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The European family grows bigger

May 1st, 2004 is a highly significant date for the travel and tourism industry, when 10 new member states will join the European Union bringing the total to 25.

Eight of the new entrants are from the former Soviet bloc, completing a dramatic transformation only 15 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are the countries involved, while the Mediterranean island destinations of Malta and Cyprus are also joining the European family. Bulgaria and Romania hope to join by 2007.

The “accession states” will not adopt the euro until their economies are ready – a process likely to take several years.

Travel exhibition organisers have noted a steady increase in exhibitors and visitors from Central and Eastern Europe during the last few years.

The exhibition director of World Travel Market in London, Fiona Jeffery, says: “Although there are no barriers to travel in this part of Europe, it is all about awareness and understanding. Joining the EU is a huge opportunity for these countries.

“They will be perceived as good value destinations as they are outside the euro zone, and for many people they are still unexplored territory.”

She welcomes the growing role played by the Central European Countries Travel Association (CECTA), which includes Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria and Germany.

“Trade associations like this can make a real difference to awareness,” adds Fiona Jeffery. “We would be happy to try to create a CECTA area at the exhibition, but some CECTA members do not want that.

“The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are small exhibitors at present, but want to heighten their profile. They see tourism as a way of building their economies, and coming to World Travel Market plays an important role.”

ETTFA president Stanislava Blagoeva-Duschell says exhibitions held in Central and Eastern Europe are also growing strongly.

“Events such as Holiday World in Prague and Slovakiatour in Bratislava – both members of ETTFA – are typical of leading travel and tourism events for the region,” she says.

“With the increase of customer spending power and the visa-free EU, more and more people are crossing the borders for leisure or business.

“Slowly the differences in income between the new and existing EU members will be overcome, and outbound travel from these countries will increase dramatically.”

International airlines and hotel groups already serve these countries, and exhibition organisers will now benefit from unified trading regulations. New, state-of-the-art exhibition venues are being built, which will make existing venues more competitive.

The benefits of EU membership are being seen even before May 1 in some countries, which have allowed new low-cost airlines to start flying.

SkyEurope has built a network of routes from Bratislava and Budapest, including London, Paris and Amsterdam.

It will soon expand into Poland, already served by Air Polonia with a route network including London, Paris, Brussels, Cologne and Frankfurt-Hahn.

UK carrier EasyJet has already announced new routes to Budapest and Ljubljana (Slovenia), and Ryanair is likely to follow.

Some of the new EU members hope to emulate the success of the Czech Republic, which has had an “open skies” policies for years prior to joining the EU. Prague is one of the top city destinations in Europe, especially for the young.