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Resort Island Struggles to Stay Afloat

August 19, 1991

RUEGEN, Germany (AP) _ Soaring sand dunes, beautiful bays and sprawling forests of maple and pine. Spectacular medieval castles. Endless beaches, swimsuits optional.

This is Ruegen, a placid island off turbulent eastern Germany that seems as free of care as it is of clothing.

Despite its natural riches, this old Communist Party playground is fighting to stay afloat. The economy has crashed and east German tourists, the one constant, stayed away this summer.

″There are many, many formidable problems,″ said Christian Schnitzer, head of the county economics department. ″The challenge is to preserve Ruegen while restoring our economy.″

Ruegen, home to 86,000 people, has a languid island pace. About half the bathers don’t bother with suits.

Larger than New York City, the 389-square-mile island is a three-hour ferry ride over the Baltic Sea from Sweden and Denmark, which supply most of the foreign tourists.

The ferry to the Soviet city of Klaipeda is being used to return Soviet army soldiers who must vacate the former East Germany.

″We’d like to use that ferry for, perhaps, tourists from Poland, but we’ll have to wait,″ said Rolf Buschewski, the tourism director.

Schnitzer said tourism is second to agriculture on Ruegen, where 65 percent of the land is arable.

Tourism ″is highly seasonal and produces low-quality jobs,″ the county economist said. ″The key is reviving agriculture.″

About 5,000 of the 8,000 farmers who worked the overstaffed, Soviet-style collectives have lost their jobs since last year, he said.

Joblessness on the island was 12.5 percent in June and another 20 percent were working shorter hours at lower pay.

Eastern Germany’s economy faces another blow because a large naval base is scheduled to close, Schnitzer said. The land is being turned into a federal preserve.

Schnitzer will visit the United States this fall to lure investors. He hopes to develop the processing end of the island’s agriculture industry.

Tourism is down slightly because eastern Germans are avoiding Ruegen, and about 60 percent of the visitors now are curious western Germans, Buschewski said.

″With the borders opened, easterners are traveling to places they couldn’t visit before,″ he said. But some eastern Germans say they are being priced out of their favorite vacationland, once heavily subsidized.

″I can afford it, but I don’t see how eastern Germans can,″ said Ralf Penke, 45, a fireman from west Berlin who was honeymooning with his east German bride, Ina, 27.

″This place used to be very cheap,″ she said.

Ruegen was a favorite haunt of Communist Party chief Erich Honecker and his lieutenants. The now-deposed Stalinist often stayed at the plush Cliff Hotel, a squat, fortress-like structure that juts from the forest on the southwest coast. Party leaders also had exclusive use of the pristine little island of Vilm, just off Ruegen’s south coast. Vilm is now a wildlife sanctuary.

The Communist Party’s new incarnation, the Party for Democratic Socialism, still controlled the Cliff Hotel and other properties as recently as May.

The Treuhandanstalt, the agency set up to sell east Germany’s communist-run enterprises, has been seizing such properties and has fired 1,400 managers. It promises to fire more.

Hotel manager Matthias Scheibe, whose jaunty tailored suit and slick marketing plans belie his party roots, wants to stay on.

″If the decision is made on how competent one is, I’m optimistic,″ he said. ″I’ve had an intensive lesson in capitalism.″

Like everywhere in east Germany, development here is hampered by disputes over who owns what in the post-communist era.

About 6,000 former Ruegeners or their heirs have filed property claims, and ″in some cases, five or six people have claimed the same land,″ Schnitzer said.

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