Budapest, Hungary – Good news for all the amateurs of Asia: travelling between Hungary and China is about to get a whole lot easier, cheaper and faster as the two countries prepare to launch direct flights between Budapest and Shanghai.
Budapest-Shanghai flights to start in summer 2019
Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto announced on Monday that flights between Budapest and Shanghai will be launched next summer. They will be operated by China Eastern Airlines, one of the world’s largest passenger carrier.
There is currently only one direct air connection between both countries, linked by direct flights between Budapest and Beijing. The new flights between Budapest and Shanghai undoubtedly target Chinese tourists searching for attractive destinations in Europe, but will also appeal to Hungarians wishing to travel or do business in China.
The flights should be operated four times per week, according to the minister, who highlighted China’s growing importance as one of the world’s major tourism hub. Although the number of Chinese tourists visiting Hungary has surged in recent years, reaching almost a quarter of a million in 2017, it remains well below the number of arrivals in neighboring countries like Poland or the Czech Republic.
Rise in Chinese tourists arrivals in Central Europe
The competition in Central Europe to attract tourists from the Middle Kingdom is fierce. As the world’s biggest holiday spenders, China’s growing middle class is a crucial target group for countries and cities competing to become the most attractive destination in Central Europe and aiming to boost their prestige worldwide – including thanks to the numerous UNESCO World Heritage sites scattered all across the region.
There are, for instance, already three direct flights between Prague, one of the most sought-after holiday destinations in Europe, and Chinese cities (Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu). A fourth one with Kunming may be launched soon, according to reports.
The number of Chinese tourists travelling to Hungary, and Budapest in particular, has been growing over the years, with officials expecting their numbers to exceed 250.000 for the first time by the end of the year. By launching new direct flights with the world’s second economy and most populous country, Hungary aims to become the go-to destination and gateway for Chinese tourists wishing to travel further in Central and Eastern Europe or the Balkans. And in that respect, Hungary lacks no argument to make its case: from its incredibly cheap cost of living, one of the lowest in Europe, to its deliciously diverse culinary traditions, from its bustling cultural scene to breath-taking scenic landscapes – often appearing in foreign movies shot in the country – Hungary has a lot to show for.
Hungary’s China policy under question
The direct flights between Budapest and Shanghai, as well as the two countries’ growing cooperation in the field of tourism, can only be understood in the wider context of the deepening Hungarian-Chinese ties over the past several years. Indeed, China has become a key pillar of Hungary’s foreign policy under Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who rose to power in 2010 and was reelected last April for a third consecutive term.
The Hungarian Premier traveled to Shanghai this week to preside over the opening ceremony of the country’s pavilion at the Chinese International Import Expo. Calling Shanghai “the most Hungarian city in China” – in a reference to the footprint left by Hungarian-Slovak architect Laszlo Hudec, who worked as Shanghai’s chief architect in the first half of the 20th century – M. Orbán praised the bilateral relationship between the two countries and held talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
He also met with a number of high level businessmen, including from the Bank of China and Huawei, a company that has invested over 1.2 billion U.S. dollars in Hungary since 2005 and employs more than 2.000 people in the country, according to state-news agency MTI.
For several years, Hungary has been eyeing Chinese investments within the Belt and Road Initiative and the 16+1 forum – gathering China and sixteen Central and Eastern European states. His “love affair” with China, however, has been criticized by many analysts, who have accused him of turning a blind eye to Beijing’s poor record on human rights and the rule of law, as well as of weakening and dividing the EU’s position towards the Middle Kingdom only to reap the financial benefits.
But Orban’s pro-active China policy also yielded very few results, claimed local investigative outlet Atlatszo, increasing the disenchantment felt by many public officials and businessmen over Beijing’s failure to follow through on its early promises.