Responsible tourism in Germany

One of the terms for responsible tourism in Germany is ‘Sanfter Turismus’ translating literally, as ‘gentle tourism’. Which captures the notion of protecting people, place, culture and conservation areas rather beautifully. Germany is like the gentle giant of tourism in many ways, because it was striving and succeeding to put in place a responsible tourism movement long before other countries had even thought about the term. It is beyond a niche, regional movement, as Germany was one of the first European countries to bring green politics into the mainstream arena, the Green Party forming a government with the Social Democratic Party from 1998 to 2005. Indeed, the national tourist board is the only one in Europe to have Green Globe International certification. Not just awarded to the odd hotel chain or ecolodge, but to the whole darn Deutschland. Unlike some of our other travel guides, where the responsible tourism page errs towards criticism, this one errs towards celebration. Here are a couple of our favourite reasons:

People & culture

Germany has not only broken records when it comes to responsible tourism, it has also broken barriers. Because the country is totally clued into accessible, inclusive or barrier free tourism, rather than the ‘haven’t got a clue’ attitude of many other countries around the world, where putting a useless ‘Wheelchair friendly’ sticker in the window is about as good as it gets when it comes to helping people with various needs.

You can see for yourself – go to the German Tourist Board website and you’ll spot ‘Barrier Free Tourism’ right up there on the homepage, alongside city, corporate and cultural trips. First of all the actual website page is accessible, and secondly it gives clear, concise information on many of the things that people traveling with special needs need to know. They’ll find out about the national rail network, Deutsche Bahn’s dedicated mobility hotline, barrier free cities and regional champions in creating tourism that works for everyone. Just a few of many highlights include: the “Feeling Frankfurt” guided tour that is both visual and vibrant, stepless but sense-rich for the visually impaired; the fact that most towns in Lower Saxony have beach mobiles or beach wheelchairs available to explore the Wadden Sea UNESCO World Heritage Site, a wetland covering over 13,000km2; the barrier free lakeside paths in the Franconian Lake District; accessible and sensory walks in the Eifel National Park; the Filu High Ropes Park in Leck (Schleswig-Holstein), which takes just about everyone up into its canopies and barrier free houseboats in the Ruppiner Lakes region.

Wildlife & environment

Germany is well known for its city breaks, but what most people don’t realise is that because enjoying nature and wildlife is such an innate part of German culture, the infrastructure in its major cities makes it extremely easy for residents, and therefore, tourists, to escape to the wilds. Trains connect with forests, cycle paths follow rivers out to small villages, hikers can hit the mountains in a heartbeat, kayakers can paddle their way to freedom and swimmers can seek out salty and freshwater serenity. It is amazing what can be found just an hour from the cities, and all so accessible, thanks to a country that has long been switched on to sustainability. And seeking solace in nature. Here are a few of our favourites:
Brandenburg is the state that envelops Berlin, and there are many cycling tours that take you from Berlin straight out into the countryside. There are, in fact, over 7,000km of cycle trails stretching out into the rural areas, along river banks and through small towns and villages. The city’s ‘S-Bahn’ trains stretch out into the country, and you can put your bike on it, so there is an option to do one leg of the journey by train.

You can reach mountains, lakes and gorges easily from Munich, so pack your hiking boots with your suit, and stick an extra couple of days on a business trip. The shoreline hike around Ammersee, just a 50-minute S-Bahn ride from the city, is 42 km. Take the train to Berchtesgaden to hike in the Wimbach valley and gorge, or the hourly Bayerische Oberlandbahn (BOB) train out to Lenggries, then an RVO bus to the Brauneck cable railway station and up into another world. Goodbye city, hello hiking heaven.

All about water, you can explore by canoe, kayak and paddleboard. They are to rent everywhere, taking you the low carbon way along its network of channels, out as far as the artificial lake, Aussenalster. Here you can swap paddle for saddle and cycle around it too.

