How Tourism Saved a City


From time to time, I’ll come across someone (clearly, a non-traveler) who decries travel and tourism as “frivolous.” Of course, you and I know how wrong those people are. Travel has innumerable benefits, for each of us individually and for the world collectively. It forges connections across cultures, grows economies, improves livelihoods, and on and on.

And sometimes, tourism saves a city from annihilation.

Rothenburg ob der Tauber was once upon a time – back in the middle ages – Germany’s second largest city. Its prime location made it an important trading crossroads, which in turn made Rothenburg very wealthy. Then the Thirty Years’ War broke out in 1618. Rothenburg was ravaged several times during the war, and it couldn’t recover. The city fell into a Sleeping Beauty-like state of medieval slumber and gradual decay.

Ironically, it was that state of suspended animation that led to Rothenburg’s first rescue. In the late 1800s, just when the city seemed destined to crumble into dust, some tourists arrived in Rothenburg. They were shocked to discover an almost perfectly preserved (if somewhat dilapidated) medieval town, unlike any other place they’d seen. Word spread, and more tourists arrived. Hotels were built to accommodate them. Restaurants and shops were opened. The city leaders were clever enough to recognize that Rothenburg’s appeal lay in its medieval-ness, so it funneled some of its newfound wealth into preserving and restoring the city. And so Rothenburg was reborn.

Flash forward to the last gasps of WWII. A contingent of German troops, on the run from the Allies, holed themselves up inside Rothenburg’s medieval stone walls. In response, the Allies bombed – and largely demolished – the eastern section of Rothenburg. Still the German troops didn’t budge, and an order was called in to finish the job: destroy the rest of Rothenburg.

But back in Army headquarters, a Very Important Man heard about the order, and it gave him pause. Decades earlier, his mother had visited Rothenburg on vacation, and she brought home a small painting of the charming town. The Very Important Man had grown up looking at that painting of Rothenburg on the wall of his childhood home. And at this critical moment, he decided that Rothenburg was simply too special to become another casualty of war; it had to be saved.

He made a call and an offer. If the German troops would evacuate the city, the Allies wouldn’t bomb it. Fortunately, the top German commander had briefly left the city, and his second-in-command was no fool. He accepted the offer, the troops left posthaste, and Rothenburg was spared.

If tourists hadn’t discovered the city, the Very Important Man’s mother wouldn’t have visited; and if his mother hadn’t visited, the Very Important Man wouldn’t have stopped the Allies from making a terrible mistake; and if the Very Important Man hadn’t stopped the terrible mistake, we wouldn’t be able to visit Rothenburg today, where we can soak up its medieval charm, revel in its 500-year-old Christmas market, and marvel at its knack for surviving.


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