HEVIZ, Hungary -- The new Orthodox church, with its smooth stone and clean lines, is surrounded by overgrown plants and a wooden shed adorned with construction workers' hats. But at midday on a Tuesday, there are no workers in sight.
The church, which is on the outskirts of Hungary's famed spa town of Heviz, almost 200 kilometers southwest of Budapest, is being built by the Hungarian Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church. Work began in February 2020 and should have been finished by December 2020.
Inside the building, an amalgam of stone and glass, there are some icons and a bouquet of yellow flowers, along with a small mountain of debris piled up by the glass door. A sign declares that this is a building site and entry is forbidden. According to the Russian church's website, they have regular services there, but the overgrown garden, the remnants of construction, and the boarded-up entrance tell a different story.
Heviz has long been a popular destination for Russians but the coronavirus pandemic and now the Kremlin's war on Ukraine have ended the stream of Russian tourists seeking rest, relaxation, and restorative waters. With drastically reduced income, and a construction and investment slowdown, locals fear that Heviz could turn into a ghost town.
The spa town is close to the 40-meter-deep thermal Lake Heviz, which sits on volcanic rock and naturally mixes streams of hot and cold water. For centuries, perhaps as far back as the Romans, the lake has been used as a bathing spot, but it wasn't until the 18th century that the town starting expanding and became a destination for those attracted by the water's supposed healing powers.
Russian interest in the spa town accelerated after World War II, when it was the site of a Soviet Army hospital between 1945-46. In 1948, the spa and hospital were nationalized and taken over by the Hungarian state. A devasting fire in 1986 gutted the newly renovated buildings that towered over the lake, but over the next few years, many of them were rebuilt.
During the coronavirus pandemic, which began in 2020, Heviz lost most of its hotel revenue, which after the capital, Budapest, was the highest in the country. When restrictions eased and the number of COVID-19 cases shrank, the town still struggled to attract elderly tourists due to health fears associated with travelling and communing in public places.
The absence of the often-big-spending Russians has had a massive impact on Heviz. Many construction projects have ceased, or have drastically slowed down, for example, the ongoing work at the central bus station.
The new Orthodox church on the edge of town where construction is now seemingly halted was being funded from 400 million forints (around $1 million) out of 2.4 billion forints allocated by the Hungarian government in 2017 for the renovation and construction of four Orthodox churches. According to data from 2011, there are only 40,000 Orthodox worshipers in Hungary, making up around 0.5 percent of the population, with the majority (64.8 percent) being Roman Catholic.
According to Tamas Palffy, the head of a local tourism agency, Russians made up some 17 percent of the hotel guests in the past, while some hotels say that figure was closer to 25 percent. "They stayed for a long time and spent a lot of money here. The earnings were higher there, so they could spend more in shops, restaurants, and hotels," Palffy said, sitting in his office, a poster behind him showing the Heviz lake with "the fountain of life" written in 11 languages. His office is on the second floor of the tourism agency, surrounded by hotels and clothing shops with near-permanent signs advertising sales and special offers.
With the Arab Spring uprisings keeping prospective Russian visitors to the Middle East away, Heviz became even more popular among Russians in the early 2010s. The flourishing interest was partly due to the direct flights from Moscow and the relatively cheap prices of hotel rooms and other amenities for Russians who felt at home in a country that was once a satellite state of the Soviet Union.
Russians contributed a lot to the local economy of the town, especially after the 2008 global recession, continuing to regularly visit as well as buying property. The city grew to accommodate them: for-sale signs on houses were translated into Russian. A local magazine, Etalon, published a Russian issue in 2014 and a Russian grocery store opened, offering caviar and adjika, a spicy sauce from the Caucasus that is popular across Russia.
Like other tourists, Russians didn't just come for the healing waters but for the private medical procedures. There are almost 30 dental clinics in Heviz, an astonishing number for a town of 5,000 people.
Not to mention the fashion: On one of Heviz's main roads, there is still an elegant and airy store selling furs. Even without the Russians, the store's manager, Edina Lorincz, says they still manage to sell their exclusively Italian-made goods. "Could anyone replace [the Russians]? I don't think so," Lorincz said, sitting at the counter in the empty boutique. "They made up 60 percent of our customers."
The Heviz-Balaton Airport, located near the town of Sarmellek, some 10 kilometers from Lake Balaton, was built in 1940 and housed Soviet aviation regiments until 1991. It was refurbished in the 2000s and consists of just one building. With the airport now only offering direct flights to and from Dortmund, Germany, most of the 100-or-so people milling around are middle-aged, speaking German, and trying to squeeze into a little cafe with limited seating.
The number of German tourists has also decreased -- and the war in Ukraine is continuing to keep many away. "From Germany, it seems like we are a country next to the front lines. They don't care that we are on the other side of the country [to Ukraine], they only think that they will come closer to the war if they come here," Palffy from the tourism agency said.
Until 2018, there were direct flights to Russia, but due to decreased demand and then the COVID-19 pandemic, Russians had to fly via Budapest or Vienna. Now, even those indirect routes are not possible, as Russians are banned from flying to the European Union as a result of sanctions imposed due to the war in Ukraine.
Over the last decade, the Russian and Hungarian governments have grown closer. Despite being an EU and NATO member, in recent years Hungary's controversial Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has been criticized for his authoritarian rule and backsliding on rights, has expressed a desire for closer ties with Russia.
Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto, who received a Russian medal for friendship in December 2021, is one of the very few diplomats from EU countries to visit Russia since the start of the war in February. Orban has been a vocal critic of EU sanctions against Russia over the war in Ukraine, rejecting the idea of restrictions on gas and oil imports and citing the effect these might have on the country's already dire economic situation.
"I trust that the decision-makers did consider the benefits and the disadvantages of the sanctions," Palffy said. "The sanctions on average people are of course not a positive [development,] but I trust that they might be necessary to a degree."
According to Palffy, Russians and Ukrainians have coexisted peacefully in the town since the beginning of the war on February 24. Local Russians and Ukrainians organized joint fundraisers for Ukrainian refugees. A Russian resident of Heviz, who moved here to be with her Hungarian husband seven years ago, says that many had to leave due to the sanctions. The woman, who preferred to remain anonymous, says that she personally has not faced any problems here.
With concerns about a global recession and the war rumbling on in Ukraine, it doesn't look like anything will change soon in the lakeside town. According to one hotel manager, who also wished to remain anonymous, the reason for all the construction delays is purely financial. The manager says their hotel, which has a capacity of several hundred, is now at 50 percent occupancy, despite July being one of the busier months.
He fears that after the pandemic and now the Ukraine war, rising energy prices will continue to scupper the hospitality and tourism industries. After the government scrapped energy price caps starting August 1, some of the luxurious spa hotels will have to pay an estimated five times as much as they did in December 2021 for electricity and gas. According to the hotel manager's calculations, even if the war ends this fall, it will be months before the Russian tourists return and the town is back to normal.
"Should I count on them? I have to, otherwise it's looking quite bleak," he said. "There's going to be a recession. But I believe that Russians will come back if their financial situation and the EU allows it," he added.
"If they can, they will return to Heviz," Palffy agreed. "We just don't know how exactly. But we believe that Heviz's tourism can be rejuvenated, and we will do everything for that to happen."