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Vol 2, No 14
10 April 2000
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Csardas McBudapest:
the future of the
tourist industry in Hungary

Gusztáv Kosztolányi

Tiszteld, pesti ember, a kávéházat, vénebb és tiszteletteljesebb az, mint te magad

Dezső Kosztolányi

Honour the coffee house, inhabitant of Pest, it is older and more worthy of respect than you yourself

Sitting here alone at my table in the Centrál Kávéház, scrawling a few hasty lines into my notepad, I draw inspiration from the surroundings to jot down a few ideas about tourism. What more fitting setting than this, in the centre of inner Pest, to muse on the changes that have taken place? Snatches of conversation in German, English, Finnish and Spanish are interspersed with laughter and the occasional earnest discussion in Hungarian. Our capital is more cosmopolitan than ever before, and, rather than disapproving of this openness to foreign influence, we embrace it, we seem to want to immerse ourselves in it, and by so doing find our salvation.

The menu is available in several languages, as is the selection of newspapers to be read on the premises by the door. Chic elegance is the order of the day. The waiters are impeccably turned out, efficient and their politeness extends even to their fellow countrymen (believe me, the same cannot be said for many a tourist-oriented establishment in Pest). The selection of cakes and gateaux rivals that of Gerbeau, that permanent feature in every guidebook ever penned.

Though the interior is more austere than the New York (what could match the orgiastic opulence of the barley sugar twist columns and the lavish paintings?), though the New York is more strident about advertising its literary heritage (to which the average tourist is completely oblivious) with its autographed caricatures grinning at the diners, the atmosphere is less rapaciously commercial. No matter how many queue for a seat, the waiters will never abandon their discretion: you never feel under any pressure to give up your seat, even if your sole consumption was a glass of mineral water. In this respect, the Centrál has not succumbed to the anxious conveyor-belt approach I find so tiresome.

Fordist catering

The guest is precisely that, and not a hungry object to be fed and turned out on to the streets as swiftly and impersonally as possible. Clinical efficiency of this type has its place in the many "convenience" food outlets that have sprung up all over the city, but processing and ejecting have no place here.

Perhaps the tradition of what was once a great temple of literary genius is being revived after all. After an ignominious period of its history, where the original fittings were hushed away behind a layer of cheap plastic and the "new Zeitgeist" dictated that it be run as an amusement arcade with the latest high-tech coin insert machines, it has finally recovered its dignity.

Opened in 1887, the Centrál Kávéház witnessed the caprices of literary fashion, with styles and writers coming and going. From the 1890s onwards, it had already become synonymous with the modern and the daring, as József Kiss held court for his circle of writers in the journal A Hét (The Week). A succession of illustrious names graced its tables, ranging from Heltai, through the Nyugat (West) circle with Aladár Schöpflin, Babits and Karinthy in the 1930s, whose habit of sitting by the window writing transformed the premises into a virtual aquarium, with passers-by stopping to pay silent homage to the great genius of humour (for the benefit of the uninitiated, Frigyes Karinthy had an unparalleled gift for parodying styles, reducing the reader to tears with the grace and elegance of his wit and, having now read the A. A. Milne version (!), I must agree with those who maintain that his translation of Winnie the Pooh - Mici Mackó - far surpasses the original).

The Centrál Kávéház evokes fond memories of the last years of polgári élet before the Communist take-over, of the peculiar brand of decadence and creativity that allowed masterpieces to be conceived in a caffeine and smoke haze and is certainly worth whiling away a few hours in.

Few of us ever set foot in tourist restaurants and cafes, let alone the palatial hotels that cater for the luxury market (although we are normally dealt with in a perfectly correct fashion, I sometimes detect a hint of suspicion, impressing upon me that I am not entirely welcome if I visit a foyer). There is a feeling of schizophrenia, of two separate spheres in Pest, the gypsy music, romantic boat trip down the Danube with commentaries designed to provide a few interesting pieces of trivia in an amusing and palatable form, all of which is a far cry from the dark suburbs, the blocks of flats that spoil the panorama from the hills on the Buda side, authentic Hungary, unpackaged Hungary, the Hungary where ordinary lives are played out away from the gaze of the curious. Hungary of the low-class prostitutes, of petty crime, of subsistence, of litter, of graffiti, of run-down discount shops, where the reek of alcohol and tobacco mingles with despair and anger.

