Fly cheap and binge drink: Budapest has become a hot spot for hard-partying tourist groups. During the coronavirus pause the city is rethinking tourism. Some locals say a new law goes too far — others say not far enough.
When she turned 30, Dora Garai just couldn't take it anymore. The raucous drunks, the garbage, the stench of urine, the prostitutes and drug dealers in her entrance. She moved away to the quieter edge of Erzsebetvaros, the seventh district of Budapest.
She was not alone in that feeling. In the past few years, thousands of residents have fled Bulinegyed, the city's famous party district — even families who had lived here for generations. In the house in which she grew up, says Garai, only three out of 30 apartments are now inhabited by the original owners. The rest are all Airbnb apartments for party tourists. Entire streets are now in the hands of mostly foreign landlords who want to profit from short-term rentals. "There's nothing left for us locals," says Garai.
Budapest has developed into one of the continent's most attractive party hot spots over the last 10 years. Comparatively cheap alcohol in the over 500 bars and clubs of the party district attracts young western Europeans in particular. For many of them, the motto is: drink, dry out, repeat. They arrive and depart via low-cost flights and see little or nothing of the city itself in between.
Resistance against these excesses of party tourism developed early on — but nothing changed over the years. So together with other disgruntled residents, Garai founded the citizens' initiative Elheto Erzsebetvaros. The 34-year-old has been on the district council since last year — and now has a chance to change things.
The coronavirus pandemic has provided an opportunity for regulating the situation. With tourists missing due to the global travel slowdown, the party mile is set for a redesign. The current situation is "an opportunity to make tourism here more sustainable and to find a solution that is acceptable to everyone," said district mayor Peter Niedermuller recently at a press conference in Budapest. He has passed a strict package of measures to regulate party tourism from September onward.
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Peter Niedermuller, mayor of Budapest's popular Erzsebetvaros district, says the current situation is "an opportunity to make tourism here more sustainable"
Under the new regulations, bars, restaurants and clubs in the area must close at midnight. Establishments wanting to stay open longer need to have a special permit and have to meet numerous requirements. For example, operators have to ensure that their guests do not consume alcoholic beverages on the street. So they are no longer allowed to serve plastic cups — a departure from the previous practice. This is to not only prevent guests from drinking on the street, but also to reduce garbage. Now, bouncers must check compliance with the rules and instruct guests to behave properly.
Bar operators also now have to keep the streets clean in front of their establishments and make their toilets available to non-paying guests. So that it doesn't get too loud, the noise level is measured: if it exceeds the permitted limit, the special permit is withdrawn. Business in the party district will also be affected by the new regulations. Hospitality establishments there may only stay open until after midnight if they stop selling alcohol after 10 p.m.
In addition to volume and garbage regulations, the housing problem is also set to be addressed. The rapid spread of Airbnb apartments urgently needs to be curbed, said Niedermuller. "We now need clear rules, otherwise it will soon be like in the Wild West."
The Hungarian Parliament also sees it that way. Almost unanimously, it decided on July 14 to take a harder line against short-term housing rentals. As in New York, Paris, Amsterdam and many other cities, landlords in Budapest will in the future have to register with the local authorities, who can also determine how many days a year an apartment can be rented to tourists.
Though the move has pleased residents, bar and club owners feel it is a disaster. They have already been badly affected by the coronavirus, they say. The new requirements would entail additional costs and a drop in sales. They are organizing a protest march for July 29 against the new regulations.
Bar operator Miki Karpat is unhappy with the new measures. "The big problem with these regulations is that they put everyone under one roof," he said. His bar, Hivatal, is small, and its guests are considerate. He has nothing to do with the roaring crowds a few streets away, he said.
"The police should crack down over there rather than punish the whole neighborhood," said Karpati. Nevertheless, he does not want to take part in the protest march. "We have a policy of understanding with our neighbors," he said. He believes the organizers of the protest march — the owners of the large bars and clubs — would prefer to push the unwanted neighbors out of the neighborhood.
Activist Garai, however, is also critical of the restrictions, which she says don't go far enough. "Especially for the big bars and clubs, it is quite easy to meet the exceptional conditions," she said, pointing out that little will change for the residents. She is therefore demanding that the large clubs be moved to the outskirts of Budapest, for example in old factory buildings.
Bar owner Miki Karpat finds the new measures unfair to establishments that do not encourage binge drinking
In addition to the strict requirements, Mayor Niedermuller wants to draw the tourists' attention to the history and tradition of the party district. The neighborhood where tourists have been partying until dawn also is home to Europe's largest synagogue, a church and a memorial to victims of the Holocaust — the district was once a Jewish ghetto, from which tens of thousands of Jews were deported to concentration camps. The few survivors have brought the Jewish quarter back to life, and today Budapest is a central home for Jewish culture across Europe.
But Niedermuller has not yet taken any concrete measures for a fusion of party and cultural tourism, as he says the city lacks the money for big initiatives. Activist Garai is less than hopeful about such a possibility being successful: "Alcohol unfortunately always brings more profit than culture."