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From bunkers to naturism: the tourist map of Eastern Europe July 20, 2010

Posted by Yilan in Macedonia.
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Even during communism, eastern European countries were making hard cash from tourism. Today, Croatia and the Czech Republic – countries that did not exist 20 years ago – are solidly inscribed on the mental map of the Western tourist.

The fortunes of eastern European tourism have proven as diverse as the nature of the countries themselves. In some, such as Croatia, tourism is the main source of revenue and the backbone of the whole economy. In others, despite the huge potential, the tourism aspect is completely neglected. Although this can have its charms too.

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Romania is such a case. For a country with such a reputation and variety of tourism, it can come as a surprise that the tourist infrastructure is such a shambles. Yet there it is: old infrastructures, sulky hotel personnel, high prices, monotonous food – Romanian tourism seems to have remained in a time warp, catering more for the adventurous and for those stricken by nostalgia for the old communist-style tourism.

Some Western tourists from the older generations might regret the exoticism of the communist times when the reception desks were manned by stern and suspicious clerks, ready to shoot down rebellious guests reluctant to part with their passports or deposit a sum of cash to dissuade them from leaving with the towels.

At the other end of the scale, there is Croatia. Slick and thriving, the Croatian tourist industry deserves its reputation. In less than two decades, the Dalmatian coast has become a rival to the Spanish and French rivieras, offering anything from luxurious hotels to camping sites for backpackers.

Destinations like Dubrovnik and Hvar are world-renowned. Croatian food is on a par with that of Italy, but cheaper, and all along the Adriatic coast there is a long tradition of naturist beaches with special sites close to most tourist destinations.

Other less known Balkan destinations, represent special niches by themselves. Alternative forms of tourism have appeared. Macedonia and Albania can offer pleasant surprises. Macedonia has created a successful network of rural tourism, where visitors can stay in farms or villages, eat organic food and even help out with milking the cows or gathering fruit and vegetables. Even Serbia is slowly coming back onto the tourist map of the world, offering many forms of “agro-tourism”, but also the supplementary attraction of boat-cruises on the Danube.

Albania has some of the biggest surprises. Visitors to Greece, especially to the North and to the island of Corfu, have benefited for years from trips to Albania, particularly to the historical site of Butrint. The advertising slogan for the site is “do you want to visit a country where people still live like 100 years ago?” While not especially flattering, the slogan seemed to be working. But then again, Albania is not ‘just another Balkan country.’

During communism, it was by far the most isolated country in Europe, if not in the world. It could only be compared to what today is North Korea. Thanks to this isolation, Albania has kept some of the most unspoiled beaches in Europe. The old city of Gjirokastra, close to border with Greece, with its stone houses and cobbled streets is on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

But there are also the bunkers! The paranoid Albanian communist dictator, Enver Hoxha, fearing a foreign attack, built close to one million bunkers all around the country. Squat and ugly, they are everywhere, on the beaches, in the fields, close to museums. Young artists have painted some of them to make them more attractive. Some have been turned into restaurants, others are used as toilets.

All in all, Albania has less than one million visitors a year but it is one of fastest developing tourist destinations in the world. The challenge is how to develop the infrastructure and to preserve the natural beauty and the historic sites.

Comments»

1. vlad - July 25, 2010

Very interesting and useful article. Thanks. Good luck!


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