On the Trail of Christmas Advent Tourism Booming in Germany
Christmas-related tourism is big business in Germany. The country's Christmas markets are famous throughout the world, and every December thousands of visitors head to towns where traditional baubles and decorations are made. But the old-fashioned image of Advent tourism may be about to change.
The road to the ancient home of the glass Christmas tree bauble is a long and treacherous one.
The journey begins in central Berlin before the sun comes up. It entails a four-hour bus trip in the company of a group of around 40 chattering Germans, mostly aged over 50. Several hundred kilometers of autobahn flash by before the air-conditioned tour bus finally reaches a road that twists and turns frighteningly through the snowy mountains of Thuringia.
The bus driver navigates the route, parts of which have been blocked by recent snowfalls, while the passengers gasp and exclaim, because the trail is almost too small for the bus at times. And then finally, the tour group arrives at their destination: Lauscha, a small town in the eastern state of Thuringia that is to German glass blowing what the famed island of Murano, near Venice, is to Italian glass art.
Whole families in Lauscha have been blowing glass here since the 16th century. In 1847, a Lauscha local is credited with inventing the first glass Christmas tree ornament. Nowadays, the town in the steep, wooded valley is a tourist attraction. On this particular Saturday, hundreds of visitors in dozens of tour buses from all around Germany have made the trip to Lauscha's annual Christmas "Kugelmarkt," or glass bauble market.
Army of Christmas Shoppers
Just above the main street of the small town -- population around 4,000 -- the steaming buses exhale their cargo of enthusiastic shoppers. It is freezing, and more snow is falling on already frozen streets. But this doesn't appear to dampen anyone's spirits. Tugging on hats and coats, wallets at the ready, a determined army of emboldened, middle-aged shoppers begin the march downhill to the market, which is held in the village on two of the weekends before Christmas. The final part of the tourists' journey involves jostling fellow consumers in the stores and at stalls for a chance to choose the prettiest glass trinkets, for an opportunity to watch glass blowers at work and even just to get a seat in the town's overcrowded restaurants.
The Lauscha market is part of the popular tradition of Advent. The season is originally religious and is all about preparing for Christmas day. Many Germans like to mark each of the four weekends before Christmas with (if they are religious) special readings in church and lighting candles on their Advent wreath -- and shopping. Part of the latter involves a visit to a Christmas market. And over the past 20 years or so, this has involved an increase in what may best be described as Advent tourism.
Town Population Doubles
Every year in the autumn, towns that, like Lauscha, have some special connection with German Christmas traditions prepare to receive hundreds of thousands of extra visitors on the Advent weekends. This year, the town had around 25,000 visitors over the four days of the market, according to Lauscha's tourist information office. In Seiffen, one of the towns in the Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains) range near the German-Czech border that is famous for its wooden Christmas toy-making industry, an estimated 200,000 visitors came to the town, population 2,500, throughout December.
And in the larger town of Annaberg-Buchholz, also in the Erzgebirge area, which has a population of around 23,000, the tourist information office reports that their town's population almost doubled: Around 30,000 visitors came for the annual miner's parade, a spectacle that is part of their Advent tradition and which features up to a thousand locals in traditional costume walking through the centre of the historic town. Matthias Förster, a spokesperson for Annaberg-Buchholz city administration, notes that they have had as many as 50,000 visitors in town for the grand parade, when the weather is better and when the parade is held further away from Dec. 25.
Although, as Förster points out, people have been coming to watch miners' parades since the 15th century, modern Advent tourism in the Erzgebirge area and to towns like Lauscha really only started after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. "Because of the opening of the borders, we now get guests from all over Germany and from overseas," Förster notes. "And in peak years, we have counted almost a thousand tour buses parked outside the church between the first and fourth Advent weekends."
A spokesperson from Seiffen agrees, saying that, if it hadn't been for the fall of the Berlin Wall, "there would be no Christmas markets here."
Twenty Years of Christmas Markets
In fact, along with German reunification, many of the markets recently celebrated their 20th anniversary. In most of the towns, where official records on visitor statistics have only been kept more recently, administrators say they believe the number of tourists has remained fairly constant for the past few years, with some towns like Seiffen and Lauscha saying they have seen a slow but steady annual rise. The December itineraries for German bus tour companies in the main centers offer all manner of Advent trips -- everything from a tour of Christmas markets complete with overnight stays to Saturday or Sunday road trips to places like Lauscha.
The growing popularity of Advent tourism in Germany also expresses itself in other ways. Firstly, there are the logistical problems that most of the small towns now have to deal with. In the past, the Lauscha fire service directed bus and car drivers to suitable car parks. This year, the town hired a security firm to do the job, explains Monika Weiss of Lauscha's tourist information office. In Annaberg-Buchholz, the larger supermarkets and shopping centers offered up their parking lots to Advent tourists.
And then there are the developments that have arisen because of the increasing interest in Advent tourism. In Annaberg-Buchholz, a museum featuring a historic collection of around 1,500 objects -- including Christmas angels, dolls and Biblical figures -- that have been hand made in the area opened at the end of October 2010. By the middle of December, Förster reports, the museum, which cost 7.5 million to build and which is called the "Factory of Dreams," had already had 20,000 visitors come through the door. "It has surpassed all expectations," Förster boasts.
Because of the crowds they draw every year, the glass blowers of Lauscha decided to host a pre-Christmas-market event. Local stores stayed open until later in the evening and lured guests with the promise of "relaxed shopping" before the crowds arrived. And in Seiffen, they have initiated a special series of events for children and families during their Christmas season. They are also strengthening their ties with tourism authorities in the Czech Republic, which they see as a potential market -- after all, the Czech border is only 5 kilometers (3 miles) away.
New Markets for Advent Tourism
It is true that up until recently most of the visitors making the pilgrimage to these very Christmassy towns have been German and usually over 50. The atmosphere on the streets, where a lot of walking sticks and sensible shoes can be seen, is generally not what one might call youthful and adventurous.
But with its pine trees, city centers prettily outfitted with lights and potential to provide a traditional white Christmas, Germany already draws around millions of visitors around the festive season. The Federal Statistical Office reports a total of around 4.5 million overnight stays in larger German cities in December 2009. And the German National Tourist Office (DZT) says that numbers are definitely rising. "German Christmas markets are an export hit and as such, an important part of Germany's image as a destination," says a DZT spokesperson. "In our marketing efforts, we put a strong focus on this theme, particularly in the US and in China."
And with developments like the special family markets, the late night shopping and the history museum, as well as new connections to international tourism, smaller towns are promoting Advent tourism beyond their traditional, older clientele.
Meanwhile back in Lauscha, the Christmas bauble pilgrimage is almost over for 2010. In the late afternoon gloaming, fairy lights sparkle and store windows, crowded with all kinds of baubles, glow from within. The ornaments on display range from the traditional, such as giant golden orbs and saintly Santas, to the weird, in the form of glittering monkeys and cucumbers. The stores are still packed with shoppers.
Further up the hill, on the main street, the line of tour buses reaches as far as the eye can see. Bone-chilled pensioners, laden with home-made smoked cheeses, liquors and boxes of carefully packed baubles, wait patiently for their bus drivers to pick them up and take them home for Christmas. And the cash registers in Lauscha keep ringing out.