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The Eastern Countries Look To Tourism To Boost Economic Growth

  • Stuart Parrott

London, July 8 (RFE/RL) - Poland offers lake and mountain holidays, Romania advertises 'Dracula Tours', Bulgaria pushes beach breaks, and the Baltic states invite tourists to Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius.

The Central and East European countries are all pressing for a bigger share of the western tourism market -- and for good reason.

Tourism can bring major economic benefits. It produces hard currency earnings, improves the balance of payments, helps attract foreign investment, and, since it is labor intensive, eases unemployment.

The London-based European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, set up to promote market reforms, says tourism can play a key role in helping the Eastern countries expand their economies.

The EU's Phare program has drawn up a "master plan" for each of the Eastern nations aimed at helping them develop their tourist potential.

Economists say tourism has a 'multiplier effect': that is, the amount of wealth it generates is greater than that spent by the tourist alone.

Prague, the top tourist destination in the East, has benefited greatly from the multiplier effect. Its huge annual influx of foreign visitors generates direct earnings, and indirectly boosts the local economy.

Czech farmers, service industries, shops -- all benefit from the marks, dollars and yen spent by tourists. But this comes at a cost: tourists choke city centres, they are culturally insensitive, and they drive up prices.

But aside from cities like Prague, Budapest and Cracow, the volume of tourists to the Eastern countries remains disappointingly small.

The British magazine, Travel Trade Gazette, says the Eastern countries are still far from achieving their tourist potential despite more interest by Western tour operators and a greater choice of flights and hotels.

Travel firms say the Eastern countries -- with the exception of the Czech Republic -- are difficult to "sell" to west European tourists.

Poor infrastructure, inadequate roads and railways, haphazard service, high hotel prices, street crime, pollution and confusion over visa requirements -- all have inhibited the growth of tourism.

This is particularly true of the former Soviet Union where tourism was far stronger 10 years ago when the 'iron curtain' was in place.

A British tour operator said: "The war in Chechnya has deterred visitors from going to the East. People have a poor sense of geography."

Yet travel firms also report a new curiosity about "the other half of Europe", an area that, for years, owing to communism, was terra incognita -- unknown territory. The isolation of the Eastern countries in the past few decades is seen as a "plus" because they have preserved many qualities of charm and tradition fast disappearing elsewhere.

Jane Williams, marketing manager of a British travel firm, said: "people want something different each year and they want to see the former communist countries before they become too westernised." A sign of the new interest came in a tourism supplement in the U.S. magazine, Time. A survey of "20 great places to visit", listed three destinations in the East -- Budapest, the South Bohemian town of Cesky Krumlov, and the 2,500-year-old city of Bokhara in Uzbekistan. Travel Trade Gazette says the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary lead the way for leisure travel, but soaring luxury hotel prices mean that most tourists now can only afford two or three day "city breaks".

Poland is the only Eastern country with a big advertising campaign, a large tourism budget, and tourism promotion offices in several Western cities. But its capital, Warsaw, suffers from a reputation as a "drab" city, and it remains largely a transit city for Western tourists.

The most popular destination is the medieval city of Cracow with its tombs of kings, its vibrant student life, and proximity to Czestochowa Monastery whose Black Madonna is Poland's holiest shrine.

The 'multiplier effect' is at work in Cracow where hundreds of restaurants and shops have opened. But authorities worry about the strain on the infrastructure, and about damage to the "soul" of the city.

Next year Poland will emphasise lake and mountain holidays, including the Mazurian lakes, the Tatras mountains and the skiing resort of Zakopane. But critics say the emphasis on rural tourism may be premature for a trade which still knows little about Poland's cities.

Bulgaria's main appeal is 'budget' beach holidays. Bulgaria is also trying to develop rural tourism -- simple basic holidays in unspoiled country. It is being advised by the Republic of Ireland which pioneered rural holidays built around a leisurely pace of life and friendly people.

But poor demand caused one British firm, Travelscene, to remove the capital, Sofia, from its brochures two years ago. Director John Harding said the tourism infrastructure in Sofia and Bucharest is inadequate.

Romania emphasizes holidays with a Dracula theme. But Black Sea beach holidays are in decline because of health scares and low quality. Operators hope to develop fly-drive and mountain holidays.

Yet Romania may have a bright future. British travel agent Chris Rocki says Romania could soon be "the next major destination". Its rural culture is said to be unique because, in many regions, a way of life persists that barely survives outside folk museums elsewhere in Europe.

One travel writer said: "Few countries can offer such a wealth of distinctive folk music, festivals and customs, all still going strong in remoter areas." He said: "The wild Carpathians shelter bears, stags and eagles, while the Bucegi and Retezat ranges offer some of the most undisturbed and spectacular hiking opportunities in Europe."

Analysts say Romania could appeal particularly to what is called the "new tourist" -- better educated, culturally aware, more curious, analytical, and interested in local customs and traditions. But Romania is one of hardest countries in East and Central Europe to travel around in.

One travel analyst said the Baltic states are "desperate" for more tourists. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania all have direct air services. They are within two hours' flying time of London. They offer visa-free access for West European visitors. but lack of promotion is a problem. And foreign firms have no knowledge of anywhere outside the capital cities.

A writer for Travel Trade Gazette who visited Riga says the city has all the ingredients for a pleasant weekend break with its pavement cafes, opera house, and seaside suburb of Jurmala. It also offers an opportunity to visit towns off the tourist route such as historic Cesis.

He says tourism in Latvia is very professional as newly-privatised firms such as Latvia Tours have experienced staff to draw on. He quotes managing director Gundega Zeltina: "we all worked for Intourist which was a good school but it used to publish such nonsense about Latvia."

But high prices may deter potential visitors to the Baltic states. One british firm charges about $1,500 for a 12-day escorted coach tour of the three Baltic states, using Scandinavian Airlines flights into Tallinn.

Travel Trade Gazette says Russia must rank among the world's great travel experiences but, for the time being, it is only real enthusiasts who are heading there. Weekends in Moscow and St Petersburg are still popular but, apart from river cruises and tours of the "golden ring" between the two cities, tour operators have little else to offer.

High prices and crime are a big deterrent. A recent study by Eurocost found that Moscow is the world's most expensive city to stay in with the average price of a single room at $350.

The report notes that the business travel market was rocked by the death of a British businessman who was caught in the crossfire of a gang fight in a St Petersburg hotel. The report says: "this has led business travel specialists to promise armed bodyguards if visitors want them. This may reassure executives but does nothing to encourage tourism."

The report says that Ukraine, a country the size of France, also has big potential with interesting cities, Black Sea resorts and river cruises. But the Black Sea has had health scares over cholera and hepatitis.

Uzbekistan in Central Asia is popular with tourists, with the attractions of ancient islamic culture at the start of the silk road to China.

But the report says that beyond these countries, tourism is virtually non-existent, and none has a tourist office in Western countries. Chaos and confusion surrounds visa requirements, with some of the countries that emerged from the Soviet Union changing the rules almost monthly.

Still, many Western tourist operators are convinced that the Eastern countries offer substantial room for a big growth in tourist numbers in future years -- and they are keeping a close watch on the market.