For more than 30 years, tourists from Western nations have tended to avoid most Communist-ruled Eastern European countries because of their rep-
utation for inferior hotels, impenetrable bureaucracy and grim socialist regimentation. But now, the wave of political change that transformed the region during the past seven months has launched a tourist boom. Growing numbers of Canadian, American and Western European travellers are booking trips to Eastern European destinations. And many returning travellers say that the excitement of being there makes up for the general lack of Western-style amenities. Diane McDougall, for one, a 27-year-old magazine editor from Toronto who visited the Soviet Union in November, said that she was awed by the Kremlin, the seat of Soviet power. “It’s such a powerful place with its walls and the armory,” she said. McDougall added that the “bad food, bad hotels and bad service” she encountered in the Soviet Union only added to the thrill of being there.
McDougall is one of a growing number of tourists visiting the Soviet Union and other Eastern European countries, including Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary.
This year, an estimated 100,000 Canadians will travel to those countries, roughly a 15-percent increase over 1989, say industry sources. A similar growth is under way involving travellers from the United States. Pan American World Airways reported a 25-per-cent increase in bookings to Eastern Europe during the last three months of 1989. Compared with such better-established destinations as Britain, which had 2.8 million American visitors in 1989, the number of North Americans travelling to Eastern Europe remains relatively small. But travel agencies and tour operators say that traffic to Eastern Europe will continue to grow. Said David Vaughan, director of marketing at Toronto’s Marlin Travel Inc.: “It’s a whole new world opening up.”
One factor holding back the flow of tourists into Eastern Europe is the shortage of acceptable hotel accommodation. As well, Western tourists often complain that the hotels that do exist lack such amenities as toilet paper and clean towels and offer mediocre food at high prices. Indeed, some Eastern Europeans say that they are embarrassed by the low standard of living in their countries. Said Ewa in
“I am ashamed of what Poland has to offer.”
Still, many Westerners appear willing to overlook the shortcomings of the nations they visit. Declared Peter McKenna, a tourist from Marlowe, England, who recently visited Moscow: “Our hotel room is about 20 or 30 years behind the times, but it is perfectly adequate and clean. The food is pretty basic, but you don’t come for the food, do you?” And many Western tourists say that discovering the beauty of European cities such as Prague and Budapest more than makes up for any lack of material comfort.
The lower standards result in relatively inexpensive travel. Cheap package tours include a three-week stay at the Hungarian island resort of Margit Sziget on the Danube River in Budapest for just $1,899 per person (including airfares and two meals a day), offered by Toronto’s Apollo Travel Ltd. Hagen’s Travel, a Vancouver agency, offers a 13-day bus tour of Moscow, Leningrad and the Baltic republics, including hotel accommodation and most meals, starting at $2,602. Travellers who prefer first-class hotel accommodation often have to pay a high price for it in Eastern Europe. The only Western-style luxury hotel in Moscow is the city’s 86-room Savoy, where a room costs 240 rubles (about $480) a night.
Western tourism in Eastern Europe has been growing steadily in recent years as many of the former Communist Bloc nations gradually relaxed their authoritarian grip and began seeking Western investment. According to Statistics Canada, Canadians made only 38,000 visits to the Soviet Union and other Eastern European nations in 1980. But in 1987, that number had almost doubled to 66,000. Now,
the flow is increasing for a variety of reasons. Many Western tourists are simply vacationers whose curiosity has been aroused by the dramatic political events in the region. At the same time, businessmen encouraged by economic reforms are flocking to Eastern Europe in the hope of cashing in on the winds of change.
As well, government and travel industry officials point out that, because of political
change in Eastern Europe, many expatriates now say they feel there is less risk involved in returning to the countries of their birth. Indeed, travel industry experts say that more than half of the North Americans visiting some Eastern European countries go there to visit friends and relatives.
Faced with the growing influx of Western tourists, most Eastern Bloc nations have launched plans for new hotel construction, often with Western investment. In Budapest, five new hotels are currently under construction, all involving foreign capital. In Poland, there
are plans to build 21 new hotels by the end of 1993. Meanwhile, travel experts warn that tourists making their first foray into Eastern Europe should be prepared for pleasant surprises—but also some nasty shocks. A guide to the major capitals of the former Iron Curtain nations:
Moscow: Tourist sights include the breathtaking expanse of Red Square with the Kremlin and ornate St. Basil’s Cathedral and the Arbat, a Victorian-era street now frequented by artists and musicians. Still, Moscow can be a difficult city for tourists. Accurate street maps are hard to find, and it is not advisable to rent a car. Buses are invariably jammed and bumpy, but the Metro (subway), with its elaborately
decorated stations, is a must for tourists. There is a severe shortage of hotel rooms, and some Canadian tourists who arrived without reservations in recent months were forced to sleep on the floor of the Canadian Embassy.
Warsaw: One of Warsaw’s main attractions is its beautifully restored Old Town, about half
a square mile of winding alleys and graceful squares. The area was almost totally rebuilt after the Germans destroyed the city near the end of the Second World War. A documentary film on that destruction is regularly screened at the Warsaw city museum. Outside of the Old Town and the Royal Castle, Warsaw’s near-total destruction left little of architectural interest. Western visitors snap up examples of Polish ceramics, art, glass and silverware.
East Berlin: When the Allied powers divided Berlin at the end of the war, the Communists took over the oldest part of the city, including the historic Unter den Linden Avenue, which is lined with museums, universities and cathedrals. But the city is marred by some of the modern buildings erected by the Communist leadership. It is possible to eat well in East Berlin, almost as well as in the West, and at about a fifth of the price.
Prague: The Czechoslovakian capital is often described as the most beautiful Eastern European city. Largely undamaged during the war, Prague has a splendid assortment of medieval and Baroque architecture, ranging from the Old Town Square with its 500-yearold astrological clock, to Hradcany Castle on the other side of the Vltava River. Like many Eastern European countries, Czechoslovakia has severely polluted air.
Budapest: Some travellers say that this city, astride the Danube River, is Eastern Europe’s most dramatic. One of the best of the city’s generally good restaurants is the Apostolok, which offers affordable food in a traditional church-like setting. Budapest has exceptionally fine architecture, including the historic Castle Hill district on the right bank of the Danube and the handsome Parliament Buildings on the left bank. Because Hungary has had a liberal politi-
cal atmosphere for more than two decades, Budapest has a more relaxed, Westernized style.
Faced by a growing influx of foreign tourists, many citizens of Eastern European countries say that they regard Western visitors as a welcome sign of change. Before political reform swept Hungary, said Adrienne Haspel, a 22year-old translator in Budapest, “foreigners were frightened of coming here. Now, they bring us more money and more jobs, and they are surprised to see how Western it is.”
Political observers predict that the quickening pace of change will continue to attract Western economic investment, which is already symbolized by the presence of McDonald’s hamburger outlets in Moscow and Budapest. For that reason, Toronto’s McDougall says that venturesome
Canadians who want to discover
the real Eastern Europe should go there now, and “not in a couple of years when McDonald’s has taken over.”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.