Tourism no Longer Unloved or Unwanted. Mostly


When I first arrived in this country, tourism seemed to be an area largely ignored by the governments of the time, with very little spent on promotions advertising the country. At some point in the early noughties, tourism was memorably described to me by the then commercial director of one of the five-star hotels as an unwanted orphan, shunted from one government department to another, going through endless changes in personnel. I was even told that the annual winter campaign to attract more tourists was initially the brainchild of the hotels themselves, based on a buy three nights, get a fourth free model. Things have certainly changed.

As you will see in our Special Report, tourism currently contributes 10% of GDP but the government target is to raise that to 16%. Now we have high production value mini-movies promoting Hungary as the “Spice of Europe”, and regular slots on CNN. Even the Prime Minister’s daughter, Ráhel Orbán is taking a deep interest in the sector. 

You might argue over how the money is spent, whether it is being targeted as well as it could be, but the quality of the output is good and the level of ambition striking. No one can reasonably claim that tourism is an unloved orphan now, or that the government isn’t paying the sector due attention. Except, perhaps, in one area.

Think of tourism in a Budapest context and images of tourist-thronged public squares spring to mind, crowds on foot trying to take in the striking architecture while avoiding other groups mounted on scooters with outsize balloon wheels or on Segways. Hotels benefit from leisure tourists, of course, but they also benefit from what is known in the trade as MICE tourism: meetings, incentives, conferences, and exhibitions.

Hungary does increasingly well from this field, too, but hoteliers I have spoken to have long called for a modern, high tech, purpose built national conference and convention center in the center of Budapest, capable of taking 5,000 people; indeed, it has been a topic of conversation since I first arrived here in 1998. It always seems to be just around the corner, though that is becoming a very long bend by now. There are options, especially the Budapest Congress Center, next to the four-star Novotel Budapest City hotel in Buda, but it is the biggest such facility, and has a capacity of 2,000. 

Several years ago an exasperated hotel general manager, who has since moved on to another posting, told me he did not understand why the government did not simply go ahead and start building. “A large scale congress center will bring far more money into the country than another renovated football stadium,” he told me. 

It seems he, and everyone else, will have to wait longer still. The government had said it intended to build a conference center and had even allocated HUF 4.3 billion in funding in the 2018 budget, but this June, a regrouping of funds related to the project appeared in Magyar Közlöny, the official gazette. Those funds will now go to the “Kemény Ferenc Sports Facilities Development” program, and to prepare other developments in South Pest and North Csepel. A further funding of HUF 50 mln has been added to the sports project to finance advisers, appraisers, and legal representatives.

Yet again, sport trumps MICE.

Robin Marshall


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