Without That Wall to Stop Them, Tourist Crowds Hit Eastern Europe
A large and friendly American invasion of Eastern Europe is shaping up for this summer. If you doubt it, try calling any of the East European tourism bureaus in this country. Chances are you will either get a busy signal or will be put on hold. Official information offices are struggling to cope with what for them is an unusual phenomenon: A tourism boom.
“The phones are just jumping off the receiver,” says Miklos Walko, North and South American manager for Ibusz, the Hungarian Travel Co. “The general political climate is creating an interest in the entire area of Central Europe.”
Americans seem intent on visiting all six of the countries recently swept by democratic reform: Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland and Romania (although the State Department cautions travelers to Romania that random violence as a result of the change in governments is a possibility).
The crumbling Berlin Wall, viewed from East or West, obviously is a primary attraction. And Prague’s principal hotels reportedly are booked solid for the city’s annual Spring International Music Festival this month.
However, there is some indication that bookings to the Soviet Union have slowed recently, perhaps as a result of news reports of ethnic violence in areas such as Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Maupintour, a major U.S. tour operator, says its 20-day “Capitals of Eastern Europe” program that visits Prague, Warsaw, Sofia, Budapest, Bucharest, Leningrad and Moscow is selling briskly, but bookings for its 21-day motor-coach tour of Russia, a staple for three decades, has slowed in recent weeks.
On the map of Eastern Europe are two other nations, Yugoslavia and Albania. Yugoslavia managed to remain outside the Iron Curtain and has welcomed Western travelers for years. But the State Department is advising Americans to defer travel to the province of Kosovo because of the possibility of violent political disturbances.
Albania, at odds both with the Western world and the Eastern Bloc, prohibits visits by all but a very few Americans.
Until this year the six former Soviet satellites attracted relatively little tourism, and as a result they do not have an abundance of hotels, although new ones are being planned.
Independent travelers in particular may find it hard to book a room during the busy summer months and so might consider signing up for a package tour that includes lodging. Another possibility is to limit visits to a few days in a single city, spending the rest of the vacation in Western Europe.
Seats on flights into East European capitals may be scarce. An alternative is flying into a Western city such as West Berlin, Frankfurt or Vienna, where air service is more frequent, and then driving or taking a train, a bus or river boat into the East.
Some Western cities have begun to promote themselves as jumping-off points to Eastern Europe.
The Swedish Tourist Board in New York City is distributing a press release touting Stockholm as a gateway to Leningrad and to Estonia, East Germany and Poland. Sweden is the hub, the Swedish board says, for daily ferry connections to East Germany and Poland.
Prague is about six hours by daily train from Vienna, and you can get to Budapest from Vienna in about five hours by hydrofoil on the Danube River.
Eurail passes are good on the Hungarian railways, the only East European rail network so far on which the passes can be used. Nevertheless, travel agents can issue rail tickets in advance for most parts of Eastern Europe. You may book through GermanRail in New York City at (212) 308-3103.
For their part, East European tourism officials are making an attempt to correct what they consider is a misconception held by many Americans. East Europe is neither culturally backward nor a dull, bleak place.
“It’s very colorful,” Hungary’s Walko says. “Budapest has all kinds of entertainment, from disco clubs to Gypsy violins.”
East European languages can be daunting, but American visitors should not let a language barrier dissuade them from a trip.
On a recent visit to Prague I was surprised by how much English is spoken. In hotels, restaurants, beer halls and the train station, I always found someone (and usually several people) who spoke English.
Some menus had English translations. Increasingly, East European tourism literature is being published in English. In Prague’s museums a printed English guide to the exhibits is usually available.
The same accommodation to English-speaking tourists appears to be true in Bulgaria.
“New literature in English is being prepared,” says Maxim Starkov of Balkan Holidays, the Bulgarian government tourism office in New York City. Starkov is trying to educate U.S. travel agents about his country’s numerous casinos, sophisticated night life, health spas and historic sites.
East Europe’s cultural and historic sites are prime attractions, but some East European countries also are promoting recreational travel.
For example, you can join a bicycle tour in the Soviet Union or ride horseback from inn to inn in Hungary. Yet another draw is price. Compared to Western Europe, the Eastern countries are a bargain, at least for the time being. Prices inevitably will increase as the tourist flood surges.
In most European countries you will be expected to exchange a minimum amount of U.S. dollars for each day you plan to stay in a country.
In Czechoslovakia the requirement is $15 a day per person. You make the exchange on arrival at the airport or at a road or rail border post.
You cannot legally carry the local currency into a East European country. Nor can you leave an East European country with a pocketful of its currency, so spend any you have left or it probably will be confiscated.
Change only as many U.S. dollars into an East European currency as you expect to use, because you probably will not be able to exchange the foreign currency back for dollars.
At least two countries, Poland and Czechoslovakia, have dual exchange rates--an official rate and a tourist rate.
