How Berlin’s techno scene copes with tourism

Die Schlange’ by Berlin designer Nicola Napoli.

Orange and red lights illuminate the room as the clubs’ Funktion One sound systems howle ‘Fire’, delivering a bass that elicits tingling sensations. Deeply impressed by my first time in Berghain, I take a breath and lean back to the fence in the back of the room.

In front of me, completely in her element, a half-naked girl with a buzz-cut dances with eyes closed. As she opens her eyes she notices someone gazing at her. A man with a black polo, long black trousers and black sneakers stares at her breasts with a rather surprised face. She continues dancing as he keeps staring. Suddenly she stops, gives a somewhat irritated look and wanders off to dance somewhere else.

Interesting, I think to myself; how tourism manifests itself in nightlife and causes for changes within subcultures. Extending the impact from culture to nightlife-culture.

The increase of tourism in Berlin’s techno nightlife has accelerated over the past decade. The rapid rate of mass-entry of tourists into these micro-cultures – with a special focus on those that have no affiliation with these spaces – come with an impact on the community and its unwritten rules. What once provided as their safe spaces, is now shared with the whole world. I spoke with people from the scene about the positive and negative impacts tourism brings.

Ethnomusicologist, researcher and professor Luis-Manuel Garcia emphasizes the importance on the difference between two types of tourists visiting. ‘The first group consists of ‘techno-tourists’ frequently called ‘easyjetsetters’ – as named by author Tobias Rapp – who visit Berlin regularly for the sole reason of immersing themselves in the city’s techno scene.’ Garcia says. ‘This group likes to distance themselves from the mass tourist identity and seek out authentic experiences in post-industrial cities, engaging with micro-cultural scenes.’ In this way, avoiding anti-tourist critiques that are present towards tourists visiting Berlin’s techno nightlife.

The second group comprises of the ‘non-scene tourists’ who visit these clubs but have no further affiliation with the scene. It’s the latter group, being the focal point of this article.

Changing dynamics
One of the most visible impacts of tourism to Berlin’s techno clubs is the change in dynamics. Commonly known within the techno scene is that Saturday night has become the night of tourists. It’s a night where there’s always a group of 8 guys in white shirts who queue up together only to be left surprised they were not let in. The night, queues can take up hours, and the night people’s eyes are opened to the atmosphere of Berlin’s clubs.

But it’s also a night, that local groups or techno-tourists tend to skip nowadays. People who are actively part of the techno scene and feel they have a belonging to the community, have been showing up on Sunday instead of going out on Saturday.

Scene-regular Jule explains her feeling, ‘There are some people that don’t go out anymore to some clubs because the crowd has changed so much. I usually skip Saturdays. When I go on a Sunday to a clubs closing, people who are not really part of that scene have usually already left for home – not all of them are bad of course – but you can just really experience a different atmosphere.’ As the community shifts towards Sundays, this has become known with tourists and again they come on Sunday to have an authentic experience.

For some people of the community, it causes for irritation as they go to these spaces to immerse themselves in a space with people who are like-minded and where there is an emphasis on atmosphere of freedom.

Objects of curiosity
The encounter between the topless girl and the staring tourist is an example of impact on sexuality in clubs. This illustrates a clash between someone who feels the freedom to express herself and knows that it’s accepted inside of these spaces and between someone who has perhaps never been to a place like this and is rather shocked.

There are many women, that visit these techno clubs in Berlin, to avoid being harassed by men, so that they can dress how they want without people making comments. To visit a place where everyone respects each other, regardless of what they wear.

When people visit these clubs, disturb the atmosphere of respect and freedom and aren’t aware that these spaces are actually safe spaces for people, it can cause for clashes.

Take for example KitKatClub, one of Berlin’s most famous fetish clubs. Some tourists come here because of its wild stories. Subsequently, a process of zooification occurs, where people inside become objects of curiosity and these spaces become a part of the tourism industry. ‘It’s annoying,’ Jule says, ‘People are not immersing themselves but are just talking about what they see.’

Colin – who organizes yearly parties at club Salon zur den Wilden Renate – explains the common frustration among club owners. ‘There are many drunken tourists clubs and crowds still have to deal with,’ he says. ‘These people still manage to get in somehow and behave in ways that aren’t appropriate, who judge others for the way they dress or dance.’

Schram explains that these people don’t see the cultural value and the meaning it has to people. ‘There are many tourists that are on their phones inside clubs, sharing their experience with their friends, secretly taking pictures when this isn’t allowed.’

‘Another interesting example is the complex of Lab.Oratory and Berghain,’ says scene-regular Florian. Lab.Oratory is a sex club under Berghain that has special fetish themed nights. ‘When this party is over, the people move from Lab.Oratory to Berghain to continue the party. On Saturday or Sunday morning however, this place is still packed with tourists from the night.’ This causes for interesting encounters as two completely different groups are mixed. ‘It’s like a theatre sometimes.’ Fegeler says.

