What new initiatives does the Hungarian National Tourist Office have planned for 2012?
HORVATH: The initiatives of the Hungarian National Tourist Office are always about what we can offer to visitors from different countries. For example, Hungary is rich in terms of waters. It's one of the richest in the world. We have the world's 2nd largest thermal lake, which is in Hévíz on the countryside, where people can sit and swim in the thermal lake, which is 28 degrees even in the wintertime when it's snowing out. It's good for different quadriplegic and rheumatologic problems. Hungary also has a long history in medical tourism. In recent years medical tourism has grown and we are one of the leaders in the world in terms of facial surgery. Another great attraction is our capital, Budapest, which is often called The Pearl of the Danube. The River Danube divides the city into two parts: Buda and Pest. Many visitors say that it's more than they expected when they look out from the one side to the other. It's like a small fairy tale. Besides that, hunting in Hungary is becoming more popular. We are approaching vital limits however with regards to which animals we can hunt. We take the matter of animal protection very seriously and so as we approach the limits we will address this, but there are plenty of wild animals to hunt.
In terms of future growth, what geographic regions are you focused on to increase inbound visitors?
HORVATH: Hungary has always been dependent on tourism. In Hungary, tourism is the second largest industry. In the last 30 to 40 years we’ve attracted mostly European visitors. Hungary's foreign visitors are 85% Europeans. However, the trend is changing and the world is changing. We are looking at new markets like the Arabic countries, the GCC region, India, South America and China. All of these markets are fast growing markets. This is why we are focusing on new emerging markets. However, these markets alone are likely not enough to recover our tourism industry this year as our sector has also been affected by the recent world economic crisis, even if not so deeply. We already have approximately 60,000 guests from these regions out of 6m, but we think we will be able to double the record of this year compared to last year. We hope to have more guests from this region because we have the tourism products to serve them.
What kind of impact has the economic crisis in Europe had on tourism?
HORVATH: As I said, the economic crisis didn’t affect tourism in our country as deeply as in many other countries. The only reason for that was that Hungary is usually not the priority or main destination for most holidays. Travelers visit our country mainly as the destination of their second or third trip. During the time of the crisis, people saved their money so that they could go to Italy, Spain or Paris for the summer, because seaside holidays have number one priority. We don't have a sea, we attract visitors with medical tourism, city breaks, first of all Budapest, and other special tourism products. We discovered during the crisis that travel and booking habits changed completely. People book with a shorter notice before their trip and they choose closer destinations, as they don’t want to travel as far. They chose destinations that they can easily reach by car or a short flight. We were one of those countries chosen by travelers from our neighboring countries, so from this point of view we consider ourselves to be one of the winners of the crisis. During the crisis we had a 2-digit increase in incoming tourism from many close countries. Instead of suffering a decrease, we just had a change in the ranking of our tourism source markets. For example, the number of American guests in Hungary was decreasing. We didn't have so many Americans coming to Central Europe while we had many customers coming from Poland, the Czech Republic, Romania, and even from Austria, our neighboring country. Formerly Austrians would visit far destinations only once a year. But recently they also prefer choosing closer destinations, so they visit Hungary many times throughout the year, for shorter periods.
What is your overall outlook for the growth of tourism?
HORVATH: The growth in Hungary last year was above the international average. As per the UNWTO (United Nations World Tourism Organization), last year there was a 4.4% increase in world tourism. In our region there was a 5 to 6% increase, and in Hungary we had an even larger increase. The reason for this is that we served as an answer to the problems the crisis created. We were offering products to new markets as well and this was the key to our success. One of our traditional markets, the German market, was in the minus worldwide in terms of tourists. We too saw less Germans this past year. We’re still dependent on the German market, but the new markets could bring in new customers from new destinations as we saw last year. We saw a 6% increase in the number of foreign guests, and in our good quality hotels we had an even larger growth, over 9%. I believe that our tourism industry will continue growing. The UNWTO also predicts an increase in world tourism, but at a lower pace, namely 2%. Taking into account the future guests visiting Hungary from new source markets, we expect and aim to double the growth of the world concerning tourism, which means about a 5% increase in the number of our foreign guests.
From a foreign investor’s perspective, what are the best investment opportunities in the tourism sector in Hungary?
HORVATH: From the investor’s viewpoint, Hungary still offers very good investment opportunities. The reason for that is that the land and properties are still relatively reasonably priced as compared with other Western European countries. It is possible that the prices in these neighboring states will continue to go up in the next couple of years. There are still many yet unexplored areas of Hungary that provide great opportunities for investments, for example in the field of medical tourism, or tourism in Budapest, hotels, etc. There is one thing we are definitely missing at the moment in Hungary, a big attraction, like the London Eye, which is a landmark attraction in that city. I personally would be happy to have such a landmark development in the country similar to the Eiffel Tower in Paris, or the London Eye in London.
(In 2011) We saw a 6% increase in the number of foreign guests, and in our good quality hotels we had an even larger growth, over 9%. I believe that our tourism industry will continue growing.
Do you expect to see any decline in visitors from the European countries this year due to the big sporting events that are taking place?
HORVATH: I think that today people don’t necessarily need to travel to be able to enjoy the European championships or the Olympic Games. In the past, during the 3-4 weeks of a European championship, a World championship, or an Olympic event, tourism would usually go down. Nowadays, when everybody has smartphones and iPads, they go wherever they want and they can still watch these games. Therefore, they are not dependent on their television sets at home, which means they don't have to stay at home to watch the games. Due to the new mobile devices, we are not expecting a big decline in tourism this year.