglass dividers, time slots for the socially spaced breakfast (no buffet), masks worn by all staff, though they remain exceedingly friendly and helpful, and the atmosphere feels surprisingly buoyant.
“We thought it might have been difficult to create a vacation feeling for our guests with all the restrictions,” says owner Christoph Krause, who co-founded the hostel in 2012 . “There are no buffets, no concerts, no pub quizzes; all the fun stuff that we usually do is still not possible. But surprisingly, people aren’t complaining or sad about it. They appreciate that we are somehow managing to keep the basics running. People come here for the beach, for cycling along the coast, for walking, eating fresh fish. As long as all of that is possible, I don’t think we’ll have problems with customer satisfaction.”
The Dock Inn hostel in Warnemünde has reopened with safety measures in place. Photograph: www.hostelworld.com
Around town, opinions seem to vary as to how good or bad things are, depending on the type of business. A woman at one of the distinctive strawberry stalls that pop up all over Germany from the end of April onwards says she hasn’t noticed any difference to trade this year. An equally chipper tour-boat captain on the promenade also says things have been busy, though admits his guests have been mostly Germans. A waitress at an Italian restaurant considers it much quieter than normal, but thinks more international guests will come soon. Frank Martens, director of the Hotel Warnemünder Hof, speculates that many smaller businesses, especially restaurants, clubs and bars, might not make it to autumn, let alone the end of the year.
The town’s main attraction, its beach, certainly seems busy. Though, on closer inspection, many of the Strandkörbe – the blue-and-white-striped wicker chairs that characterise the entire Baltic coastline – are empty. There’s also plenty of space between sunbathers, as per current social distancing rules, and no groups of more than five people that I can see. Looking up at the gulls circling overhead against a pristine clear blue sky, I’m also reminded there are still no planes in the sky; at least not yet.
At the hostel, Australian Nicholas Hine, who came for a break from Berlin, is pretty happy to be here, though. “I always wanted to come to see the historic side of Rostock and then we found out about Warnemünde. This hostel was one of the only ones open in the whole area, so we came here. There’s not much surf, but the beach is amazing. In Australia you’re in the water after a couple of metres but here you have to hike across the sand.”