An Island Looks to the Future Can A Land Bridge Save A Dying Tourist Industry?

Residents of Germany's only high-sea archipelago head to polls this Sunday to decide whether to build a land bridge between their two islands. Advocates hope it will reinvigorate the ailing tourist industry, but opponents say it could change Helgoland's quaint character.  
A computer simulation shows what Helgoland would look like if plans are approved to unite its two islands with a land bridge.

A computer simulation shows what Helgoland would look like if plans are approved to unite its two islands with a land bridge.

Foto: dpa Picture-Alliance / Hc Hagemann/ picture-alliance/ dpa

The roughly 1,500 residents of Helgoland will be confronted with a major decision this coming Sunday. The German resort archipelago, made up of two small islands in the southeastern corner of the North Sea, has been losing its appeal to tourists for years. But in the eyes of potential visitors, will a plan to make the place bigger really make it better?

The vote involves approving the construction of a land bridge between Helgoland's main island and a smaller island named Düne, or "dune," which lies just off its eastern shore. Separated some three centuries ago when a storm tide carried the connecting strip of land out to sea, together the two islands have less than two kilometers of land mass.

The proposed new stretch of land, which would be roughly 850 meters (0.5 miles) long and 300 meters (985 feet) wide, would increase Helgoland's usable surface area by about a quarter. Plans call for putting this land to use for hotels, apartments, an eco-friendly conference center, additional tourist attractions and even an amusement park powered by renewable energy.

Helgoland Mayor Jörg Singer told SPIEGEL that the referendum is an "emotional decision about which direction we should take." Though he also notes that "investors are already lining up," not everyone is convinced that the plan would work -- or whether they even want it to.

A Divisive Issue

Historically, the islands located some 46 kilometers off the German coast were valued for their ideal location as a vacation spa, a naval base or a stop on trading (and smuggling) routes. Among the few islands in this vast expanse of open water, Helgoland often traded hands between the British, Danish and Germans. After World War II, the British used it as a bombing range for several years, even detonating one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history there.

But some 40 years ago, after the bombing stopped and the island was returned for use by German civilians, Helgoland began to draw tourists not only for its unique scenery and wildlife, but also because it enjoyed tax-exempt status.

Beaches with tax-free alcohol, cigarettes and perfumes have not been enough, however, to keep the vital tourist industry thriving. Four decades ago Helgoland welcomed 800,000 visitors a year, but now attracts only 300,000. Moreover, it has gained a reputation as a destination more suited to seniors than families and young people. The number of residents is shrinking too.

Boring or not, some opponents to the plan like things the way they are and want to preserve Helgoland as a place "where taking things slowly is the rule."

One of them is local hotelier Sören Conradi. "I fear that Helgoland could turn into the Ballermann on the North Sea," Conradi said, referring to a well-known beachfront on the Mediterranean island of Mallorca notorious among Germans as a party location. "That would be dreadful," he said.

Instead, Conradi is demanding that the local government devote more of its resources to what's already there.

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