The villages along the Danube Bend in Hungary are realizing they can no longer rely on history and natural beauty to attract tourists. In a highly competitive market, the traditional tourism market has to change gears.
Luxury riverboats regularly stop at towns along the Danube Bend
Shortly after the Danube enters Hungary from Slovakia, the river makes an abrupt turn south before continuing its 420-kilometer journey through Hungary. The Danube Bend, as this region is known, has long been famous for its beautiful rolling hills and historic villages. For passengers aboard luxury river cruise boats or day-trippers from nearby Budapest, the region is often a highlight of their visit to Hungary. It is one of the most important and popular tourist destinations for the country.
Dozens of Danube riverboats take tourists from Budapest to the smaller towns upstream along the Danube Bend. The town of Szentendre is one regular stop on the tour. From the ferry wharf, hordes of tourists and school groups troop along past rows of souvenir shops to the main town square.
Despite the many tourists, though, business has been down some 30 percent over the past five years, says local restaurant owner Tamás Horváth. He blames much of that on the downturn of global tourism after the 2001 September 11th terrorist attacks.
According to Horváth, the Danube Bend's hey day was in the 1990s -- just after the end of communism in Hungary. He believes if Szentendre is to recover from its slump, it needs government support, and perhaps funding from the European Union to build basic tourist amenities, such as public toilets and parks.
"We have to build up Szentendre now, because it's a nice town but it should be renovated to make it comfortable for the people," Horváth says.
Flooding puts a damper on tourism Home to a thriving artists' colony since the 19th century, Szentendre is also well known for its local arts and crafts. Clare Rotik, an Australian who has lived there for the past 15 years, shares the feeling that Szentendre needs a facelift.
Flooding along the Danube has impacted local infrastructure
But Rotik, whose shop showcasing intricate handmade Hungarian embroidery is popular with diplomats and high profile visitors, says the ever-present problem affecting tourism along the Danube Bend are the heavy floods.
"The last one was four years ago; that was pretty bad," Rotik says. "It was in August and we were closed for about three days." She said it was even worse this spring.
"It was a ghost town," Rotik says. "There were no tourist buses stopping in town."
Tourists aren't staying long enough
Many tourists visiting the Danube Bend only stop for the day. But locals say they want tourists -- both foreign and domestic -- to stay in the region longer.
The region wants more tourists to visit Visegrad's Royal Palace
While low cost airlines are bringing more foreigners into Budapest, local businesses on the Danube Bend argue that doesn't mean more tourists are visiting their region.
"Low cost airlines are not necessarily good for us because a lot of tourists just come to Hungary for one or two days," says Robert Zeller, who runs a popular restaurant in Visegrad, some 20 kilometers up the river. "Here in Visegrad, we don't see too many of them."
Could wellness be the goldmine the region needs?
Around 300,000 international passengers arrive in Hungary each year on luxury riverboats. Further upstream, a new day spa and health center housed in a bright aquamarine building near to Esztergom's riverfront might be part of the future for increasing tourism on the Bend.
Esztergom's traditional attractions are its churches and museums. The town's new day-spa, though, is an attempt to tap into health tourism or "wellness" as it's widely known in Europe.
Hungary has a rich tradition in thermal mineral spas. But herbal saunas, aromatherapy and aqua-therapy are quite new -- and by European standards very cheap.
Having discovered Ezstergom's new wellness center, Laslo and his wife regularly visit from their home near Budapest. Laslo thinks it's healthy, a very modern European thing to do and very different from Hungary's old thermal baths.
"It's almost like in western countries, but this kind of wellness park is not well-known to Hungarian people," Laslo says. "It's a little strange that it's all naked."
Ágnes Kelecsényi, the marketing director for Hungarian National Tourism says that Hungarians might have to get over seeing Germans, Austrians and Swedes naked in their saunas.
Businesses want to see an expansion of premium tourist attractions
Hungary is working rapidly to develop health tourism over other attractions, Kelecsényi says. Health tourism doesn't depend on seasons, the tourist stay longer and they have time to visit other places. According to Kelecsényi, there are some 25 four-star hotels, as well as spa and wellness hotels across Hungary. Six years ago, it was only four.
The Danube Bend needs to offer more than beautiful scenery
"So health tourism and using our thermal water not only for health reasons, but also for wellness is really part of the future of tourism and, of course, on the Danube Bend as well," she says.
It's too early to say how much impact health tourism is likely to have in this region. Businesses on the Danube Bend would like to see the wellness sector developed along with luxury hotels, conference centers and wine tasting -- all premium tourist attractions.
Hungary will always rely heavily on the Danube River and its surrounding heritage to bring in valuable revenue from tourists. But future visitors may well come to the Danube Bend not just for its natural beauty, but for a bit of pampering and the chance to feel that little bit healthier.