Great Comeback Cities For Travel

comeback cities - Detroit love
Flickr, Michigan Municipal League

Recently, the former automotive boomtown of Detroit made history by filing for bankruptcy, making it an easy butt of jokes on Twitter and in the news. However, Motown has also been making strides to become America’s great comeback city, with artists and entrepreneurs lured by cheap rents, and innovative projects happening all over town (disclosure: I’m a big fan of the city, and so is the New York TimesFrank Bruni). Detroit has more than a few great things going for it, including architecture, museums and sports, and tourist dollars could go a long way in helping the city recover. Can it become a tourist destination again?

Some of the top tourist destinations in the world were once no-go zones for travelers, suffering from financial crises, war, natural disasters and rampant crime. Here are a few of our favorite comeback cities:Berlin: One of the world’s most resilient cities, Berlin has been through war, occupation and one gigantic divide, and come back to thrive. In the decades following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, East Berlin in particular has become a hipster mecca, due to some of the lowest prices in western Europe for nightlife and a vibrant art and design scene. While not everyone welcomes the gentrification, the German capital is continuing to gain millions of foreign tourists each year.

Buenos Aires: A mix of hyperinflation, government corruption and mounting debt led to riots and an economic crisis in Argentina in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The country has stabilized and the peso value has risen, but it’s affordability has made it increasingly attractive to travelers in the last ten years, making it the No. 1 tourism destination in South America. Buenos Aires is opening more boutique hotels each year, ensuring a place every year on lists such as Conde Nast Traveler’s Hot List of new hotels.

New Orleans: A longtime favorite for the French Quarter and Bourbon Street, along with events like Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest, New Orleans was profoundly affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Tourism is the biggest source of employment in the city and a major factor to its economy, and the disaster made visitor numbers plummet. Louisiana’s recovery has been slow but steady, and major infrastructure improvements brought on by this year’s “Super Gras” have helped the Big Easy come back.

New York City: Visitors to the Big Apple have topped 50 million, spending billions of dollars in the city annually. While New York has never suffered from lack of tourists, the 1980s crack epidemic and surge in crime gave it an image of being a violent, dirty and dangerous city and visitor numbers dipped. Like Detroit, it also faced possible bankruptcy in 1975 and President Ford was infamously (mis)quoted to tell NYC to “drop dead.” The terrorist attacks in 2001 caused another slowdown in visitors, but it’s now one of the safest, most visited cities in the world.

Tokyo: While Tokyo was not as devastated by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami as other parts of Japan, it definitely felt the hurt with a sharp decline in tourism, major damage to national infrastructure, and radiation concerns. Foreign visitors are now exceeding the pre-disaster levels, though seismologists worry that an even bigger earthquake is due to hit Tokyo.

An honorable mention must go to the countries in the former Yugoslavia, especially Croatia and the cities of Belgrade and Sarajevo. Twenty years ago, who could have predicted the popularity of the Dalmatian coast as a beach destination, or the battle-scarred Serbian capital as a nightlife hotspot? They aren’t quite seeing the same tourism numbers as the destinations above, but they should be on your travel radar. Istanbul and Beirut are also favorites for their many comebacks and reinventions, though the effects from current events are already being seen in the local tourism industries.

What are your favorite “comeback cities”?

Shaking The Disease

east germany

From August 1984 through the summer of 1985, I lived with my family in Saarland, in the southwestern corner of West Germany. A French protectorate in the years following the Second World War, Saarland was a strange place for a family’s sabbatical year. It felt more like a cul-de-sac on the edge of German-speaking Europe than it did the “heart of Europe,” the notion underlying its contemporary self-presentation. Back then, many of my classmates had never crossed the border into France, which was just two or three miles away. The border felt sealed, even though passport checks were perfunctory and even though French words enlivened local dialects.

Saarland was a good launching pad. The dollar was strong and my parents’ modest discretionary income went far. We jumped on trains, sometimes on consecutive weekends, to explore the surrounding regions and beyond.

In the summer of 1985, we made a particularly exciting journey to Karl-Marx-Stadt (earlier and now again Chemnitz) in East Germany to visit some cousins. My father had become strongly interested in genealogy over the previous decade, and his research had yielded friendships with a slew of West German relatives. We had gotten to know one distant cousin especially well, and he invited us to stay with his aunt and her family near Karl-Marx-Stadt.To visit them we first traveled across West Germany to the border with East Germany and then continued on through East Germany’s train corridor to West Berlin. There was a friction in West Berlin that I hadn’t seen in other European cities, a counterculture that seemed stable and permanent, rooted in its weirdness. We walked near the scary, modern Wall, and combed through the city’s sights.

After a few days in Berlin, we took the train south to Karl-Marx-Stadt. Shortly after we crossed into East Germany, four teenagers boarded the train. There was a flash of negativity about them, a subtle alienation. These teenagers were not like West German kids. They were quiet, first of all, and apparently shy, glancing uncomfortably at us. I couldn’t stop looking at them, drinking all their details in – their hair, their clothes, their attitudes. They were less in-your-face than their West German contemporaries but their defiance was unmistakable. One of them held a little transistor radio. He and I faced each other, our eyes meeting above the seats.

A few minutes in the radio began to play “Shake the disease” by Depeche Mode, which was a big hit that summer. We both started to mouth the words, still viewing each other tentatively. We sang the song silently, observing one another throughout. Along the way he lost his shyness. I was filled with a sense of wonder. Previously I’d considered how fractured we were from another, and now it seemed as if we understood each other very well. The bridge between our two adolescences was this song, bound up in Martin Gore’s strange pairings of words: “you know how hard it is for me to shake the disease / that takes hold of my tongue in situations like these.”

I recall many incidents from the rest of that visit. We met relatives. We witnessed a small wedding in a village church and my mother cried. We walked in the woods. We had difficulty changing money. We drove to a tourist restaurant in the forests near the border with Czechoslovakia. The one completely focused memory, however, was that experience on the train. For that song’s four minutes and 48 seconds, two 15-year-olds shared something. It was everything. It was nothing. It belonged to us.

[Image: Flickr | Hunter-Desportes]