Wouter Bernhardt has been a tour guide and podcaster in Berlin for over five years. He started his podcasting career with Berlinology, focusing on the history of Berlin before diving deeper into more social topics. Most recently, he created The Low Season, a podcast that discusses how tour guides are navigating the COVID-19 pandemic.
From New Zealand to South Africa, NYC to our lovely Berlin, Covid-19 has decimated the global tourism industry. Airlines have grounded their fleets; international tours and cruises have been halted; museums have shuttered their doors. Tour guides around the world are feeling the effects, and have had to not only resort to other forms of income, but assess if tourism really is a feasible long-term career option. Wouter started interviewing his fellow tour guides in early April and with over 30 finished episodes and over 100 interviews completed, Wouter has a new perspective on how the tourism industry can move forward.
We had a chance to chat with Wouter about The Low Season, his own work as a tour guide and podcaster, and how the tourism industry is adapting.
First off, what initially motivated you to move to Berlin? How long had you been living in the city before you started podcasting?
I moved to Berlin because I got a job working for an art collector. I had been in Berlin for about two years before I started podcasting.
Could you tell us a bit more about what led to your starting Berlinology? What were the main things you had to learn in terms of production and audio storytelling?
After I quit my job in the art world, I needed something else to do. Something fun, something that made me engage with the city more and something that would pay the bills. That job would become tour guiding. To help keep my creative juices flowing, and to learn the city a bit better for my job as a guide, I decided to start a podcast about the city.
I had to learn everything about podcasting; from handling audio equipment to editing, from learning how to write a script to building your own audio booth at home. I started from scratch.
How has the podcast changed your own relationship with Berlin? What are some of the main things you’ve learned by producing the podcast?
The initial episodes of Berlinology were quite history heavy. I wanted it to be simultaneously fun and creative, but also use it as research for my tour guiding. Through Berlin’s history and the guiding, I became more interested in the city as it is today, with all of its flaws and treasures. The episodes started to shift from historic content, to trying to explain the social fabric we’re all living in. It has made more understand the city way better and hence increased my footing in Berlin. I feel way more grounded here now.
How has the pandemic and social distancing affected your other podcasting projects and work?
Podcasting wise, I haven’t seen much of an uptick. Even though I think many people would expect that there is a lot of podcasting to be had right now. I’ve seen some new projects here and there, but I feel like the bigger projects are still to come. Nowadays, major newspapers and companies that are willing to jump onto the podcast and hype now during the Corona times, I still think we have to wait for that a little bit. I personally haven’t seen any major change. I’ve seen people making their independent stuff, which is to be expected, especially if you’re sitting back home doing nothing.
At what point did you start realizing that Covid-19 was becoming a real threat to the tourism industry?
Spring season would have been quite busy already, there are usually lots of school groups, as well as the people that want to avoid the high season who always come in either spring or autumn. I think for most of us tour guides, we experienced the first consequences happening in mid February. That’s when people started to get emails saying things like, ‘Oh, we were planning to head down to Berlin, but we don’t know how this epidemic is going to develop.’
I’m not even sure if it had been declared a pandemic by mid-February when all of these cancellations started coming in. And then at the end of February, beginning of March, lots of cancellations started coming in and by mid-March, most of the big tour companies in Berlin had shut down their business completely.
By this time, there were already a lot of people worried. I include myself among these people. Around the end of February, I started to realize that if these people are already canceling, then where’s my income going to come from? I think very quickly all of us realized, ‘wow, this is, this is way quicker than we anticipated.’
What was the process for producing your first episodes?
The first episode was released on the 12th of April, but I already had the idea to make a podcast about this topic at the beginning of April. I thought, ‘Well I can’t lead any tours now, but I’m also a podcaster. I can make something.’ So I started talking to all of my friends and colleagues who were in the tourism industry.
It was kind of nuts. At the beginning I was super excited, I was like, ‘Let’s do this and let’s contact everybody that I know because I don’t know how many people are willing to talk to me. If I send an email out to 10 of my colleagues talking about some of the darkest stuff that is happening to them right now, they might not be interested in talking about that.’
I wasn’t really expecting that many of these people would return my calls, but almost everybody replied with a positive answer. In the first week, I had like 25 interviews planned, which was insane. By the next week, I had a ton of interviews recorded, so I edited them and started posting one every day.
What was your ultimate goal for the podcast when it first launched?
In the beginning it was just therapy. We were all in shitty situations. I just wanted to talk about it with them. It’s not like we could go hang out in a bar and talk about it. I think initially the main goal was putting everybody at ease a little bit. So people would know that they’re not the only one going through this at the moment.
