Dave Richardson investigates eastern Europe’s past versus its present in terms of tourism, and reveals some updates a few countries shared at WTM London.
Thirty years ago, as people attended WTM London, events were under way in eastern Europe that would change the whole of the continent for ever. The Berlin Wall that divided the two parts of Germany was being torn down by people from both sides happy to be reunited, setting off a chain reaction that caused Communist regimes throughout the region to collapse and start the transition to democracy.
Although most countries in eastern Europe welcomed tourism to boost their weak economies, tourists themselves often didn’t feel welcome and many decided against visiting. You had to get a visa, and in some countries only group tours were allowed – with currency restrictions, little use of credit cards and major problems communicating by phone.
Some countries suffered shortages of fuel, power or quality foods, and there was little foreign investment. The quality of tourism services suffered as there was effectively no competition, with huge organisations such as Orbis in Poland, Balkanturist in Bulgaria and Cedok (in what was then Czechoslovakia) operating hotels, tourist transport, restaurants and tourist entertainment.
Private enterprise has transformed the tourism industry in Eastern Europe, while low-cost airlines have made these countries much more accessible than when state-owned airlines such as Malev (Hungary) and Tarom (Romania) were sometimes the only way of getting there.
Of course, there are so many more countries than there used to be, following the break-up of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, and the amicable separation of the Czech Republic and Slovakia. If you wanted to visit Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania in Soviet days, you had to travel via Moscow or St Petersburg (then known as Leningrad).