The more, the bigger the threat
The danger of mass entry of tourists into micro-cultures is their potential impact on the dynamics, sexual freedom and social structures. ‘It can override traditions, customs, values and unwritten rules that govern the nightlife inside of these spaces.’ Garcia says. This is a problem as these clubs are often safe spaces for various groups and minorities. People can dress, dance and perform actions in a way that would be seen as unvalued.

According to Garcia there is a sociological process towards the entrance of tourists into micro-cultures. ‘In subcultures like these, people are joining in at a constant rate. When people join in at a slow rate, there is a way in which unwritten rules can be taught. However when it becomes popular, clubs have to handle hour-long queues, being overwhelmed with newcomers. This results in a lacking capacity of members of the community to teach newcomers ‘how it works.’ In this way, clubbing culture and norms of these tourists will override the community by expectations of people from the outside.’

Subsequently, people from the community experience the atmosphere of freedom and acceptance that has long been present in a different way. Matthias, a music researcher and professor who has been actively part of the city’s nightlife for many years, explains his frustration with tourism. ‘Berlin has changed in the way that, many of these tourists visit clubs and have the feeling that they can do anything because Berlin is seen as a place where one can do anything.’ Sometimes this comes with disrespect for the culture present in these spaces due to a lack of realization of the importance to the people inside of it.

A schizophrenic relationship
The sword is a double-edged one, as not all tourists form a danger to these micro-cultures, but can instead strengthen the community inside of these spaces. This group can learn and adapt. ‘Regardless of tourists being shocked or surprised by going to these places for the first time, they are also opened up to a new world,’ Garcia says, ‘they can learn something and this can have a positive effect.’ Florian explains that when he meets a first-time visitor there’s a big difference in comparison to seeing them at a club for a third time, as they grow with the community.

When I look at myself when I was 19, visiting clubs like Berghain for the first time, I was open-minded, but I could have been more. My continuing experiences in Berlin’s nightlife taught me about opening the mind to all kinds of things, learning all of those unwritten rules, eventually becoming a techno-tourist myself.

According to Garcia, there’s a place for taking new members in. ‘It requires patience from members of the subculture. Nevertheless, it will remain the question whether people are ready for what they will see.’

There’s also a socio-economic impact to tourists visiting the city’s nightlife. Having an international recognized scene, Berlin’s nightlife is a large part of the city’s character. It has brought cultural capital and value to the city but also a whole new market – which has a significant impact on the city’s economy. A study called Club Culture Berlin 2019 found that 9,000 people are employed within the scene and an average of 58,000 events are organized. In total, more than 1.4bn euro’s was estimatedly spent by approximately 3 million club tourists last year. The commercial offer for clubs has become bigger. Garcia mentions that entrances for clubs used to be in between 8 to 10 euros on a Saturday night and this has now risen up to 18 euros.

In spite of becoming more expensive, this nightlife economy also comes with opportunities for clubs. Take for example Berghain in 2009. The club gained a massive increase in attention, being named the best club in the world. This put Berlin’s nightlife in the spotlight. Queues grew, but this also delivered more possibilities. ‘Clubs are now able to stay open until Monday afternoon whereas in the past clubs closed on Sunday. This is only possible because of the money that tourists bring, which makes them able to book another two floors for 30 or more hours.’ Garcia says. This commercial offer has become of an even larger importance now that rents are rising severely. One in three clubs would have to close if it weren’t for the money that tourism brings.

How to go from here
Starting with the community, Lutz Leichsenring, press officer at the Club Commission mentions that it’s important for alternative culture to show their opinion of this form of tourism.

From a tourist perspective, Leichsenring mentions that they need to be informed and have knowledge about what clubs fit to them and what the scene comprises of.

From a club perspective, it is a constant that it will keep on attracting a large amount of tourists. The approach to handling tourists however, is different for every club. It also comes with the question of what they want to do to protect the local community, preserve the atmosphere without becoming too commercial, but still getting enough capital for the survival of the club?

A difficult task which requires balancing priorities. Sometimes bouncers question tourists about their most important house rule, which DJs play or the reason for their visit. But it might never really be enough to fully prevent the wrong people from coming to these places, as often they don’t ask anything at all. Tourism in this sense is hard to regulate. The only real improvement that could be made is an increased effort of bouncers allowing people by checking if they are visiting for the right reasons.

It’s because of the international attention that some have labeled Berlin’s techno scene as one that is over. It’s needless to say that it will never be what it was in the early years, but it’s constantly reinventing itself. Clubs are opening and closing, crowds are shifting, meaning the scene is still very much alive. Other threats than tourism however, form just as much as a danger, with rising rents due to gentrification, night pollution and increased efforts of regulation by the municipality.

In any way, as Garcia puts it beautifully, ‘For something becoming mainstream or regulated, there is always potential for resistance and change, especially in Berlin’s techno scene.’