Challenges in the Tourism Industry

14 July 2022

Safe and Welcoming

War changes everything, including tourism and marketing. This is particularly relevant in a city which has blossomed during peacetime and suddenly finds itself just 300 km from the frontline.


Text: Rafał Romanowski

The red convertible, carrying young women dressed in the latest fashions, is driven by a chauffeur looking out through expensive sunglasses. The smart car is crawling among ruined buildings. The Shia district of Haret Hreik in south Beirut was bombed just a few hours ago, turning it into rubble in minutes. As soon as things calmed, affluent young locals started drifting to the devastated area. Curious, shocked, terrified, they snapped photos with their smartphones, covered their faces, gazed at the destruction…

Spencer Platt’s image described above won the World Press Photo award in 2007. Whether it’s the war in Lebanon, the internal conflict in Myanmar, the civil war in the former Yugoslavia or the ongoing devastation in Syria, the format is roughly the same. In spite of the tragedy, suffering and death, wars hold a perverse attraction. We are afraid but we can’t look away – they simply fascinate us. In the era of Instagram, Telegram and Twitter, news spreads around the globe in seconds.

And so, whether we like it or not, wars and the traces they leave behind are a permanent element of tourism around the globe. One popular tourist spot in south Thailand is the (in)famous Hellfire Pass – a railway cutting built during the Second World War by POWs from Australia, the UK and Indochina. The site of the former World Trade Center in New York is practically a pilgrimage site. And we find this in Poland, too – the traces of the Warsaw uprising or remnants of the Kraków ghetto are important points on tourist maps.

Still, remembering the tragedies of war – and even the money made on the back of it – is quite different than the real impact on countries neighbouring war-torn regions. We are seeing this in Poland right now, in particular in the hugely popular tourist destination which is Kraków. War in Ukraine is a massive armed conflict which has already killed thousands and devastated cities and rural areas. The atmosphere is clearly affecting Kraków’s residents.

And it’s no wonder. The city lies on a strategic rail and road route connecting Lviv, Ukraine’s largest city near Poland, with western Europe. Good transport links, open borders and the terrific outpouring of support offered by Cracovians to refugees meant that at the threshold of spring Kraków’s stations, streets and buildings were filled with people fleeing the war.

Then things started to change. Hotels, temporarily bursting at the seams with Ukrainians fleeing war, have started seeing cancellations from foreign visitors. The tourism industry, slowly emerging from the pandemic crisis, has received a new blow. People fear the war raging just 300 km away and don’t want to visit “worrying” regions. The sheer brutality of the conflict means that curiosity and any desire for a little bit of war experience are far outweighed by simple fear. Most people are unconvinced by official reassurances that things are safe.

Airlines are noting major losses. Those specialising in tourist and business travel have been faring relatively well until recently. Jet2.com, a favourite of British seniors in search of a peaceful break, is noticing a worrying trend: almost 95% of flights for the coming months were cancelled within the first week of the war, forcing the airline to suspend flights from six cities in the UK to Kraków.

Paradoxically, the instinctive and immediate support offered to the victims of war, bringing Kraków into the spotlight, has not helped. The city has become associated with themes of “refugees”, “immigrants” and “aid” – themes previously linked with the shores of Lampedusa in Italy, Crete in Greece and Sicily and Andalusia, where desperate people seek refuge from North Africa. Movement of NATO armies over Poland stoked the fire further, seen by many as a provocation of Russia and threat of spreading the conflict into central Europe.

The answer is clear: anyone and anything associated with refugees or unpredictable military manoeuvres is affected. Visitors from the UK, France or Germany, even those most pragmatic and sympathetic, are thinking twice about taking breaks in a city so close to the tragedies of war. We simply had to act.

Municipal marketing departments have been working hard to counter the issues, as have Kraków’s airport authorities. Following negotiations, the increased movement of military planes, transporters and helicopters has been diverted to bypass Kraków. When reporting on troop movements to the Ukrainian border, world media focused on Katowice, Rzeszów and Lublin instead of Kraków.

Municipal authorities also launched campaigns promoting Kraków as a safe city, working with local celebrities and influencers and focusing on advertising with no mention of the war. It helped. The campaigns brought results and the streets are starting to fill with tourists once again. Bookings are starting to increase slowly. As the situation on the front is stabilising, we have been able to start making plans for the summer season, key to Kraków’s tourist industry.

Interestingly, Kraków is facing a similar challenge to that seen a few years ago in Kyiv. When I visited the capital of Ukraine in 2015, I was terrified by the war raging in nearby Donbas. But I was invited especially to be shown that Kyiv is stable and safe. “Don’t worry, Donbas is 700 km away. The war is far from here, you are 100% safe in Kyiv”, I was assured by my host Anton Taranenko, representative of Kyiv’s promotional department. We made a bet: if I could find any signs of conflict in Kyiv, he would buy me a bottle of fine wine.

I found nothing so I never got to taste the wine. Seven years have gone by, and now I am explaining to my foreign visitors that Kraków is in no danger of war or a humanitarian crisis. I’ve had many interesting conversations, for example with a retired American journalist who previously worked at “Newsweek” and NBC. She came to Kraków in March as a volunteer, expecting to find the city full of panic and disarray. She spent three weeks helping out at aid centres during the day and sipping wine in delightful Kazimierz in the evenings. “Rafał, you have to talk about it! Kraków is safe, beautiful, welcoming. You must tell everyone!”

I write to Anton: “How are you coping with everything?” I hear back: “It’s not easy, but according to the Visit Ukraine website, interest in visiting Ukraine among foreigners has increased threefold. According to tourist guides, there are plenty of visitors from abroad in Kyiv.”

While it’s still “war tourism” and there’s no question of returning to normal for the foreseeable future, the challenges Kraków will face in the coming seasons are becoming simpler. Tourists from western Europe and the US have been increasingly interested in visiting Romania, Bulgaria and Ukraine. However, in the wake of the greatest armed conflict in Europe since the Second World War, the map of tourist destinations in our part of the continent is being rearranged.

War changes everything: it shifts perspective, affects prices, shapes new trends, draws the world anew. It leaves deep, long-lasting scars. I know what I’m talking about. I live in a city where tourists are driven in golf carts from the Main Market Square to the Schindler Factory, to the former ghetto and the Plaszow camp…

 

  • Rafał Romanowski
    Founder of the online magazine Re:view / thereview.pl. Publisher of electronic and traditional media, lecturer, speaker. He has worked with publications such as “Gazeta Wyborcza”, “What’s Up Magazine” (editor-in-chief) and “Polityka”. He mainly writes about new technologies, sociology, tourism and aviation.

The text was published in the 2/2022 issue of the "Kraków Culture" quarterly.
Illustration: Paulina Lichwicka

Last update: 14 July 2022

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