Tourist Hungary is charming, cheerful, with the glint of profit in the eye and the forced smile of superficiality. Not that visitors, who only have a few days at their disposal, and seek relaxation, exotic difference and quaintness, are to be criticised for preferring this side to the less savoury realities of the daily grind. Every country must put on a brave face, exploit the myths and preconceptions surrounding it for commercial purposes. Every single national, who has dealings with a foreign guest acts, like it or lump it, as a cultural ambassador for the country as a whole and that the impression a visitor gains may determine his or her attitude to the host land for a lifetime.

A happy holiday should not be underrated as a precious resource, a means of fostering greater understanding and tolerance between nations. One of the lessons that still has not been learned adequately by a range of service providers in Hungary is that tourists are not clueless punters ripe for fleecing, that they are not uniformly wealthy, that some of them might actually expect value for money instead of the inflated prices designed to keep the average Hungarian well away.

Fleecing the tourists

Following one particularly flagrant incident, where a Danish businessman was ripped off and subjected to physical intimidation for having the nerve to protest, shock waves rippled through official circles. In May of last year, Hungary was placed on the German Foreign Ministry's blacklist published on the Internet (following the example of the Americans). Overcharging in restaurants featured prominently in the catalogue of complaints that appeared, as did the high occurrence of car theft, pick pocketing and the activities of organised gangs of thieves. This did not exactly do anything to improve the country's image, the be all and end all of attracting visitors.

Reacting to the news, ágnes Szekeres, head of press relations in the Magyar Kereskedelmi és Iparkamara (MKIK, the Hungarian Chamber of Commerce and Industry) gave reassurances that the problems were being tackled: every undertaking mentioned would be investigated and could count on action being taken by the professional organisations if the charges proved to have any foundation.

The Chamber routinely carries out inspections in the catering sector, issuing warnings to the owners or managers of businesses if abuses are uncovered. The next step is to withdraw the operating licence. A code of conduct was also drafted for both restaurants and taxi drivers. The latter group in particular has been notorious for fiddling metres. A close friend of mine recounted how she arrived at Nyugati station, burdened down by baggage. Her knowledge of Hungarian is reasonably good, and she pretended not to understand the banter between the two drivers at the rank bickering over who would enjoy the spoils from the gullible foreign prey. "Foreigners are fair game," was how she summarised the situation to me.

Too tired after her train journey to protest, she meekly forked out HUF 5,000 [USD 18] for a journey from the station to Bródy Sándor utca, a trip, which, for a Hungarian, would have cost a maximum of HUF 300 [USD 1.1], had a reputable firm been called. As she remarked with admirable equanimity, the Hungarians are able to retreat behind the impenetrable facade of their native tongue to play the innocent. A clear rethink is essential if we are to develop our tourist industry further, and in this context the code of conduct represents a marked improvement.

Another laudable initiative taken by the Chamber was the publication of a small éttermi Kalauz (Restaurant Guide) in four languages in an edition of seven thousand distributed to hotels and Tourinform offices. To qualify for inclusion, the eateries concerned had to live up to American and Western European standards and they were subsequently classified according to quality, price and the specialities they offered. The practice of a separate menu for foreigners containing a separate list of (far higher) prices is unknown at these establishments.

A second brochure was also produced, covering 148 restaurants in the provinces alongside 127 in the capital, just to prove that the myopia that often afflicts the denizens of the metropolis does not occur here.

The Fővárosi Fogyasztóvédelmi Felügyelőség (Budapest Consumer Inspectorate) was also moved to take a tougher response in the face of the threat to the capital's good name. In checks carried out in 1998, 25 cases of breach of the rules in force were punished (it might be worth noting that 13 of these occurred in the 5th District - be warned!), the total levied in fines amounting to HUF 5 million[USD 18,500].

The tourism debate

The debate on tourism, what aspects of Hungary to market and what should be concentrated on in terms of investment is at a very early stage. We are just beginning to wake up to the massive potential of tourism as a growth industry and a branch where jobs can be created and sustained beyond the demand peak of the high season. Once again, the MKIK took the lead in drafting proposals for the attention of the Ministry of Finance, which announced its intention to adopt a long-term strategy for developing the tourist sector and to consult representatives of the industry in the process.

