COLUMN ONE : Vanishing Vacations in E. Europe : Under communism, nearly everyone enjoyed subsidized holidays. Now, only the rich can afford old-style trips, leaving many workers feeling cheated.
Tadeusz Durzynski has a bad case of vacation blues, even though he is one of the lucky ones not marooned at home.
Durzynski is spending two weeks with his family at this woodsy resort in central Poland, just as he has every August for the past 15 years. The problem is that none of his friends are here, and the no-frills holiday is setting him back nearly two months’ pay.
“This is capitalism,” the bushy-browed tractor mechanic moaned during a stroll through a cluster of deserted cabins. “This used to be like one big family. We knew everyone. Now, no one has the money to pay for it.”
Summer vacations, once as customary for workers in Eastern Europe as the annual May Day parade, have become an anachronism for people of everyday means under the new--and abruptly less obliging--rules of the free market.
As with almost everything in the former Soviet Bloc, it is the rich or lucky who can afford vacations, and the pinched proletariat, finally free to travel the world, is feeling angry and cheated.
“Everyone thought it would be better and easier when we were given democracy,” said Edward Nowakowski, who works at the same tractor factory as Durzynski and has not gone away on vacation in four years. “I don’t know when I’ll be able to get away again.”
Nearly three-quarters of Poles say they are leaving home for less than a week this summer, surveys show, and many of those fortunate enough to get away are staying with friends and relatives because of tight budgets. In contrast, about half of Poles in the late 1980s took a vacation of more than a week, and most of those who stayed home did not blame their pocketbooks.
Tourism and government officials say the situation is comparable throughout the former Soviet Bloc, including in Russia, where widely publicized accounts of Russians sunning on Italian beaches and dining in French cafes tell only a fraction of the story. The exception is the prosperous Czech Republic, where one official estimated that 80% of people still can afford a vacation.
“The money is just not there anymore,” said a spokesman for Balkan Holidays, the national tourist agency in Bulgaria, where private vacationers at popular Black Sea resorts pay 10 to 15 times more than they did under socialism.
The adjustment has been agonizing, particularly for families with young children, since nearly everyone under socialism was allowed a summer holiday--a long one, at virtually no charge--courtesy of behemoth state enterprises. The companies, which often also provided schools and other social services, owned hundreds of holiday centers from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, and workers were assigned a time and place to relax.
Children had it especially good: They joined their parents on the official family holiday in addition to escaping for several weeks to subsidized summer camps. About 450 children used to attend camps sponsored by the Zakady Azotowe fertilizer company in southwest Poland, but this year only 10 families could afford the expense, even though the company covered half the cost.
“I have only one child, and both her parents work, so we can afford to send her,” said Grazyna Sokalska, who volunteers as a chaperon at a camp for teen-age dancers near Warsaw. “But fewer and fewer parents are able to do it.”
Communist Party officials and other privileged groups, including writers and artists, also had exclusive getaways, some of them prewar mansions and summer villas seized by authorities from private owners. The Polish government alone operated more than 450 such centers.
But with a majority of East Europeans working for private companies with no tradition of holiday giveaways or for state-owned enterprises teetering on the brink of insolvency, the free ride is over for vacationers of limited means. In Russia, the cost of flights between Moscow and once-jammed Crimean vacation resorts is $200, more than most Russians make in five weeks.
“For the typical two-week vacation, you now have to pay what the average person earns in two months,” said Ilie Ivan, a Romanian government official. “That is a substantial amount of money.”
Many of the most popular vacation resorts have been handed over to private operators, who have jacked up prices and opened doors to anyone who can pay top dollar--usually Germans and the richest East Europeans.
The Druzba health spa in Bulgaria, once the exclusive playground of top East Bloc Communists, is so popular with foreigners that it is booked through the end of November. The story is the same at resorts in Hungary, Poland, Romania and the Czech Republic.
“One thing that can be said for the Communists is that they reserved the best things for themselves,” said Edyta Mazur of the Hungarian travel agency Ibusz. “But there is now a free market in tourism, and at the good centers you will meet more foreigners.”
In the secluded Mazurian lake district in northern Poland, the Lansk holiday center was for years a clandestine hideaway for the highest Communist Party officials from across the former Soviet Bloc. The center’s guest list used to read like a Who’s Who of communism, including such names as Nikita S. Khrushchev, Leonid I. Brezhnev, Erich Honecker and Fidel Castro. The 750-acre lakefront resort was too secret to appear on maps. Guests found their way by following the occasional cryptic road sign. Today the center is one of the most popular resorts still owned by the Polish government, but at $25 a night per person it is so unaffordable that only the richest East Europeans can visit.
“We get a lot of people from foreign embassies and businesses,” said director Slawomir Kociszewski, who still posts a Polish soldier at the unmarked front gate and a Secret Service officer at the indoor swimming pool and weight room. “There is no other place like this.”
