It’s a scene Berliners have become well accustomed to now that their home draws 9 million visitors every year: strolling in the park and having to dodge Segways and “conference bikes” pedalled by seven drunken people at once; birdsong drowned out by a tour guide trying to condense a century of history into a narrative consumed like a half-litre of Pilsner.
For once this isn’t at Tiergarten park by the Brandenburg Gate, but at Plänterwald, in the former east, the venue for a festival this weekend which let local people play at being tourists in their own city.
The number of tourists in Berlin is a hot topic with the city’s residents at the moment: earlier this year many column inches were devoted to the debate after a community meeting was convened in the popular Kreuzberg district under the banner “Help! The Tourists Are Coming!”.
The weekend’s festival, organised by Berlin’s leading modern theatre, Hau, Lunapark Berlin was an attempt to ask what future there was for the 3.4 million people who actually live in the city.
“To many young tourists, Berlin appears to be one big pleasure zone,” ran Hau’s blurb. “If tourism is Berlin’s biggest growth industry – making the city hope for 50,000 new jobs over the next few years – where will those relax who provide for the fun for the guests?”
“I’m not anti-tourist,” said Hau’s curator, Stefanie Wenner, on Saturday. “We are simply asking: is Berlin just turning into one big amusement park for tourists?
“In principle, I think it’s good that we receive so many guests. But I think it should be better controlled so that more of the money they bring in goes not into the coffers of private firms but to the state.
Perhaps there should be a tourist tax, for example, where a few euros were added to the cost of each overnight stay.”
By a neat coincidence, Wenner’s festival was held in the grounds of what was once the only theme park in East Germany. The Kulturpark was built in 1969 as a socialist project to provide entertainment for the proletariat and celebrate 20 years of the German Democratic Republic (GDR).
After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the attraction was renamed the Spreepark and taken over by a colourful West German family – two members of whom were jailed after 181kg of cocaine was found hidden inside the base of the 1001 Nights Magic Carpet Ride. The owner’s daughter, Sabrina Witte, guided visitors around the park and provide a warts-and-all history of how it tore her family apart.
The Spreepark closed in 2001 and has lain dormant for a decade, the enormous ferris wheel poking up above the trees the only reminder of what once was. A family of noisy frogs have moved into the log flume’s lake, the spinning tea cups no longer send children dizzy and many of the swan boats have lost their heads. It has long been a favourite haunt for teenagers looking for a trippy place to get stoned, but this weekend was the first time in a decade that the park was open to the public.
For a €5 entry fee, visitors to Lunapark Berlin could explore the grounds – by foot, Segway or conference bike, alone or on guided tours. The Trouble With Tourism Tour was led by a Northern Irish guide called Finn Ballard who told a stream of stories about the stupid things Berlin’s visitors say and do. “Once,” he said, “I had someone say to me, ‘we really want to visit the Third Reich. Please can you show us where it is on the map?’ What can you say to that? ‘Go to the end of the street and turn right at 1933?'”
A particular bugbear is the way so many tourists see everything through a camera lens – or their mobile phone screens. “They seem to think everything is a video game,” said Ballard. “They take a Hipstamatic picture on their iPhone without even knowing what they are taking a picture of, and post it on Facebook without even finding out,” he said, adding that while most of his guests are intelligent and well informed, he has seen tourists taking pictures of each other doing peace signs in the gas chambers at Sachsenhausen concentration camp just outside Berlin.
On this theme, one popular attraction at the festival was having your picture taken pretending to be a tourist at Checkpoint Charlie, the former border control between East and West which is now one of Berlin’s top tourist attractions.
The highlight came on Saturday night with the lighting of the so-called Burn Out Man — a monstrous five-metre tall wooden wicker man, which organisers said represented the ills of modern Berlin life.
“We’re against what has been called the ‘neue Müdigkeitsgesellschaft’ – the tired society where everyone is mentally kaput and there is no distinction between work and leisure. We’re against the North American capitalist model which demands people work all the time,” said Nick Duric from the Showcase Beat Le Mot collective.
At 9pm, the Burn Out Man ceremony began with a marching band and a rough and ready choir singing a specially written song which railed against, among other things, Fukushima and capitalism. Duric said Berlin’s ramshackle trademarks were being eroded by soulless capitalist projects – particularly a slick development just upstream called Mediaspree, home to the 02 venue, which is trying to position itself as the new centre of Berlin’s cultural life. “All there is in Berlin is politics and art. People like the cultural landscape because it is chaotic, disorganised. Take that away and what will we have left?”