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16 Jan 2008 06:59
Late last year a hotel in Dresden sent an unambiguous message to two prospective neo-Nazi guests—please do not come.
“Since I would not know how to encourage my staff to greet you or serve you, I beg you to cancel your stay,” Johannes Lohmeyer, manager of a Holiday Inn in the picturesque east German city, wrote to the two men.
If they insisted on staying at the hotel, it would donate their room fees to the local synagogue, he added.
The pair, members of Germany’s xenophobic National Democratic Party (NPD), complied and Lohmeyer received about 2 500 messages of congratulations for showing them the door.
The incident was one, well-publicised case in a concerted but unofficial campaign by hotels in the former communist East Germany to redeem the image of the region after a host of brutal, racist attacks in recent years blamed on skinheads.
“Every new racist attack that hits the headlines harms our tourism figures,” said Birgit Freitag, a spokesperson for the official tourism body in Brandenburg, the largely rural and poor state that surrounds Berlin.
She pointed out that tourism accounted for 4,5% of the revenue of the region and that about 125 000 people depend on tourism for their livelihood.
An Ipsos survey in neighbouring Saxony-Anhalt, where Iraqis and Malians were harassed in two separate incidents just hours apart in December, found that the state’s tourism figures may have been 11% higher last year had people not associated it so strongly with neo-Nazis.
In Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, where the NPD has held seats in the regional parliament since 2006, an estimated 400 000 people last year changed their minds about visiting the area.
The local tourism office estimates that this cost the region between €120-million and €200-million.
“All the hotel associations in the east take this problem very seriously,” said Uwe Struck, the head of the hotelliers’ group in Brandenburg.
“But we have not written letters or launched an appeal asking hotel owners to lock out anybody” as this would be difficult given the “democratic legitimacy” of the neo-Nazi political parties, he added.
“We can and have, however, asked them to show a measure of civil courage,” Struck added.
But efforts to undermine the neo-Nazi movement have proven complicated.
The NPD has a strong foothold in the east, holding seats in the state legislature of Saxony and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, while the smaller German People’s Union (DVU) has a handful of MPs in the northern city state of Bremen and in Brandenburg.
Analysts say they have made mint out of high unemployment and other economic woes in the east, exploiting the fears of disaffected young Germans that foreigners will steal scarce jobs in the region.
The previous government of chancellor Gerhard Schroeder tried to ban the NPD for inciting race hatred but the bid failed when a judge found that the party was riddled with police informers.
Last year, Chancellor Angela Merkel poured cold water on calls for again attempting a ban, saying far-right extremism should be fought on the political front.
The country’s regional interior ministers have said they want to cut off neo-Nazi outfits’ funding but conceded this would fall foul of the Constitution, which says all political parties should be treated equally.
And police investigators have noted that witnesses to xenophobic violence are slow to come forward to testify.
But Lohmeyer from Dresden’s Holiday Inn said his experience has shown that it is possible to take a moral stand against neo-Nazis without suffering negative fall-out.
“It has had no repercussions on our business, neither positive nor negative,” he said.
The NPD has complained that hotel keepers like him are turning regions into “no-go areas” for its supporters, who accuse the industry of practicing “apartheid”.—AFP
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