Eastern Europe leading tourism growth in the EU

Posted Oct 16, 2013 by Matthew Turner
Europe remains one of the favourite destinations for tourists the world over, but the centre of gravity is beginning to shift further east.
Prague  Capital of the Czech Republic
Prague: The Czech Republic, is a landlocked country in Central Europe. The country is bordered by Germany to the west, Austria to the south, Slovakia to the east and Poland to the north
The deregulation of the airline industry in Europe, the decline of pre-packaged tours that tend to stick to Western Europe and the greater recognition within the industry of the strengths of the Central and Eastern Europe are important factors driving this growth.
According to numbers released by the European Commission September 27, World Tourism Day, international tourist arrivals in Europe grew by 5 % during the first half of 2013, with the best results coming from Central and Eastern Europe, up 9 % overall, ahead of traditionally high growth destinations in Southern and Mediterranean Europe, up only 6 %.
Growth in the region was driven by a handful of star performers: Slovakia (+19 %), Latvia (+11 %) and Lithuania (+9 %). New Member State Croatia also showed promising results, recording a 5.4 % increase in arrivals and a 3.3% increase in nights spent compared to 2012 figures.
Eastern Europe has long enjoyed the advantage of being an inexpensive destination in Europe, even relative to Southern Member States that boast relatively cheap accommodations and popular beaches. Air travel, however, has proven an obstacle to attracting Western European tourists, the majority of international arrivals in the region. Deregulation of the airline industry in the 1990s and the explosion of budget airlines has helped overcome this barrier. Recently, several low cost airlines, such as Sky Europe, have facilitated even cheaper air travel.
The development of tourism in the region has also gone hand in hand with a profound evolution in the image of the former Communist countries in the West. From the famous ‘Polish plumber’ ad, poking fun at France’s worries that it would be overrun with immigrants in the accession of Eastern Member States, a potent cocktail of savvy communication and rapid economic growth have turned the once ‘backward’ capitals of the region into a hip and dynamic destination, particularly for younger travellers on a budget.
The Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland and the Baltic States made up the first wave of tourism growth in the region. This is logical as they are geographically closest to long-time tourist hot spots in Western Europe, and were the most advanced economically. The former Yugoslav Republic’s of Slovenia and Croatia, after a period of rapid catch-up following the tumultuous break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, have quickly joined this group.
These Eastern European capitals are now regular fixtures on pre-packaged tours of Europe and many tour operators are marketing Central and Eastern European countries themselves as a destination, bypassing the clichéd destinations of Western Europe. On Lonely Planet’s ‘Top 10’ list of Eastern European destinations, its no longer Prague, Budapest or Warsaw that take the highest honours. So passé! Instead, the top four destinations are Slovenia, the once war-torn Sarajevo, Croatia and Moldova, a small republic sandwiched in between Romania and Ukraine that most Europeans (not to mention the rest of the world) would have difficulty placing on a map.
This second group consists of the countries of the Balkan Peninsula, namely Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, Serbia and the other republics of the former Yugoslavia. The culture of this region, where the influence of the Orthodox Church and Islam sit side by side are exotic for Europeans. The region faces a number of challenges if it wants to full capitalise on this nascent industry. Infrastructure, in particular, is in dire need of investment. In the former Yugoslav Republics, cross-border rail connections, the low-budget tourist’s best friend, are non-existent.
The cross-border flow of tourists has also played a powerful role in uniting Europe. Almost a decade since the first wave of Central and Eastern European countries joined the EU, these countries have become tourist destinations in their own right, no longer exotic or ‘off-the-beaten-path’ destinations. It’s now the turn of the Romania, Bulgaria and the EU’s Eastern neighbours, many in the process of negotiating membership, to open their doors to mass flows of Western European tourists.