One of the major problems encountered by the tourist industry was identified as a chronic lack of infrastructure. Remedying this obviously requires a huge injection of capital. Motorways, rail links and bicycle paths have to be built or brought up to date. The need for water sports and airport facilities (such as conference centres and hotels) were highlighted, as was the issue of making the streets safe for tourists to meander around in.

Further complaints concerned the flourishing black market in letting out rooms undeclared and at (for the guests) rock bottom prices and the shortcomings of the information compilation and statistical systems, which could provide vital insights into how best to restructure and what kind of activities are the most popular and therefore most lucrative to put on offer.

On the domestic tourism side of the balance sheet, more could be done, according to the MKIK, to promote Hungary's spas and thermal waters, national parks and nature conservation zones alongside music, folklore, gastronomic and wine-based tours for those of us reluctant or too strapped for cash to venture abroad. School trips form an important part of internal traffic, stimulating interest and enhancing knowledge. The school excursionist of the past is the consumer and employee of the future, and pleasant associations from carefree days might tempt families back to former haunts.

Where to go from here?

The absence of an effective, centralised co-ordination system helping to draft medium and long-term plans was also lamented, as were the deficiencies of the regulatory framework. Marketing an image of Hungary in an aggressive competitive sphere at international level would likewise have to be addressed. Regional funding would have to be dealt with separately (this involves an implicit recognition of the importance of tourism as a motor for regional development), the regional tourist commissions bolstered and greater opportunities given to local government to participate in the various chambers active around Hungary.

Further barriers to expansion, such as the unwillingness of banks to extend credit to small businesses (perceived as too high a risk), crippling interest payments for the lucky few, who do actually succeed in persuading banks to part with their money and the excessive amount of red tape involved deter talented individuals from entering the tourist trade.

In a recent interview in Magyar Nemzet [see 1 March 2000], Gábor Zsámboky, managing director of Magyar Túrizmus Rt. (Hungarian Tourism Ltd.), reviewed the current situation:

What we have to do is to relay tourist products to the consumer, whilst at the same time passing back information about what the market needs. In the midst of all of this, the most important thing for us is to preserve our uniqueness. The most important attraction of every single country is that it has something that cannot be found anywhere else in the world, the landscape, the folk customs [which largely only exist today to provide entertainment and excitement to the tourist parties, perpetuating an old-fashioned and distorted picture of a country - as this is by no means unique to Hungary - to the culture-hungry visitor], the food, which can only be found there. In my opinion, the primary driving force behind tourism is that people are curious about the culture of other peoples and about how they live.

Nine million foreign visitors crossed the Hungarian borders in 1999, spending some USD 3.4 billion. Mr Zsámboky, quizzed on how this source of income might be boosted further, highlighted quality as a means of persuading foreign guests to stay on longer and spend more. The wave of foreign investment in the hotel sector, estimated to be worth some USD 600 million, far from being a cause for concern (squeezing home-grown hotels out of the market), was something that he welcomed:

The hotels under construction of late have belonged to one or other famous chain, each of which has its own specific clientele. These individuals only travel to Hungary if they can find their favourite hotel here as well. In the long term this will therefore certainly mean that a broader circle of visitors will come to Hungary. If they take back home with them the good reputation of the country then they might encourage others, who might not necessarily want to stay in the same hotels, to pay the country a visit.

The latest example of this trend is the metamorphosis of the Gresham Palace, formerly the Hungarian HQ of a British insurance company, into a luxury hotel in the Four Seasons group. If the refurbishment means that the magnificent edifice is restored to its former glory I wholeheartedly approve. If, however, its new incarnation as playground for the mega-rich leads to lovers of architecture and Hungarians in general being turned away at the door, my enthusiasm will abate, as you might expect.

