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).
Thirty years on, how is eastern Europe faring? According to GlobalData, an international research and analytics company, there are still many opportunities for growth.
Its travel and tourism analyst Laura Beaton says: “The Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Slovenia, and Poland are all in the Schengen area and tourists can travel between these without border controls. The other countries also have relaxed entry requirements.
“While some countries may still suffer from a tarnished reputation, new generations with no memory of the Soviet Union will increasingly begin to appreciate their beauty and culture instead. The region has everything it needs to increase tourism even further, but the priority should be spreading this message and encouraging the right kind of travellers. It offers a variety of cheap accommodation options and activities – perfect for people who are budget-conscious.”
“Eastern European countries offer a lot of leisure options for all types of travellers”
Slovakia and Lithuania may have adopted the Euro as their currencies, but countries without the Euro tend to offer lower prices. Among the cheapest countries to visit are Romania, Serbia and Bulgaria.
Cultural city breaks remain the key attraction, but seaside resorts such as Sunny Beach in Bulgaria have been important in changing people’s perception of the region.
“Eastern European countries offer a lot of leisure options for all types of travellers, be they adventure seekers, nature lovers, or history enthusiasts,” added Beaton. “Stag and hen parties are popular because of cheap alcohol and accommodation, but this part of Europe offers much more than just cheap drink.
“Low-cost airline Wizz Air has been a driver of increased tourism as it expands low-cost options both within and to the area. From the summer of 2020, it will add 24 weekly flights from Poland including 15 new routes from Gdansk, Krakow and Warsaw. Ryanair has new flights from the UK to Kiev in Ukraine and Kosice in Slovakia.”
Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, Bulgaria and Romania have beach resorts along the Adriatic or Black Sea, meaning they have wider appeal than countries with more of a cultural focus. Although the collapse of Thomas Cook will hit some resorts, Tui continues to expand.
The operator has doubled business to Croatia in the past four years, where it operates four hotels with 1,600 beds, including the new Tui Sensimar Carolina on the island of Rab. But business has been flat this year due to the increased popularity of Turkey and North Africa.
In Bulgaria it operates seven Riu hotels and one Tui Family Life property. It is looking at investments in Montenegro, where it doesn’t yet have its own hotels, and this is also important for cruising.
Looking at just a few countries that are promoting at WTM London, Croatia has opened 20 new hotels this year including Grand Park Hotel in Rovinj, the largest investment project in Croatian tourism history. Its investment potential continues to rise and it expects to surpass last year’s €940 million.
Rijeka in Croatia will be one of the European Cities of Culture in 2020, while in 2021 these include Timisoara in Romania and Novi Sad in Serbia.
Serbia is putting major emphasis on Novi Sad because of its cafe culture, Petrovaradin fortress and the Exit festival, a major music event. It has 70 nature reserves and five national parks offering health and wellness breaks, as an alternative to city stays in Belgrade and Novi Sad.
Meanwhile, Poland is using WTM London to highlight alternative attractions in its most popular cities including Warsaw’s Neon museum, the vibrant Kazimierz district in Krakow and gnome hunting in Wroclaw. In 2020 it will promote the diversity of Polish cuisine in the UK, Sweden, Russia and Germany, and Poland will also have a new watersports campaign including the Masuria region’s “Land of a Thousand Lakes”.
The latest luxury hotel opening in Poland will be in early 2020 when five-star Nobu opens in the heart of Warsaw.
Then the Czech Republic will highlight historic sites, including the city of Hradec Kralove in a region known as the “Czech Loire” due to its castles.
Thirty years on from the fall of the Berlin Wall, eastern Europe remains undiscovered by many, but can claim to be as diverse as western Europe – and in many cases, much better value.