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AN OVERVIEW OF TOURISM RESOURCES IN EASTERN EUROPE

Eastern Europe is rich in tourism resources, although these are of a kind more likely to attract visitors with cultural or special interests than the mass market. Beach tourism is well established on the Baltic and Black Sea coasts. The mountain ranges, notably the Carpathians, provide opportunities for winter sports, although facilities rarely attain the standard of the ski resorts of the Alps. Spa tourism is another growth sector, based on the abundance of mineral-rich springs and exploiting the vogue for healthier lifestyles in the West. Even under Communism, doctors prescribed lengthy spa visits for patients in need of therapy for a wide range of medical conditions. Generally, facilities need to be upgraded considerably if they are to meet upmarket Western standards. Domestic demand for these resources is also likely to increase as people adopt more sedentary lifestyles as a result of the decline of heavy industry, growing affl uence and a traditional diet that is rich in fats, preserved meats and carbohydrates. All the countries of the region have designated national parks or reserves, but considerable land-use confl icts need to be resolved if the wildlife resources are to be adequately protected. The region’s great rivers and lakes offer scope for recreational tourism. The main attraction of most countries is likely to be the heritage of past cultures, exemplifi ed in historic cities such as Tallinn and Krakow, and the colourful peasant folklore of the rural areas. Cities and countryside alike refl ect the strong national differences to be found within Eastern Europe. In detailing the resources and the type of development that has taken place in each of the countries of the region, we start with the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary –countries that consider themselves to be part of Central Europe, rather than Eastern Europe, and where German is the second language.

THE CZECH REPUBLIC

In January 1993 the Federal Republic of Czechoslovakia was dissolved, with the Czech Republic and Slovakia henceforth following separate paths. The Czechs of Bohemia and Moravia differ from the Slovaks not only in language but also in cultural traditions. When Czechoslovakia was established in 1918, the Czech lands had been part of the Austrian Empire for four centuries, whereas Slovakia had been ruled by Hungary for much longer. The Czech Republic is not only much larger than Slovakia, with twice the population, but also disproportionately wealthier. Since the ‘ Velvet Revolution ’of 1989 it has attracted considerable foreign investment as a result of its drive to a free market economy. Although the Czech Ministry of Economics does not have a strong tourism policy, the Czech Republic has a wellestablished tourism industry which contributed 5.5 per cent of GDP in 2001. TOURISM DEMAND AND SUPPLY The Czech Republic has long been famous for its therapeutic springs and spas. Karlovy Vary (formerly Carlsbad) and Marianske Lazne (Marienbad) in Bohemia were the favourite meeting places for the statesmen and the wealthy of Europe in the early 1900s. Under Communism the luxury hotels were taken over by labour unions and fell into neglect, but since 1990 there has been something of a revival. With developments spearheaded by the Czech Tourist Authority (CTA) and Cedok, the former state tourism organisation and now the largest hotel and travel company, a wide range of products are available to today’s foreign visitor, including city breaks, spa treatments, sporting holidays, stays in lake and mountain resorts, and touring holidays. After the 1989 Revolution, tourist numbers more than doubled to exceed 20 million arrivals in the early years of the twenty-fi rst century, while Prague has become one of the world’s most visited cities. However, the majority of these are day excursionists, mainly from neighbouring Germany and Austria, and the number of staying visitors is around 5 million. The country’s new-found popularity highlighted the shortage of accommodation, especially the three- and four-star hotels favoured by Western tour groups, and the need to upgrade standards is one of the most pressing needs of the tourism sector. Until recently, most of the demand has come from other East European countries where expectations are lower, and this has resulted in a proliferation of low-cost camping sites. The situation is improving as a result of joint ventures by Cedok with Western corporations for the larger hotels and privatisation of the smaller hotels and pensions, with new hotels opening in Prague and a programme of renovation of older properties. Domestic tourism is important as an advanced industrial economy has given most Czechs comparative affl uence by East European standards. Sport and an interest in physical fi tness and the outdoor life had been fostered by the Sokol movement even before 1918. This has resulted in a growing demand for a wide range of outdoor recreation activities and for second homes in the countryside TOURISM RESOURCES The Czech Republic offers scenic variety and a physical environment that is generally favourable for tourism. The large number of rivers and small lakes make up to some extent for the lack of a coastline. Forests cover 20 per cent of the country and are particularly extensive in the mountain ranges along the national borders. These forests are managed as a recreational resource, with nature reserves, waymarked trails and areas set aside for hunting –an important earner of foreign currency. Skiing is popular during the winter months in the resorts of Harrachov in the Giant Mountains and Spicak in the Sumava Mountains. Southern Bohemia and Moravia also boast spectacular limestone caves among their natural attractions.

