Germany Holidays: Industrial Tourism

Germany has led the way in pioneering a new form of tourism which focuses on what it does best: industry.

All across Germany industry has branched out into tourism in specially built themed centres on the premises of, for example, Audi in Ingolstadt, BMW in Munich, and VW’s Autostadt in Wolfsburg. But western Germany has led the way in revamping actual old industrial infrastructure itself, and turning obsolete blast furnaces and coal mines into monuments to human endeavour. That culminated, in 2010, with the selection of the Ruhr area as European Capital of Culture, the first time an industrial region, rather than a city, has been chosen for that honour.

The Ruhr is nobody’s idea of a tourist destination. A coal-rich region in western Germany, close to the Dutch border, it incorporates cities like Essen, Dortmund, Duisburg and Gelsenkirchen, with a combined population of over 5 million. By 1950 there were 156 coal mines in operation here, feeding a morass of steel mills and chemical plants, but then came globalization. These days a ton of Australian coal costs half the price of a ton of German coal, so all but four of the Ruhr’s 156 coal mines had to close, and those too will be gone by 2018. Without cheap fuel, manufacturing became uneconomic.

The Ruhr’s attractions come, literally, in heaps and tons

But instead of shrugging their shoulders and letting their industrial dinosaurs rot away, the Ruhr’s regional governments have selected some of them and transformed them into cultural attractions. Thus the giant Gasometer at Oberhausen – one of the largest in the world – has become an exhibition space, currently showing an exhibition about the planets.

Thus the former mill alongside the river port at Duisburg, part of a ravishing dockland development by our own Sir Norman Foster, houses the modern art collection of rich industrialists.

Thus the massive former blast furnace at Duisburg-Nord has become a ‘landscape park’, with climbing walls, mountain bike trails, and an after-dark light show by the lighting engineer for Pink Floyd.

Thus a slag heap has been turned into a ski slope, another gasometer has been filled with water to become a diving centre, and a former mining shaft has become an indoor sky-diving club. The Ruhr’s attractions come, literally, in heaps and tons.

The most dramatic of the conversions is Essen’s elegant Zeche Zollverein, once the world’s largest coal mine, which has been listed by UNESCO. Today Zollverein attracts a million visitors a year and is a fabulous venue and an example of what can be done with a mine if you’ve a cool €160 million of redevelopment money to spare.

Ruhr itinerary showcasing best examples.

Looking for more? See other destinations in Western Germany

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