Travelling around the bloc

During the communist period, Czechs did not have much choice when it came to deciding where to go on a foreign holiday. They could travel relatively easily to their "brotherly" communist states in Eastern Europe, but it was much more difficult to get the authorities' permission for travel to the West. So, if a Czech wanted to spend some time by the sea, they would most likely to do so in East Germany or Poland by the Baltic Sea, by Hungary's Lake Balaton, or in the Black Sea resorts of Bulgaria, Romania or the Soviet Union. And if they were lucky, they could take a trip to the Adriatic coast of Yugoslavia. But after the Velvet Revolution this - like most things in Czechoslovakia - completely changed. Czechs officially became free to travel wherever they wanted.

From the few travel companies such as Autoturist, Sportturist and Cedok that existed during the communist period, a large number of travel agencies sprang up all over the Czech Republic in the 1990s. In their windows you can find holiday packages for destinations all over the world, and the only obstacle that Czech travellers face these days is time and money. But as the Czech economy grows and incomes keep on increasing, price is also becoming even less of an obstacle.

So while Czechs now like to travel to locations as far afield as Australia, Brazil, India and Thailand, or to closer destinations such as Cyprus, Italy, Turkey and Tunisia, do they still want to travel to the countries of the former East Bloc? At the Holiday World tourism fair held in Prague in mid-February, I went on a little tour of my own to find out. To be sure, there wasn't even a stand there for the Russian Federation or any of the other of the Soviet republics, but most of the other states of the former East Bloc were there.

Let's start with the Czech Republic's northeastern neighbour, Poland. Every year, millions of Czechs travel to Poland - but that does not mean that they spend much time there. According to Jan Piotrowski from the Polish Tourist Organisation, most Czech visitors tend to spend only a day in Poland, so while the number of Czech visitors is in the millions, their overnight stays are only in the hundreds of thousands.

"I have some data from 2001, and it indicates that 230,000 Czechs came to Poland as tourists, which means that they spent at least one night in Poland. If we take the arrivals from the Czech Republic altogether, including one-day or same day tourists or visitors, the figure is much better. And in 2001 this was over 9 million people. This is a great number, but we are not so happy about it, because they have very little to do with tourism. They come to Poland for several hours to buy something, and then they go back to the Czech Republic. So this is not the sphere that we can influence. With our promotions we act and have an impact on tourists, not on one-day visitors. "

But Mr Piotrowski points out that Czechs are travelling to Poland more and more to visit the Baltic Sea coast or to explore historic cities such as Warsaw, Krakow and Wroclaw. And these days the Czechs are visiting their northeastern neighbour in greater numbers than they did during the communist period.

"Well, I think that during the communist regime the situation was not as good as it is today, I would say. Of course we had some official traffic, movement, between the two countries. There were a lot of Poles going to Czechoslovakia, but I wouldn't say that there were so many Czechs and Slovaks coming to Poland. So this situation, in my mind, completely changed about twelve years ago. But, as I say, these one-day visitors are dominating this travel. But we also believe that if somebody comes to Poland for one day, sooner or later they will become a tourist, they will come for a longer period."

Travelling south, Bulgaria and Romania were two of the main summer destinations for Czechs in the communist times, being especially attractive because of the Black Sea coast. But Veronica Miclea, the director of the Romanian National Tourist Office in Prague, says that her country has seen a decline in the number of Czech tourists in the last decade.

"Romania was a very popular destination for Czechs before the revolution. Now, what can I say, the number of Czechs travelling to Romania is again increasing. It has been about five years since we, together with the Ministry of Tourism of Romania, started the process of regaining this market. So we have very good signs now that in the very near future Romania will be the destination that it once was for the Czechs."

Albania is another formerly communist country that is also trying to attract more tourists from the Czech Republic. Under a harsh communist regime, Albania remained the poorest country in Europe and was isolated from the rest of the world. Its tourist industry did not have an opportunity to develop much, but nonetheless some Czechs still did travel there. Ilya Ragovi is a representative of the only state-owned travel agency in Albania, Albturist.

"Now we have come here to promote Albanian tourism, because we see that Czech people are interested in Albanian tourism."

How many Czechs travelled to Albania before the fall of communism, and how have tourist numbers been since?

"Before, under the socialist system, a lot of Czechs used to travel there. And that's the reason we came to the Czech Republic: to promote Albanian tourism again, and to attract the Czech tourist to come to Albania again. Because recently, only individuals have been coming to visit Albania - groups of people haven't been arriving. And that's what we would like to promote."

But one destination in southeastern Europe that the Czechs have been flocking to in the last decade is Croatia. In recent years about a million Czechs per annum have travelled to Croatia to spend their summer holidays there on the Adriatic coast. Even before the fall of communism Croatia - then part of Yugoslavia - was a desirable travel destination for Czechs. But because Yugoslavia was a non-aligned communist country - and therefore not part of the East Bloc - it was somewhat harder for Czechs to travel there. These days, however, Croatia is the most popular holiday destination for Czechs, and this is one of the reasons why Croatia was the partner country at this year's Holiday World tourism fair.

So, Czech travel trends have greatly changed since the fall of communism. Some destinations in the former East Bloc still receive a relatively large number of Czech visitors, but all in all most of them are no longer as popular as they used to be simply because Czechs now have the freedom to choose where they want to travel to.. now that there is no longer a communist compass which only points east.