A rich natural and cultural heritage is given a considerable degree of environmental protection, with the establishment of a 400 kilometre-long ‘ green corridor ’ linking Prague to Vienna, designed for hiking, riding and cycling holidays, or leisurely touring by car. This tourist route includes some of the historic towns of Southern Bohemia –notably Cesky Krumlov, with its unique Baroque theatre – and a number of castles. Cedok has converted some of these to luxury hotels, while others are being restored to their former aristocratic owners after a long period of neglect under Communism. Interpretation of the heritage is achieved through open-air museums. Despite these initiatives, the Czech Republic has its share of conservation problems. These include:

● Serious pollution from smokestack industries using lignite, in north Bohemia and north Moravia – Silesia and

● Lack of government funding often means that historic buildings continue to fall into disrepair, while art treasures illegally acquired from the country’s churches fi nd their way to the international art market. A number of cities of the Czech republic have received UNESCO listing as World Cultural Heritage Sites, and Prague has achieved worldwide signifi cance as a tourist centre. Prague’s cultural appeal is due to:

● A strong musical heritage, including associations with Mozart and the Czech composers Smetana and Dvorak;

● A unique architectural heritage, which escaped destruction in the Second World War, with outstanding examples of buildings in the Gothic, Baroque and Art Nouveau styles and

● A vibrant contemporary arts scene attracting a large expatriate community, particularly from the USA. As Prague has more than one historic centre, tourist attractions tend to be clustered in three distinct areas:

● Hradcany: the original fortress capital on a hill overlooking the River Vltava. This contains Prague Castle –seat of Bohemian kings, Holy Roman emperors and Czech presidents –St. Vitus Cathedral and the picturesque street known as Golden Lane;

● The Old Town on the east bank of the river, which is linked to Hradcany by the highly decorative Charles Bridge. Two of the fi nest masterpieces of Gothic architecture in the Old Town are Tyn Church and the clock tower in Old Town Square and

● The New Town, which was actually planned as early as the fourteenth century but rebuilt in the nineteenth century. It focuses on Wenceslas Square, the setting for some of the key events in Czech history, nowadays lined with hotels, apartment buildings, restaurants and shops. Many of these are decorated in the Art Nouveau style associated with the great Czech artist Alfons Mucha. Tourism has brought economic benefi ts to Prague, including international funding of much-needed restoration work. However, the enormous infl ux of visitors, especially of tour groups and young backpackers from all over the world, is threatening to turn the city into another Florence.

Other cities are mainly important as centres for business travel:

● Plzen (Pilsen) and Ceske Budejovice (Budweis) are mainly famous for their brewing industries and

● Brno, the capital of Moravia, is noted for its engineering industries and as an important venue for trade fairs.

SLOVAKIA

Slovakia has made less progress with free market reforms than the Czech Republic, and consequently tourism is not as developed. Before the Second World War, it had a predominantly agrarian economy, and it suffers from the legacy of dependence on the heavy industries introduced under Communism. Slovakia is a country with great tourism potential, and whilst it has benefi ted from the share-out of federal assets following its ‘ divorce settlement ’with the Czech Republic, signifi – cant investment in tourist infrastructure is needed. The situation has improved since 2004, now that both countries are EU members. Slovakia has both its own national airline and its national tourist organisation –the Slovak Tourist Board with marketing and development powers, although the CSA airline continues to play an important role in promoting the country’s attractions. A new bridge across the Danube on the border with Hungary will boost tourist activity between the two countries. The main appeal of Slovakia for foreign visitors lies in its beautiful mountain scenery rather than the attractions of the capital, Bratislava. Unlike the Czech Republic, this is a wine-drinking nation rather than a beer-drinking one, with some cultural similarities to neighbouring Hungary; for example, gypsy folk music is an important part of the entertainment on offer to foreign tourists in both countries. Slovaks take even greater pride in their rural peasant traditions than the Czechs, and a considerable variety of village architecture has been preserved. Other heritage attractions include medieval mining towns, the castles of the former Hungarian nobility, and in Eastern Slovakia, Orthodox churches are a reminder of the region’s proximity to Romania and the Ukraine. Tourism is mainly focused on the following areas:

● The High Tatras on the border with Poland, which contain the highest peaks of the Carpathians. Apart from the superb lake and mountain scenery, the area can provide some of the best skiing to be found in Eastern Europe;

● The karst limestone region of Eastern Slovakia, which boasts the spectacular UNESCO-listed Dobsina ice cave as well as waterfalls and rock formations;

● The spas of Western Slovakia, the most important being Piestany, which attracts large numbers of wealthy Arab and German tourists and

● Bratislava and Southern Slovakia, which forms part of the Danube Plain. Bratislava is known primarily as a modern industrial city, and its cultural attractions (it was historically the capital of Hungary) have been overshadowed by those of Prague. It is now a major port, thanks to the controversial power project on the Danube at Gabcikovo which, in taming the river, also threatens to destroy the wetland environment of the area.


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