On the subject of village (rural) tourism, Mr Zsámboky took a pragmatic view:

Major infrastructural investments would be required for village tourism to become more widespread in Hungary. A misconception also has to be dispelled: it is not possible to make a living out of village tourism anywhere in the world, at most it can be a supplementary form of income for those involved in it. The other problem is that, whereas people living to the West of us think in terms of ten year periods, everyone here wants to get rich quick. Perhaps the extra two billion forints [USD 7.4 m]- pledged by the Ministry of Finance beyond the 7.8 billion [USD 28.8 m ]set aside in the budgetary estimate for tourism - will give a helping hand to businesses starved of capital so that they can get off the ground [last year central government awarded a total of HUF 1.815 billion [USD 6.7 m] to 488 projects].

Linguistic training

Mr Zsámboky's company has 19 representations in 16 countries, including two opening soon in Madrid and Tel Aviv. From the first of March, a telephone information service in Hungarian, English and German has been up and running, reflecting the increase in demand. Language learning was long neglected in Hungary and the prospect of EU accession coupled with job opportunities within the tourist branch (not to mention the younger generation's appetite for American films and the Internet) will provide an incentive to catch up in this respect as well.

Whereas asking someone to give you directions will not necessarily yield an answer you can understand, you at least have the option of turning to one of the officers drafted from language students at universities for the summer recess by the Budapest police force specially for the purpose of providing assistance to the bewildered.

I always recall the anecdote recounted with relish by another friend, who occasionally comes to Hungary to sample our cuisine. He has a sweet tooth, and a particular fondness for pastries and the mouth-watering gateaux for which we are justly famous. One afternoon during his second visit he could not resist the urge to partake of a slice in Gerbeau. One item in the display caught his attention, a delicate snow-white wedge. The hand-written slip read "turd cake". Beyond doubt, it was the finest cake on offer. In spite of the embarrassment in requesting it, my British friend did not balk at the challenge of asking for it politely. The waitress arrived at his table, poised to order.

"I would like some tooord cake, please", he ventured.

Puzzled frown on the part of the waitress.

"Toorrrrd cake, please".

Still no joy, consternation written over her face.

The headwaiter came over to help decipher.

By this time, Stephen was at the end of his tether, and decided to pronounce, as the conventions of spelling would dictate.

"I would like some turd cake, please".

The penny dropped: "Ah, you mean túró cake, sir. Yes, at once," the headwaiter replied, snapping his fingers.

What had caught my friend out was the long Hungarian ó, which resembled a d in the handwriting.

Apart from the fluctuations to which the tourist trade is subject, there are other, unforeseeable factors beyond the control of even the most careful planners and investors. Both the Kosovo crisis and the cyanide (and other) pollution of the River Tisza illustrate the vulnerability of the industry.

Fallout from NATO

It was a particularly cruel irony of fate that almost immediately after joining NATO (and after politicians had expended a great deal of energy in waxing lyrical about the security dividend and how it would translate into FDI and greater numbers of visitors), Hungary was faced with mass cancellations by understandably cautious holidaymakers. The ensuing doom, gloom and despair gradually evaporated once well-off refugees sought temporary shelter. Although the bombardments took place just over the border, Hungary remained a haven of tranquillity, and the anxieties proved to be a false alarm.

The environmental disaster, however, did not show such respect for territorial integrity. Reassuring domestic and foreign tourists that paddling even in the vicinity of the river is not detrimental to health will be an uphill struggle. The Országos Idegenforgalmi Bizottság (National Tourism Commission) acknowledges that addressing the problem is indispensable.

Public opinion, both at home and abroad, remains to be convinced. The issue is further complicated by Hungary's compensation claims. Playing down the damage done could undermine their credibility. The President of the OIF, Mr Jenő Lasztovicza, placed his faith in the campaign mounted by Magyar Túrizmus Rt. aimed at presenting the facts. Part of the programme is keeping embassies, travel agencies abroad specialising in package deals to Hungary and the international media continuously up to date with the state of the river.

One of the main points emphasised is that the pollution is a highly localised phenomenon, confined to a small, strictly defined area. The Tisza Lake, for example, was not affected, in spite of all the rumours to the contrary. As for angling, alternatives are suggested, with the Danube, Balaton and Rába at the top of the list. A series of investments have been planned for the Tisza region including spas, bicycle paths and bridle paths. HUF 310 million [USD 1.1m] have been set aside for successful projects in a call to tender.

