Touting for Tourism in a Grown-up Way
Photo by ZGPhotography/Shutterstock.com
Tourism is taking on an increasingly important role in Hungary’s economy. There is nothing particularly revolutionary in the idea of that; successive governments have tried to court the tourist dollar in all sorts of ways. What has been different is that this government, especially in its second and now third-successive term, has achieved a degree of success earlier cabinets never got near.
It wasn’t always so. Between the world wars, Hungary was not an uncommon stop on the European Grand Tour of the well-to-do and the well healed. In the 1930s, Budapest enjoyed a reputation built on its traditions in the hospitality trade. World War II, however, and the interregnum brought about by 40 years of finding itself on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, put an end to all of that. By the late 1980s and early 90s, I am told, a waiter was more likely to be interested in making a quick buck from a diner than in preserving the traditions of Hungarian hospitality.
In part, at least, the return of the tourist and the resurgence in tourism has been down to timing. Hungary is simply better known internationally than it was ten or 15 years ago, and certainly much more so than when I first arrived here in 1998. There has also been an element of serendipity, something the government could not plan for, though it has certainly tried to take whatever credit it could from the situation. At exactly the time Hungary was gaining traction as a destination, terrorist attacks in much better known tourism hotspots enabled it to play the safety card, something it has done often and loudly.
It is a fool’s errand to try and draw many logical conclusions from the thought processes of a religious fanatic, but it seems not unreasonable to assume Hungary does not come up on the radar of many jihadists. The country is simply too small for an attack here to have the global impact of those in Brussels, London, Manchester, Nice or Paris; what, in the distasteful lexicon of the Irish Republican Army during the early 1990s were called “Spectaculars”, attacks that, as the Irish Times put it, “were of no military effect but which provided a large media spectacle”. I have no wish to tempt fate, but a tragic accident was probably always more likely here than a terror attack, although that makes the shock and horror of the collision, capsize and sinking of the “Hableány” (“Mermaid”) sightseeing boat last month no less heartfelt for all that.
Where this government has seemed different to its predecessors is in having a joined-up plan for what it wants to achieve in the sector. The Hungarian Tourism Agency has focused not on individual events or spaces, but on themes, whether it be Budapest and the countryside, wellness and spas, or wine and, yes, hospitality. As ever, you can grumble about the specifics, whether money dedicated to U.S. TV spots, for example, was well spent, but at least there has been a plan in place.
The government certainly does not get everything right. Hungary misses out on maximizing conference tourism to its fullest extent, and will continue to do so long as sports stadia are prioritized over a national conference center capable of holding multiple thousands of delegates, a long-standing complaint of this column. Based on record tourism figures for 2018, the dream of seeing 16% of GDP derived from the tourism sector might appear ambitious, but not breath-takingly so.
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