Duty-free shopping on the river Danube

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The first in the ICE series looking at crossing borders in central Europe: This week Oxana Ferjencikova goes duty free shopping on a short ferry journey between Slovakia & Austria.

I am aboard a ferry moored at the village of Devin, on the left bank of the Danube. We are heading for the Austrian border town of Hainburg, just a few km away from here, on the other side of the river. There are about 90 fellow passengers - a few Austrians, the rest are Slovaks. Some even brought their bikes with them. However, for most of the passengers the main purpose of taking the ferry is to pop into the duty free shop on the lower deck. Right after boarding, about 20 passengers are already queuing in front of the shop, which is still closed.

A crew: "Today it's not so packed because it's a workday but on weekends the ferry is sometimes so crowded that we must bring it to a stop it in the middle of the voyage until everybody finishes their shopping. When we reach the harbour we have to close the shop since we are off the duty free zone."

I can see a wide age range of people: from young to elder, singles and families. Now we are starting to move upstream. The shop opens and fills up with impatient shoppers, who have been waiting in line. Those who descended from the upper deck join them.

A Slovak passenger: "So far we have been on this ferry probably 10 times. It's an excellent idea. We like it because we can buy cheap cigarettes for my husband, who is a heavy smoker. Today for the first time we decided to take our bikes with us and make a small trip on the cycle paths around Hainburg."

Checking the prices, one must admit it's a bargain. They are 30 to 50 percent lower than in Slovak shops. I am glimpsing into people's baskets and can see mainly cartons of cigarettes and bottles of hard spirits. Although, we still have not reached Hainburg, almost everybody aboard is carrying a duty free plastic bag in their hands, there are only a few without.

A Czech passenger: "It's a trip. I am a tourist from the Czech Republic. I would like to see some new places close to Bratislava like Devin and Hainburg. Here in the shop, I am only curious about what they have got. Just looking around."

After 40 minutes of the picturesque voyage, the ferry halts and ties up. About half of the passengers are debarking in the harbour. On this hot August day, they will either pedal on a dyke along the Danube or visit the nearby ancient Roman settlement of Carnuntum or just stroll down the calm streets of Hainburg. An Austrian customs officer is approaching the ferry. He opens a parasol on a narrow footbridge and starts stamping passports. The procedure is fast and smooth. Then comes the passport control for those boarding en route to Devin. Newcomers are once again mainly Slovak, this time mostly families with small children and some pensioners. They are joining those who remained on the ferry. I notice a small group of Austrians. They all have bikes with them.

An Austrian: "I am first time on this boat. We are going on a 60 km bicycle trip."

Now the boat sets out for a shorter downstream voyage. The crew again opens the duty free shop but this time only a few people are interested. Due to the fast water current, the ruins of Devin castle, built on a rock, suddenly appear around a bend in the river. The double-decked ferry with the capacity of 250 people started its operation 3 years ago. A return ticket costs only 1 EUR if bought in Devin and 4 EUR if bought in Hainburg. Since the expenses are not covered by the ticket sales, the company, which owns the ferry, makes its profit from the duty free shop revenue. The boat runs from April until November and makes 5 round trips a day. The Slovak crew is polite, helpful, speaks fluent German and some English. Nevertheless, next May, when Slovakia enters the European Union, the duty free cruises will cease. According to a company representative, even though they will lose a big portion of revenue from the shop, they are not considering cancelling the service. He hopes the number of tourists will take the place of the shoppers and perhaps even be augmented since they will be coming not only from the neighbouring countries but also from more distant places.