The German city where Karl Marx was born on May 5, 1818, is bracing for an onslaught of tourists from nominally-communist China as the 200th anniversary of his birth approaches.
Vineyard-surrounded Trier, home to 110,000 people, has recently found itself in the national spotlight after the Chinese government offered to erect a statue of Marx, a key thinker in the development of modern communism, as a gift for the anniversary.
The idea was controversial, given that Germany’s eastern provinces lived until 1990 under a now-unlamented communist regime. But the city, which lies in Germany’s southwest, a stone’s throw from the border with Luxembourg, finally gave its approval on April 19.
Trier is already a stop on the Chinese tourist trail, welcoming around 150,000 visitors from China annually in recent years, but few stay for long. The Roman-founded city, which prides itself on being Germany’s oldest, is trying to change this by participating in Chinese tourism fairs, where it uses Marx to promote its other assets, including premium wines and an ancient architectural heritage.
“We think significantly more Chinese tourists will come in 2018, and our anticipations are fuelled by the great attention the Chinese media paid to the planned Marx statue,” Ralf Fruehauf, a city spokesman, told the Nikkei Asian Review.
“Our mayor, Wolfram Leibe, is in China, partly to pay a visit to the sculpture’s creator Wu Weishan, which will lead to even more exposure in the Chinese media.”
Fruehauf lamented that Trier lacks major employers other than its university. This has contributed to the city’s accumulated debt of 700 million euros ($760 million) — an alarming total by the standards of similarly sized German cities.
But turning rising numbers of Chinese tourists into more revenue for the local retail and hospitality sectors may not be easy. The house where Marx was born, now the Karl Marx House museum, gets about a quarter of its visitors from China, thanks to a surge after 2005, when a European Union-China tourism agreement was implemented.
But Elisabeth Neu, the museum’s director, said that most of the museum’s Chinese visitors do not buy entrance tickets, priced between 2.50 euros and 4 euros, opting instead for a smartphone photo shoot at the Marx plaque outside. Some purchase small Marx sculptures, Marx refrigerator magnets, Marx chocolate bars and other “red souvenirs” in a shop in the museum entrance.
“It is obvious that they are in a hurry, only dropping by between visits to Luxembourg, Frankfurt, Paris and so on,” said Neu. “Their tour buses usually park at the other end of the historic pedestrian shopping zone, meaning the Chinese stay in town is often limited to the 1km walk from there to here and back.”
Local hotels Deutscher Hof and Ibis Styles said that the Chinese share of their clientele remains marginal, despite a recent mild uptick in Chinese individual travelers and occasional Chinese business delegations.
Similarly, the Trier retail association said it has tried unsuccessfully to get more Chinese to use local shops, for example through Chinese-language advertising flyers. The association said that most of the Chinese visitors come to Germany with tour agencies, which cooperate with contracted shopping locations and hotels elsewhere.
City of Engels
The nearby city of Wuppertal is also wondering how to make the most of the anticipated surge of “red” Chinese tourists in 2018. Wuppertal is the birthplace of Marx’s fellow communist Friedrich Engels, and hosts a museum in his birth house, the Engels House.
The Engels museum has commissioned the Beijing-based China Outbound Tourism Research Institute to maximize its attractiveness to Chinese tourists, even though Engels’ 200th birth anniversary is not until 2020. COTRI is working on an itinerary based on Hainan Airlines’ flight schedules that would bring Chinese tourists from Beijing to Berlin, Trier, Wuppertal, London (where Marx lived for many years and was buried), Manchester (where Engels lived in exile) and Paris (where former Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping and Zhou Enlai, first premier of the People’s Republic of China, were students).
China’s HNA Group, the parent company of Hainan Airlines, is in the process of buying Frankfurt-Hahn regional airport, roughly an hour’s drive from Trier, which may help the tourism drive. HNA agreed to buy a majority stake in early April, and the deal was approved by the state parliament of Rhineland-Palatinate on April 26.
HNA’s German representative in the Frankfurt-Hahn bidding process, Siegfried Englert, told local media last year that the company was considering renaming the facility “Karl Marx Airport.”
Marie Hoffmann, an analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies, a Berlin-based think tank, believes there is much that Trier and Wuppertal can gain — if they keep Chinese tourists happy.
Hoffman said the cities’ connections to the heavyweights of communist thought can help them overcome their size limitations if they manage to spread the word on important Chinese travel e-commerce sites, such as ctrip.com, fliggy.com and qunar.com.
The key is to encourage the Chinese to stay longer, which could be achieved by portraying Marx’s birthplace as a location that every Chinese citizen should see, and by better promoting the cities’ other assets in the Chinese market, she said. Trier’s Roman past, with a strong focus on spas, health and wine, could make it an attractive choice for Chinese multi-generation trips.
“A clever combination would cater to China’s growing middle class [who are] demanding higher quality tourism with longer stays — now being a very opportune time, given that communist ideology has been enjoying a revival in China under the presidency of Xi Jinping,” said Hoffmann.
It appears likely that a member of the central politburo of the Chinese Communist Party will visit Trier in 2018 for the start of the anniversary, which would almost certainly lift Chinese tourism numbers in the city for a few years to come, she added.
As non-luxury destinations, Trier and Wuppertal could in the meantime also benefit from Xi’s anti-corruption crusade, which has made Chinese citizens wary of showing off wealth in overseas destinations.
Brian King, a professor at Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s School of Hotel and Tourism Management, said Marx has the advantage of being highly politically correct, from a Chinese perspective. “During a period when Chinese tour organizers are being subjected to increased official scrutiny, the inclusion of a visit to Karl Marx’s house will certainly help,” King said.
Before Xi’s crackdown on corruption and displays of wealth, such trips were often not as high-minded as they seemed. King, who has conducted studies on Chinese tourism for the Australian government, said: “In the past, in Australia, lots of [publicly funded] official China groups used to mask a shopping, gambling and entertainment focus with some ‘education’ — for example visits to universities or factories.”