'Poor, but sexy' Berlin is a hit

"Berlin is poor, but sexy," runs the German capital's advertising slogan, a catchphrase that appears to be working as Berlin bucks the trend in the crisis-hit global tourist industry.

In order to keep tourists flocking to the German capital, the city has launched a new "friendliness" campaign.

With the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall looming in November and the World Championships in athletics due in August, police, street cleaners, airport staff and taxi drivers have begun wearing special red pins to signal to visitors that they are ready to lend a helping hand.

The campaign, launched this week by the city government and local companies, mirrors a friendliness drive that was launched back in 2006 when Germany hosted the soccer World Cup.

"Berlin has a reputation in Germany of being a rude city, but we're a rude city with a heart," said Rene Gorka, head of Berlin Partners, a marketing group that promotes the city.

After hitting a record high of eight million last year, the number of tourists to the German capital has leveled off in the start of 2009, due partly to the financial crisis, Gorka said.

"Despite the crisis, Berlin is still attractive," he said, adding it was a bargain destination for tourists.

In addition to the 13 Berlin-based companies participating in the campaign, some 1050 police officers and 2000 transport workers are joining in.

"With the upcoming anniversary of the fall of the Wall and the World Championships in athletics, Berliners should be as friendly as they were in 2006 and not give any credence to our rude image," Gorka said.

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Playing on its reputation as a cheap, yet cool, destination for holidaymakers, Berlin lured 7.9 million tourists in 2008, breaking its own record for the fifth consecutive year with a gain of 4.2 percent from 2007.

Tourist numbers have soared since the early 1990s when a mere three million visited the recently reunified city.

Most of these were visitors from the former East Germany, rediscovering half a city they were banned from seeing under Communist rule.

Berlin's hotels also report a roaring trade, with the number of people overnighting in hotels rising in 2008 to 17.8 million, a gain of 2.8 percent from the previous year.

The main reason for the boom: low prices. A four-star hotel room in Berlin will set you back less than 150 euros (188 dollars), less than half what a similar hotel in Paris or London would cost.

Most visitors come for a weekend break, with the average tourist staying 2.6 days, the tourism office said.

Low-cost airlines are also fuelling Berlin's tourism success. The city is "the second biggest hub for low-cost airlines behind London," Christian Taenzler, a spokesman for the Berlin tourism office said.

Half of all tourists arrive on low-cost flights, a spokesman for Berlin airports said. The arrival of Ryanair and easyJet in 2003 and 2004 really "gave us a big boost," he said.

"In addition, today, these are the airlines less affected by the crisis," he added.

The number of tourists from abroad has also boomed and now represents one-third of the total, up from around one quarter when the Berlin Wall was pulled down 20 years ago.

The largest foreign contingent is British, with 310,000 visitors to the city, followed by Italians and Dutch.

However, tourists from the other side of the Cold War Iron Curtain are also pouring into Berlin in droves, especially Poles and Russians who "are particularly interesting in shopping," Taenzler said.

Visitors from the east are also attracted by the city's history, with the centrepoint being this year's commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the wall.

Cultural activities are also high on tourists' agenda who flock to Berlin's 16 national museums and cornucopia of theatres.

Others are attracted by cultural activities of a different type: the city's pumping nightlife. Bars -- many of which still allow smoking -- are open round the clock.

Berlin also hosts world-famous clubs such as Berghain, regarded as the Mecca of techno music.

Friday and Saturday evenings see an invasion of young people to the city who dance through the night and leave the next morning. Those that do decide to sleep take advantage of a plethora of cheap hotels dotted around the city.

Also aiding Berlin's burgeoning tourist trade is its reputation as a magnet for trade fairs and conferences.

Berlin is the second city behind Vienna as a location for conferences worldwide, with over two million people attending a conference or trade fair in the German capital last year, according to Messe Berlin, a trade body.

AFP/Reuters

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