At the tapping of the first beer barrel at Munich’s Oktoberfest this Saturday, the focus will be on one traditional issue: How many blows will it take Munich mayor Dieter Reiter to “tap” the cask? Anything more than three would require some explaining on his part.
However, the Oktoberfest – only ever referred to as the “Wiesn” (meadows) in the Bavarian capital – has an entirely different problem this year: security. Following several terror attacks in Germany over the summer, including the killing of nine people at a Munich shopping center by a teenage gunman, backpacks have been prohibited and a fence erected around the festival grounds.
The fence alone has proved to be a bone of contention in the city. The biggest folk festival in the world fenced in? The question which immediately sprang to mind was whether the traditional atmosphere was at risk.
Despite this, millions of people will still visit the Wiesn, especially because the event has been extended by one day to include the public holiday marking the anniversary of German reunification on October 3.
“Unfortunately there is no such thing in this world as absolute security.”
But some may prefer to stay at home given the current climate. Beer-tent operators have reported cancellations, and one special event has even been called off.
For many years Regine Sixt, wife of car-hire tycoon Erich Sixt, invited ladies to the so-called “Damen-Wiesn” (Ladies’ Meadow) event. More than 1,000 women have in the past met there for a charitable event to mix with VIPs and celebrities such as TV cook Sarah Wiener, actress Uschi Glas and fashion designer Lola Paltinger.
This year, many former attendees thought they hadn’t been invited. Then came the explanation from Ms. Sixt.
“I can take responsibility for myself, but not for others,” she said and proceeded to cancel the event. She told a local newspaper that she was not a fearful person, but that “I don’t want to have to worry about so many women.”
Many Oktoberfest regulars look back with almost a sense of nostalgia at the good old days. Some companies used to have a real blast at the festival. At the zenith of the new economy bubble, for example, the bumptious media firm EM.TV liked to invite guests to a beer tent gallery where beer and champagne flowed like water.
Broadcaster ProSiebenSat.1 likes to have television stars at their tables. And while it’s usually too loud in the beer tents for real networking, many companies have always taken advantage of the Oktoberfest to invite clients or have bonding sessions with their employees over a few steins of beer.
But all of that has dropped off a little in recent years. At Munich-based engineering giant Siemens, for example, there is no central planning committee for the Oktoberfest, and some departments just organize their own visits. And that will be the case this year too, but as one Siemens insider put it: “Many people will have a bad feeling about going.”
Any piece of luggage with a capacity of more than three liters has been banned. “In light of recent events, after the rampage at the Olympic shopping center and, above all, the bomb attack in Ansbach (not far from Munich), we took a critical look at the whole concept of the Oktoberfest,” said local administration official Thomas Böhle. But, as he pointed out: “Unfortunately there is no such thing in this world as absolute security.”
The Oktoberfest is an important economic factor for Munich. The festival’s 6 million visitors spend about €364 million ($410 million) there. Visitors to the city spend another €255 million on food and drink, shopping and taxi rides, not to mention the €451 million spent on accommodation. In other words, it is a billion-dollar business.
This year too, the city’s hotels put up their prices to coincide with the start of the festival. It is almost impossible to get a double room for less than €150 a night, with €200 being about the lowest price, even in decidedly modest accommodation outside the city center.
Even insurers are getting in on the act this year. The Bavarian firm Assekuranz on Friday announced it was offering a form of short-term accident insurance via its website and smartphone app. For €5.99, you can literally protect yourself for 24 hours against any injury that stems from drinking too much alcohol.
While they don’t condone excessive drinking, marketing head Martin Gräfer says the offer is designed to give Wiesn-goers additional piece of mind. The policy includes possible cosmetic surgery in the event of an accident, or the recovery of lost documents, though some consumer groups are questioning whether all this is really necessary. A normal accident insurance probably covers most of these things too.
Against the background of the big security debate, one hotly contested issue has slipped into the background: the price of beer. This year for the first time in every beer tent, the price of a one-liter stein will exceed €10. Last year, 7.5 million liters of the stuff were poured.