In Czechoslovakia you must pay for any hotel room (classed in a three-star category or above) in U.S. dollars calculated at the official rate of about 16 crowns to the dollar. But for meals and other purchases, you can legally exchange dollars at major hotels at the tourist rate of about 36 to the dollar. Credit-card charges are billed at the commercial rate, says Stefan Adamec of Cedok, the Czechoslovak Travel Bureau in New York City, so plan to pay in cash as much as possible.
Currency regulations are in flux as individual countries adapt to new economic demands. Before leaving home, consult your travel agent or the appropriate tourism office about money exchange policies in effect.
Visas are required for travel in all East European countries, but they are readily available at each country’s embassy in Washington, D.C.
Both the Soviet Union and East Germany require that accommodations be booked before a visa is issued. A travel agent can make the lodging reservations. You will be issued vouchers that must be presented when you are applying for your visa
The new freedoms in East Europe have not noticeably eased the visa application process.
Hungary is among the countries that permit you to get a visa at an arrival airport or if you are driving a car across the border, but visas are not issued to train passengers.
This is not bureaucratic harassment, explains Hungary’s Walko, but because a train could be delayed for hours if dozens of visas had to be issued. At an airport the rest of the passengers are free to go while you make your application. The same is true for other motorists.
Nevertheless, the U.S. State Department recommends that visas be obtained before a traveler leaves the United States.
Generally, you must fill out an application form and submit it with one or two photos, a valid U.S. passport and an application fee. Give yourself adequate time: In the best-case scenario you can visit an embassy and have your visa processed within minutes, but mail processing can take as long as several weeks. For details, consult the embassy of the country you plan to visit:
--Bulgaria: Bulgarian Embassy, Visas Section, 1621 22nd St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20008, (202) 483-5885, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. EST Monday through Friday.
--Czechoslovakia: Czechoslovak Embassy, 3900 Linnean Ave., Washington, D.C. (202) 363-6308, 10 a.m. to noon EST Monday through Friday.
--East Germany: Embassy of the German Democratic Republic, 1717 Massachusetts Ave. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036, (202) 232-3134, 9:30 a.m. to noon EST Monday and Friday, 1 to 3 p.m. Wednesday.
--Hungary: Hungarian Embassy, Visa Section, 3910 Shoemaker St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20008, (202) 362-6730, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. EST Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
--Poland: Polish Consulate Division, 2224 Wyoming Ave. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20008, (202) 232-4517 or 232-4528, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. EST Monday through Friday.
--Romania: Embassy of Romania, Attn.: Consulate Office, 1607 23th St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20008, (202) 232-4749, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. EST Monday through Friday.
The State Department has issued three advisories on parts of Eastern Europe that remain in effect.
--Romania: Americans are urged to use caution when traveling in Romania. Although the security situation has stabilized, “the potential for random violence remains.” No threat has been directed at Americans.
--Yugoslavia: Americans are urged to defer travel to the southern province of Kosovo “until further notice.” Police and demonstrators have clashed violently, and there have been many fatalities. Random shootings have been reported on roads.
--Soviet Union: Because of ethnic clashes, some areas of the Soviet Union have been closed to tourists, requiring changes in package tours. Travelers headed for areas of unrest are urged to register with U.S. authorities in Moscow or Leningrad.
The State Department also notes that violent street crime has become a problem. U.S. officials in Moscow and Leningrad have received increasing reports of muggings, robberies, pickpocket thefts, burglaries, sexual assaults and beatings of tourists.
Also, tourists in frail health are cautioned against travel to the Soviet Union.
“Organized tours are strenuous, daily schedules are heavy, distances long and flight delays and changed departure times common,” says the advisory. This can become a problem because “medical care in the Soviet Union does not meet Western standards. There is a severe shortage of basic medical supplies” such as disposable hypodermic needles, anesthetics and antibiotics. Also, there is a “lack of tradition of patient rights.”
For the most current information, contact the Citizens Emergency Center in Washington, (202) 647-5225.
Unlike most foreign tourism offices, which provide information only, some Eastern European tourism offices do double as travel agencys.
They book hotel rooms and sell package tours to their home countries. In the months ahead the travel agency function of some offices may be turned over to private enterprise. Because of the increase in interest in Eastern Europe, you may have to try repeatedly to get a free line.
--Bulgaria: Balkan Holidays Limited, 161 East 86th St., New York 10028, (212) 722-1110.
--Czechoslovakia: Cedok, Czechoslovak Travel Bureau, 10 East 40th St., Suite 1902, New York 10016, (212) 689-9720.
--East Germany: Embassy of the German Democratic Republic, 1717 Massachusetts Ave. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036, (202) 232-3134.
--Hungary: Ibusz, Hungarian Travel Co., 1 Parker Plaza, Suite 1104, Fort Lee, N.J. 07024, (201) 592-8585.
--Poland: Orbis, Polish Travel Bureau, 500 Fifth Ave., New York 10110, (212) 867-5011.
--Romania: Romanian National Tourist Office, 573 3rd Ave., New York 10016, (212) 697-6971.