At a three-bedroom lakeside cottage not far from the main lodge, Krysztof Farecki and his family were settled in for a two-week August holiday. It was their second visit to the resort in a year, and the family typified the privileged few in the widening leisure gap across Eastern Europe.
Two late-model foreign cars and several shiny dirt bikes were parked outside. Asked how much the holiday cost, Farecki and his wife, Grazyna, began calculating the bill for the first time, unable in the end to come up with a definitive tally.
“I would certainly recommend it to my friends,” Grazyna Farecki said, adding as an almost embarrassed afterthought: “If they can afford it.”
Krysztof Farecki owns a fishing equipment business in Warsaw, has more than 100 employees and displays little patience with those who complain that they’ve been shortchanged by capitalism.
“All of my employees go on vacation,” said Farecki, his beefy arms tanned from fishing in the afternoon sun. “They work hard all year long, so they deserve a nice vacation. I don’t have time for people who reminisce about the old times. You have to make yourself successful.”
On a nearby trail cutting through a thick grove of birch and evergreen trees, Malgorzata Berndt walked her year-old daughter in a stroller. It was her sixth stay at Lansk in 18 months, and the highlight of this trip was running into former Polish Prime Minister Hanna Suchocka. Berndt says she makes a custom of asking the staff “who important is among us today.”
Berndt earns $250 a month, the average Polish salary, as a gynecologist at a Warsaw hospital, and she knows she could never afford such a vacation if her husband were not a private--and hugely successful--car dealer. Many of her colleagues, she said, have trouble saving even for bare-bones holidays.
“Some of them send their children, and they stay behind,” Berndt said. “Everything is so very expensive.”
Yet even with dramatically higher prices and a small but entrenched class of wealthy wanderers, the precipitous drop in vacationing among East Europeans has pushed many former state-run holiday centers toward bankruptcy. Upscale centers rarely charge enough to cover their costs, and some low-end resorts, having lost their captive audience, are desperate for visitors. The most hopeless ones have been turned over to local authorities for public housing or recreation, while others have been abandoned and boarded shut.
The working-class centers have no running water or toilets in rooms and cabins, little money to keep up deteriorating buildings, and no drawing card for affluent travelers, who can simply go abroad to satisfy their developing taste for luxury accommodations.
“People are very mobile now,” said Anna Mazurkiewicz of Cedok, the state-run Czech travel agency. “They go elsewhere, to Italy and Greece.”
Forced to compete for a shrinking pool of vacationers, the new owners of the East European holiday centers are forever concocting gimmicks. Newspaper ads for former Communist Party resorts boast about their onetime exclusivity in hopes of attracting curiosity seekers.
One center offers a room where Castro once slept, while another rents the quarters where Polish President Lech Walesa supposedly stayed during his internment under martial law. (In fact, the room is down the hall from Walesa’s room, which had to be closed because the parquet floor buckled and repairs were too costly.)
The 150-acre Intershow Park here in Popowo, for years an overcrowded company resort for workers at the Ursus tractor plant, cannot even afford to pay its electricity bill. Because of its proximity to Warsaw, Intershow’s new private operators offer specials to attract weekend visitors to its large swimming pool and recreation facilities, but it is still a struggle to stay afloat.
Largely lost in the bumpy transition toward the bottom line have been the employees of the former state-run enterprises--the people for whom the getaways were originally intended. In the old days, most workers took advantage of the centers, or traveled--sometimes to other socialist countries--on company-sponsored holidays.
Under socialism, about three-quarters of summer holidays in Poland were arranged by companies or employee associations; today the number is one in six.
Workers still get time off, so they are learning to make do with recreation close to home. Cities and schools are trying to fill the void by sponsoring everything from carnivals to computer classes. Gardening has surged in popularity, as have family gatherings, home repairs and day trips to the countryside.
“Just like when the price of vodka suddenly goes up, there is a shock at first but people adjust to it,” said Mieczyslaw Zawadzki of the Tourist Institute, a Warsaw organization that tracks vacation trends. “For health and psychological reasons, people have a need to get away, so they are finding ways to do things with less money.”
As wages increase and East European economies grow healthier, Zawadzki said, workers will be happier and more productive because they will be free to choose how to spend their holiday rather than follow the dictates of their employers.
Durzynski, the Polish tractor mechanic, says that since Intershow has been privately managed he rarely runs into a familiar face from the Ursus factory, a situation confirmed by company officials.
The shift in fortunes has left many East Europeans disillusioned, but on the Ursus assembly line one warm August afternoon, several workers active in the local Solidarity union were taking the changes in stride. In the 1980s, they said, they seldom took vacations anyway because the company not-so-mysteriously left them off the list of assigned holidays.
It seems, they said, that only good Communists--or at least those who didn’t raise a fuss--got rewarded with time off. Now the rewards go to good--or at least well-off--capitalists.
“There really isn’t much difference for us,” said Tadeusz Krogulec, a 24-year employee and shop foreman. “Before we couldn’t go. Now we can’t afford to go.”