Since their accession to the EU 15 years ago, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic have become more accessible than ever to international visitors, quickly ranking among the most sought-after destinations in Europe, as attested by the number of foreign tourists steadily increasing every year. However, growing and unchecked mass tourism phenomenon in cities like Prague or Krakow has left many local residents across Central Europe in undesirable situations and struggling to face this unprecedented influx of visitors.
The greatest pioneer of the negative impact of mass tourism (crowded streets and local nuisance, housing crisis and rise in the cost of living, flight of residents, etc.) continues to be Venice, in Italy, increasingly making headlines worldwide as a staple for and leader of the anti-tourism movement, which has spread throughout Europe and is now gaining ground among Central Europe’s most attractive holiday break destinations.
Is Central Europe suffering from mass tourism? A closer examination shows that locals in a number of Central European cities experience major difficulties in coping with the changes brought by the skyrocketing influx of foreign visitors. But while Prague, Budapest or Krakow are prime examples of such a trend, other cities, even capitals like Bratislava and Warsaw that haven’t (yet) been taken by storm by international visitors, are on the contrary trying to increase tourism, seen as a strong driver of economic growth and international attractiveness.
How much has tourism grown in Central Europe?
Last year, Hungary saw a record number of tourists with nearly 31 million tourism nights spent in collective accommodation establishments, by both foreign and domestic visitors. The booming tourism industry now accounts for over 10% of national GDP and employs more than 350.000 people after the number of guest nights spent by international tourists increased by nearly 50% between 2010 and 2016. central europe mass tourism
While Budapest, voted Best European Destination this year, attracts the highest number of tourists coming to Hungary, other highly popular destinations include Lake Balaton, Northern Hungary and the West Transdanubia region.
A similar observation can be made regarding the Czech Republic, and Prague in particular: more than 21 million people visited the Czech Republic last year, a record high and roughly twice as much as the country’s total population, including 8 million in the city of Prague alone. Most of them came from neighboring countries like Germany, Slovakia and Poland, although tourists from far-away destinations, including the U.S. or Asia, have skyrocketed in recent years – for comparison sake, Prague only welcomed 3 million tourists in 2003, one year before the country joined the EU.
In 2017, Poland received more than 18 million visitors, a slight increase from 15 million people in 2004, and a record-breaking year that the state tourism authorities are expected to break, once more, in 2018, with numbers expected to approach 20 million tourists for the first time. But compared to Poland’s size and population, the share of foreign tourists remains well below what can be observed in Hungary or the Czech Republic. Krakow, Poland’s former capital, is the most visited city in Poland, followed by Wroclaw, named best and most reputable Polish city in 2019, the portal city of Gdansk in the north and the capital Warsaw.
That same year, Slovakia welcomed 2 million foreign tourists, a growth from 1.5 million tourists in 2005, according to World Bank data, lagging behind the other countries in the region in terms of attractiveness. Visitors to Slovakia stayed an average of four nights and mostly traveled to the capital city Bratislava and the High Tatra mountains.
Underwhelming development of tourism
While cities like Prague or Budapest have had to face the dire consequences of their appeal, Warsaw and Bratislava, on the contrary, don’t receive that many visitors. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, both cities experienced a rise in tourism, but far less than initially anticipated. One study on the potential of Warsaw’s tourism blames the current weaknesses of the tourist management system, as well as the lack of proper infrastructure and funding of tourism development programs.
Bratislava’s lack of tourism tells a slightly similar story. The lack of transport and tourism infrastructure in Slovakia is the most-cited reason to explain its lesser appeal compared to other neighboring cities, such as Vienna, located only one hour away. Bratislava’s airport also has a potential that is not properly utilized, according to the Slovak Spectator, partly due to the lack of proper air connections with Europe’s main hubs (on the contrary, Budapest’s airport was recently ranked best in Central and Eastern Europe). Efforts are being made, however, to make Slovakia more accessible and appealing to international visitors, as exemplified by the new route launched by Ryanair between Košice, Slovakia’s second-largest city in the east, and London.
The unwanted impacts of mass-tourism in Central European cities
Prague has seen its fair share of problems stemming from mass tourism. A lesser-known undesirable impact of the tourism boom concerns the destruction of protected buildings and monuments, recently highlighted by Janek Rubeš from the Czech news site Seznam and host of the YouTube Channel ‘Honest Guide’ (he mentions, for instance, the repeated destruction of buildings in Prague for the placement of Euronet ATM’s, often done without the proper approval from the municipal authorities).
The ‘love locks’ phenomenon, that spread all around the world in recent years, are anything but loving for many city officials, including in Prague, where the trend can have quite dire consequences: municipal authorities were forced to take action after the iconic Charles bridge, one of the main landmarks of the Czech capital, became a target of love locks enthusiasts, removing, in one year, 50 kg from the 650-year-old bridge, whose structure could have suffered severely from this great display of love.
More issues from mass tourism are directly linked to the low-cost travel possibilities around Europe, which has led to the increase of ‘party tourists’ in Central Europe, most notably in Prague and Budapest. The Czech capital city for instance established its first-ever ‘night-life mayor’ to regulate the excesses of late-night, drunken partying in the city center, setting an example Bratislava might soon follow. This issue is also increasingly becoming a major problem in Krakow, with growing reports of property destruction and public indecency stemming from Western stag parties.
The Krakcast News podcast, which discusses topics pertaining to the city of Krakow, examined the great and dark sides of tourism in the city. Of the 14 million people who visited Krakow, two-thirds were domestic tourists. Krakcast News local editors fear that their city is turning into a ‘Disneyland’ city, or a smaller Prague, while local residents observe with dread the increasing number of long-standing and well-established local businesses turning into tourist traps or accommodation establishments.
Rising real estate prices continues to be one of the most worrying trends for people residing in large touristy cities, potentially leading to the depopulation of locals in the city centers. Radio.cz reported that one in every five apartments in Prague’s center is now listed on Airbnb, a platform used by more than 800.000 tourists during their stay in the Czech capital – forcing municipal authorities to consider tightening regulation.
In Budapest, meanwhile, the number of listings on Airbnb reached 8,000 last year. Both cities reported the most significant rise in rental and property prices within the last couple of years, often becoming too expensive compared to what many locals can afford.
The rise in tourism in Central European cities has turned out to be either overwhelming or disappointing. Although controlling and regulating surging tourism in crowded metropolises remains a highly complex issue, it has become blatantly clear that mass tourism is becoming unsustainable for the local residents of cultural and historical cities that are slowly turning into uninhabitable amusement parks.