London has the M25, Cologne has the Kölnpfad, a 171km hiking trail all around the city. Highlights include the Königsforst woodland and the Wahner Heide heath, the Roman aqueduct in Klettenberg, as well as riverside meadows and villages (it crosses the Rhine twice), with some urban areas scattered in between to wade through. Clearly marked by a series of white circles on a black background, you can access it at various points across the city.

Home to Germany’s largest urban forest (Stadtwald), this is 80km2 of hiking, horse riding and cycling perfection, all accessible on the S7 line or Tram 14. Another world awaits, just an hour away too. Because Mainz, the capital of the Rhineland-Palatinate region, known as the romantic heart of Germany, is just over an hour by bus from Frankfurt Hahn airport. From here you can take boat trips down the Rhine, visit vineyards and stunning castles, and forget the city altogether.

Responsible tourism tips

Be prepared to pay a tourist tax, usually added onto the price of your accommodation, but not always included in the quoted price when you first inquire. Known as Kulturförderabgabe (Culture Tax) or Bettensteuer (Bed Tax) they have been imposed in many of the big cities since around 2011, when VAT was lowered, as a way to make up the shortfall. Please don’t argue about it. It’s just a local tax, as we tourists cost cities a lot. So don’t take it personally. If you are driving in Germany, and this applies even if you have a non-German registered car, and entering a low emission zone (Umweltzone), you need a badge (Feinstaubplakette) indicating your vehicle’s pollution category. They come in green, yellow or red, depending on how dirty you are, basically, and then, accordingly which zones you can drive in. Make sure your car rental has one of these badges. And then pay attention to the zones you can and cannot drive in, or you will be fined. If you are taking your own car, buy your badge online here. Don’t assume that Germans speak English, even though many make every effort to do so. They will really appreciate the effort if you try the odd word. Do note, that formality in German, is still valued and, in particular the use of ‘Du’ and ‘Sie’, meaning ‘you’. The former is informal, or used when talking with children, and the latter the more formal version. Unless someone uses ‘Du’ with you, stick to ‘Sie’. Also, in terms of language, it is the norm to say hello and goodbye when you enter a shop or office. So, Guten Morgen, Guten Abend in the morning or evening respectively and then Tschüss or Auf Wiedersehen for goodbye, the latter being more formal. Before tucking into a meal, wish everyone a ‘Guten Appetit’. Travel by train – It is the responsible way to travel in terms of carbon footprint, and Germany has one of the most efficient and widespread rail networks in Europe. It is also really good value, with reductions if you are traveling as a family. For more details on booking trains in Germany from UK, check out a great website, run by genuine train aficionados, Loco2 or the official German Rail / Deutsche Bahn website to order tickets (London to any German city from €118 return). If you do drive, be aware that Germans are like Grand Prix drivers on the motorways, especially on parts where there is no speed limit. If you are going too slow, they may flash their lights, but just be calm, put on your right indicator to say you will move over when you can. And when it is safe. Responsible travelers will rarely litter, but in Germany, it is particularly frowned upon. They have green genes compared with many of us and recycling is the norm. Note that for plastic and glass drinking bottles as well as drink cans, you can claim money back when you return them to supermarkets, which is what everyone does. Think of it as claiming back a deposit, known as a Pfand, and most bottles have the ‘pfand’ marked on them. In supermarkets, there are machines that read the ‘pfand’ value, you deposit the bottles, and collect a ticket that enables to collect the refund. Beer is obviously a big thing, but binge drinking is frowned upon. So drink responsibly. Also, as regional pride is a big thing in Germany, do inform yourself about the regional breweries and order one of those. If you are on a hiking vacation, then please ramble responsibly. Respect the principles of Leave No Trace, adhere to mountain safety codes of conduct, and support the local economy in small rural areas where you tread. Here are more details of responsible tourism tips on walking vacations.

Sustainable Travel in Germany

To read more about sustainable travel in Germany visit the German tourist board site.

Responsible Travel would like to thank the German National Tourist Board for their sponsorship of this guide.
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: Patrick Schöpflin] [Accessibility: Jens Wegener / German National Tourist Board] [Berlin cycling: Thomas Kierok]