The future of travel – in Central and Eastern Europe more than anywhere else


The journey is about to get more personal than ever. Countries, regions and cities that prioritize niche tourism, and not mass tourism, will be the winners.

For almost 20 years as editor-in-chief of In Your Pocket, Europe’s largest publisher of locally produced travel guides, I have seen firsthand the travel and tourism industry in Central and Eastern Europe. develop from what had been for a long time almost an afterthought to become a major driver of a number of regional economies.

However, this change has not been generalized.

While in Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia and Montenegro, travel and tourism now account for (or at least – before Covid-19) around one-fifth of GDP, providing jobs for millions of people across the region, in many areas. many emerging countries. Europe, travel and tourism continue to represent a vast reservoir of untapped potential, at best neglected, at worst totally ignored.

What has held so many countries back is a philosophy that can perhaps be best described by paraphrasing the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson in the film Field of Dreams: if we have it they will come.

As one of the region’s largest economies, Romania, demonstrates, just having the kind of attractions that visitors should love (be it beaches, mountains, natural wonders, historic towns, ski resorts – or all of those things) does not guarantee that foreign tourists will be come.

According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), the number of foreign tourist arrivals to Romania in 2019 was only 2.7 million, well below neighboring Bulgaria (9.3 million). While tourism accounts for over 11 percent of Bulgaria’s foreign exports, for Romania the figure is only four percent.

And Romania is not the only country in the region to perform well below its potential.

Latvia attracted only 1.9 million foreign tourists in 2019, while in the south, Lithuania received 2.9 million and Estonia in the north, 3.3 million tourist arrivals.

Part of the problem is the lack of a coherent and well-channeled tourism promotion strategy. But this does not fully explain the differences between neighbors with otherwise similar potential.

Finding the right niche is also a key factor, and this is where some countries have almost completely failed.

For many, what caught them napping was the price.

As with many other industries, such as manufacturing, for decades the emerging region of Europe offered discounted deals to foreign visitors, who were happy to forgo a few luxuries and amenities for s ‘granting inexpensive vacations.

It is this approach that formed the backbone of tourism in emerging Europe before 1989. And here I write again from experience.

For example, the only reason I chose Borovets in Bulgaria for a ski vacation in February 1989, just a few months before the fall of the country’s communist regime, was the price: skiing in Bulgaria was incomparably cheaper than almost anywhere. elsewhere in Europe.

The secret of tourism success

But while the huge price differential between East and West continued long after the fall of communism, it could not last forever.

The countries of the region are therefore faced with a problem: how to continue to be attractive to vacationers if their key selling point had disappeared?

Some, like Montenegro, have been entirely renamed to become exclusive luxury destinations, favored by the ostentatious rich and the discreetly wealthy: there are cafes and restaurants in Porto Montenegro where the price of food and drink can make a difference. the eyes of billionaires, new to their mega-yachts, from the water.

Other countries, like Bulgaria, have preferred to try to keep prices as low as possible by competing with other mass tourism destinations like Spain. (Although his numbers are good, however, he arguably made the same mistakes as Spain in the 1970s: overdevelopment is deteriorating large parts of Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast as well as some of its hill stations, Bansko in particular).

Nonetheless, while both approaches have their drawbacks, both have been (with a few caveats) successful. Montenegro’s niche appears secure and Bulgarian tourism – although hit by the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic – continues to strengthen.

Then there are countries which had hardly any tourism industry strictly speaking before 1989 – Albania for example, which received 5.9 million foreign tourists in 2019, according to the UNWTO, or Georgia. (5.1 million).

What makes these countries successful when others around them are stalling?

A skier goes in search of fresh powder in Gudauri, Georgia, in the Caucasus Mountains
Changing demographics

When In Your Pocket published its first city guide to the Lithuanian capital Vilnius in 1992, although intended for everyone, it was primarily aimed at a generation of intrepid backpackers on a budget.

As we expanded across emerging Europe, this approach continued as we remained committed to helping travelers who wanted to find the best value for money and inexpensive food and drink as they were from far their largest demographic visiting the region.

But by the early 2000s, however, that was starting to change, and our content adapted to more suit travelers who wanted to stay in the best hotels, eat gourmet food, and spend their nights in fancy clubs.

To his credit, most of the region was then itself ready to welcome such visitors.

The boom in hotel construction in the early part of the 2000s, which saw the largest (and most luxurious) hotel chains opening large establishments across the region is proof of this.

The sudden availability of ridiculously cheap flights across Europe in the early 2000s also led to a travel boom, this time in short city breaks, an area hitherto reserved for a few central European cities, such as Budapest. , Krakow and Prague.

As a result, people from all over Europe could travel to Lviv, Sarajevo, Tirana and even Tbilisi for just a few euros. Some cities were better prepared than others, and countries that had been geared towards longer vacations – mostly to the beach – saw visitor numbers drop as travelers made more but shorter trips.

Now, in the wake of Covid-19, they must prepare for a new change: a return to longer vacations, based on experiences and increasingly niches. Bird watching in the Danube Delta in Romania, heliskiing in the Caucasus, yachting around the thousands of islands in Croatia.

The single approach to travel is no longer winning, and countries, regions and cities that have built their tourism sectors on such a strategy could find themselves in difficulty. Those who have never taken travel seriously will be left even further behind.

It’s time to rethink travel and tourism. His future will be sustainable and personal. Investment in the sector – whether public or private – will need to take this into account.

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