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ITTFA Comment on… Focus on…Hungary

Hungary is a prime example of a country whose tourism industry has been transformed by political developments. Before the end of the Socialist system in 1989 inbound tourism was restricted by a poor image and visa requirements, while the main limiting factor on outbound tourism was the need to acquire costly foreign currency.

But within a few years of this political earthquake tourism had been transformed, and when Hungary joined the EU in 2004 there was another revolution as low-cost airlines began to arrive in force. Budapest suddenly became easily accessible from all over Europe, and the many nationalities visiting the city today make a poignant contrast with ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian Uprising against the Socialist regime, which failed but led eventually to reform.

The diversity of Hungary is reflected in TRAVEL, the international tourism exhibition held in March each year at the Hungexpo Budapest Fair Centre. This year’s event attracted a record 49 countries hoping to appeal to the Hungarian traveller, with presentations by African countries Angola, Gabon, Madagascar, Namibia, Uganda and Zimbabwe; and new exhibitors including Japan, Taiwan and Oman from Asia, and the UK. Foreign exhibitors took 14% more space than in previous years and totalled 211, while Hungarian-based exhibitors (inbound/outbound) were in the majority with 685.

Domestic exhibitors filled two pavilions including Hungary’s diverse regions, wine-growing areas and spas. A huge selection of walking, cycling, equestrian and wine tours was also featured.

TRAVEL is more than an exhibition for the trade but also a colourful spectacle for the public. A parallel event, TRAVEL – Gastrorendezvous, offers culinary delights in a themed Year of Wine and Gastronomy presentation. Gastronomic competitions include the international bartenders’ championship, the chefs’ competition or cooking duel, and buffet meal and table-setting competitions.

Equestrian tourism is also important in a country devoted to horsemanship, with 30 exhibitors including agencies that specialise in riding centres, trips and camping options. Twice-daily at the weekend, the general public enjoy a horse show from the 600-seat stands in an open-air arena.

Hungary is a small country, but it still faces the challenge of getting visitors out of the capital to discover its countryside, lakes, rural spas and wine-growing regions. But last summer low-cost Ryanair started direct flights from London Stansted to Balaton airport, close to the lakes and spas, and from October 31 Ryanair starts a Frankfurt (Hahn) to Balaton service. Austrian Airlines has also started flying from Vienna to the historic Hungarian town of Pecs.

Hungarian National Tourist Office statistics show that more international visitors are spending more money, but because of economic constraints Hungarians are spending less on their foreign travels. Guests staying at commercial accommodation increased by 8% in 2005, to over 3.61 million.

One of the biggest increases in visitors was from the UK – up 38% to 405,000 in 2005. It is no coincidence that the biggest increase in low-cost airline routes to Hungary was from the UK – not just Ryanair but also easyJet, Wizz Air and Jet2 which are now competing with national carriers Malev Hungarian Airlines and British Airways.