You’ve done over 100 interviews with tour guides around the world. Did you already know all of them?
I knew most of them. Most of the guides in the first 30 episodes are all from Berlin. They’re mostly colleagues that I’ve either met or have seen before on the streets. So I could reach out to them through whatever social media channel or by asking friends to poke around for me a bit.
The new conversations and the international guides that I’ve been speaking with so far, it’s about things like 40 or something. They came first of all through recommendations of guides in Berlin. And then as soon as I spoke to a couple of them, I started asking them, ‘do you know any other tour guides?’
What has been the mood of the conversations you’ve been having with tour guides for The Low Season?
In the beginning most of the people I spoke to were lost. They needed to think about how to access unemployment benefits, how to cope financially, whether their families were doing okay, more immediate issues.
Now, we’re now talking a bit more about our profession and the long term impact of Corona. There’s so many different elements to it and I feel that the podcast is growing now a little bit into the direction of talking more about tourism and the travel industry as a whole.
In a recent episode we talked about mental health and the toll this is taking on us. And of course some people have fared way better under Corona than others. But I think that now, especially since everybody has been stuck at home for the last months, it’s important to talk about mental health issues.
Where do you see the tourism industry and tour guides adapting in the long term?
I think this is the double edged sword that many tour guides are feeling every day. These are people that absolutely love the city that they’re living in. They love talking about it. They love to be a part of it. On the other hand, we need to think about the impact of tourism on things like gentrification and the environment.
Tour guides are now thinking, ‘Wait, I love talking about and sharing this information, but at the same time I’m also responsible for changing the city. What kind of responsibility do I have?’ I think that’s what many tour guides are struggling with.
However, the change really needs to come from upstairs. It has to come from politicians, city marketing and larger companies. I think that if you want to do something to curb these bigger tourist streams, that’s the only feasible option.
How have governments been distributing relief funds to tour guides – many are expat freelancers, how does that affect their access to financial assistance?
I think every country I’ve spoken to has, in some way, given out some immediate aid. The main difference is in the amount of money being given out. While people in Oslo may be getting 80% of their income til September, people in Lisbon or Madrid received much less.
And I’m not just talking about tour guides, I’m talking about freelancers working in the tourism, gastronomy and hospitality industries.
If for some reason the pandemic would be a major crisis to the car industry in Germany, there’s no way that Germany would allow that industry to just collapse. I don’t understand why there is such a big difference between, say, the car industry and the tourism industry. Tourism is a major, major part of the German GDP, but even bigger in other countries like Greece, Spain and Portugal. I do think it has something to do with the nature of being an industry of freelancers. There isn’t this sense of, ‘this is an industry that is worth saving. It will come back eventually. We will find people that will start working in tourism again and we’ll be fine.’ …Which I’m not so sure of.
How many tour guides will there be after Corona? How many qualified tour guides will there be? I’ve been working in this sector for decades. The expertise, the networks, the cultural exchange platforms, they will disappear and they will not come back.
I think we must find value, and pinpoint exactly what value a tour guide has. If we can figure that specific purpose or meaning, then I think it will be way easier to argue that this industry is worth saving.
Do you think you’ll go back to being a tour guide?
It’s a difficult question because I’ve always thought that at some point, I would do more podcasting than tours, and I think maybe this is a time to focus more on that. I think I’ll probably return to doing some tours because it’s just an incredibly nice job to have.
It’s really, really nice to be out on the street, to give people a really nice exchange and a good sort of idea of what the city looks like and its history. It’s nice to talk to people coming from different countries. It’s nice to get a round of applause at the end, and it’s a decent way of making some extra cash, especially during the high season.
I’m not sure if I’m going to return as a full time guide as I was doing before, but to be completely honest, that is up in the air. It’s pretty much dependent on how fast this industry returns.
You’ve spent years showing tourists around the city. Do you have any recommendations for people looking to learn more about Berlin?
Kreuzberged.com: Beata Gontarczyk-Krampe knows perhaps more than anybody else about the city. Radio Spätkauf is a local news podcast that brings you all the serious stuff about Berlin in a very funny and socially engaging way. I really like the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg Museum, talking about neighbourhood history. Brewers Berlin Tours is putting out some tours for locals called ‘Tours without Tourists’. They’re highly specialized tours for people that live in Berlin. On Saturday they do ‘Queering Kreuzberg’, on Sunday a ‘Jogging Tour’ and a ‘Roaring Twenties’ tour, and the Sunday after that ‘Zeitreise durch Weissensee’. They should be good fun!