Red passport, blue passport

Backward and underfunded though it is, the tourist industry has undergone a radical transformation from the days of Communist rule. In the 1960s, it was the absolute exception for anyone to be permitted to travel abroad, even to other Communist satellites (though of course with Party recommendation anything was possible, compounding the inequalities between the elite and the ordinary citizen).
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By the 1970s, the so-called red passport had been introduced, which facilitated matters considerably. This document entitled the holder to unlimited trips to certain Communist countries, giving rise to a mass exodus every summer to Bulgaria, the shores of the Black Sea in Romania and the mountains of Poland and Czechoslovakia (as then was!). The forint was a strong currency then, with a particularly favourable exchange rate to be had in East Germany and Bulgaria.

The blue passport, valid for Western countries, was only issued for the duration of the journey and sojourn and had to be handed back in to the authorities on return. This was the situation up to 1984, when the "permanent" blue passport was introduced. In practice the authorities continued to restrict access to Western countries, though the tactic was not now to physically withhold the passport, but to permit foreign currency purchase (officially known as the valuta keret, or currency framework) once every two years.

It was possible, however, to travel West once a year on package holidays organised by travel agencies, where the agencies themselves provided the Western currency ( in theory the amount that could be changed was enough to live off, and if someone returned home with cash left over, it had to be paid back, hence the Hungarian predilection for the cheapest option, preferably staying with relatives to make sure that there would be something left over, which naturally went undeclared).

Between 1984 and 1988, Hungarian tourists made their way to Austria and Germany alongside the traditional destinations mentioned above.

In 1988, the blue passport was re-christened yet again, this time as the "world passport", entitling the holder to unrestricted travel abroad. The currency framework rules also changed. Everyone had a currency allowance, registered on a currency balance sheet (valuta lap) and valid for two years. During this time, money could be withdrawn and paid back into the bank account, but the amount could never exceed the original framework. The accounts, lodged at the Országos Takarékpénztár(OTP, National Savings Bank), which was then the only bank open to members of the public, were used to cover the costs of travel.

From 1988 onwards, bulk-buying tourism was all the rage. In the spirit of the New Economic Mechanism, prices had been divorced from actual value for decades on end, leading to gross distortions of the prices of goods on the market. For example, consumer goods such as television sets, washing machines and fridges were disproportionately expensive compared with other types of products, a situation exacerbated by shortages, which occurred on a monotonously regular basis. As a result, Hungarian citizens rushed abroad once the frontiers opened to snap up cheap radios, TVs etc.

Within the space of a few months, the state had lost billions of dollars and this contributed in turn to the crisis preceding the collapse of Communism.

Now the world has become our oyster, the only restriction placed upon us is our personal budget. Similarly, tourists flock to Hungary from all over the world, and, although the Germans still occupy an important niche, they no longer dominate the scene absolutely as in the era of the Democratic Republic. Nowadays that open-topped, shocking-pink abomination on wheels rejoicing in the name of the "Barbie bus" is as likely to ferry sightseers from Japan and Australia as from the US or Austria around the narrow streets of the Castle District.

Gusztáv Kosztolányi, 8 April 2000

Moving on:


Magyar Nemzet, 3 May, 7 and 11 October 1999 and 1 and 14 March 2000.

My personal recommendations for the visitor to Hungary are as follows:

Budapest: Centrál Kávéház (the coffee is excellent, though the main courses are bland and unexciting. The cakes rival Gerbeau). The Széchenyi baths. The Iparművészeti Múzeum (Museum of Applied Arts, the Lechner architecture in itself is a gem).

Balaton: the Attila József monument, the monastery at Tihany

The Tisza Lake: (yes, I do intend to go back there!) for bathing, competitively priced accommodation and excellent cuisine.

Hollóháza: the authentic folk architecture.

Aggtelek: the magnificent caves.

Miskolc-tapolca near Aggtelek: thermal baths within a cave

Eger: the castle, Read Egri Csillagok by Géza Gárdonyi before you go. It is available in English translation as Eclipse of the Crescent Moon.

Szeged: the Lechner city hall building and the synagogue of unparalleled beauty.

As you can see, not a horthobágyi csikós in sight!

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