Attempting to capture a slice of the expanding pie of international tourism, which accounted for over 30% of the world’s exports of commercial services in 2010, has long been a starting point for any region looking to move up the economic development value chain. Generally, little start-up capital is required, enabling service providers to focus on promoting and enhancing their primary attraction. Whether the draw is surf and sun, historical interests, or diverse ecology, a good marketing manager can begin to entice tourists long before the infrastructure exists to accommodate them.
Here in my city of Heidelberg, Germany, the infrastructure and the tourist market is already well established, with 3.5 million annual visitors exploring this amazing city on the Neckar River. However, Heidelberg is sitting upon an economic time bomb. As the headquarters of the United States Army in Europe, Heidelberg is home to over 16,000 military personnel, dependents, and support staff – and they are all leaving. Since 1945, the Army has made Heidelberg the center of its operations on the continent, and beginning in 2012, it will be moved north to the Frankfurt suburb of Wiesbaden.
While the departure may not leave a sizable mark on the number of tourists visiting this ancient city, it will put downward pressure on property values and the local businesses that arose to support Uncle Sam’s endeavors. Couple this with the ongoing closure of another major military installation in nearby Mannheim, and you have the makings for a strong economic downdraft in the local community.
My recommendation for helping Heidelberg weather the coming economic storm falls into three categories: greens, genes, and in-betweens.
German environmental awareness is first class and the city of Heidelberg should capitalize upon it as a comparative advantage. Green thinking is already firmly entrenched as a way of life in Heidelberg, where every citizen sorts their garbage according to the four rubbish bins that line their driveway: blue (paper), yellow (plastics), light brown (bio-waste), and black (non-recyclables). Heidelberg has also taken advantage of the energy flowing in the Neckar river by building a hydroelectric power plant underneath the water and out of sight of tourist cameras.
Tourists are increasingly adding learning as a prerequisite to their vacations, giving their experiences more than just entertainment value. Heidelberg could attract a greater number of tourists if it could provide eco-friendly ideas that not only inspire their guests, but also leave them feeling less guilty about their environmental footprint.
My second recommendation points to Heidelberg University’s distinguished status as not only the oldest center for higher learning in Germany with over 600 years of experience, but also one of its finest, especially for biotechnology. With the American military forces turning over 4 prime zones of commercial real estate to their German friends, it would make sense for Heidelberg’s Chamber of Commerce to begin providing strong incentives for biotech firms and aspiring entrepreneurs to locate themselves in and around the city. This biotech cluster would not only help to improve the city’s tax revenues, but would also put the region at the forefront of a critical industry in the 21stcentury.
Lastly, Heidelberg is in-between everything. It sits right at the geographic heart of Europe and is a natural crossroads for both people and goods. This presents the city with the envious opportunity to not only entice visitors who are equidistant on the European map, but also to build upon its strategic position at the intersection of the A5 and A6 pan-European transport corridors. Providing tax incentives and support for companies interested in building cross-docking facilities and warehouses would bring much-needed jobs to the local economy.
When I stand in the shadow of the city’s 900 year old castle and marvel at the historic buildings that line its cobblestone streets, I am confident that Heidelberg’s wealth of attractions will continue to draw hordes of camera-toting tourists in the future. However, it will take more than just an increased number of visitors to fill the yawning gap that will emerge after the American withdrawal. By focusing on greens, genes, and in-betweens, Heidelberg can diversify its economy towards less cyclical industries and provide the stability that the American military once ensured.
Either way, the next few years will be some of the most dramatic that Heidelberg has faced since 1945, and I look forward to seeing how this city progresses. Perhaps you might like to stop by Heidelberg yourself? I know the residents will be happy to see you!