OUTBOUND tour packages from the Middle East to Austria's neighbouring states such as Hungary and the Czech Republic are expected to boom once these countries join the Schengen visa system in 2008, say Gulf travel consultants.
“The demand will increase after they enter the Schengen agreement,” Ihab Shawi, business development manager, outbound leisure travel, Thomas Cook Overseas, Egypt, told TTN.
This year’s Austrian and Central European Travel Business (ACTB) provided a platform for Hungary, Slovenia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic to promote their tourism products and packages – but regional members of the trade travelling to the event had mixed reactions about business to Central Europe.
“Hungary is a value-for-money destination,” said Dubai-based Manica Radjou, assistant manager, tours and MICE at Paramount Tours and Travel, Dubai, who was at the ACTB, “One disadvantage is that the awareness about the destination in this market is very low. A lot of promotion and publicity efforts are required before travel agents start selling Hungary. Non-availability of direct flights can also be a disadvantage.”
Radjou said that demand for Austria on both leisure and business fronts is on the rise, besides which it is the ideal gateway point for exploring Central Europe and Danube region. “With the Czech Republic and Hungary, there is tremendous MICE potential, but a lot of publicity campaigns are required before travel agents start them in regional markets. Other Central European destinations like Slovenia and Slovakia do not have enough demand yet from this region.”
Clearly, then, there’s a need for strong marketing – even for countries such as Austria, which are only just now emerging on the radar. “By focusing on specific points of interests for foreign consumers and tour operators, Austrian suppliers can attract more Middle Eastern tourists to the country,” said Shawi. Arabs, he pointed out, choose Austria for ‘relaxation, mountains, lakes, spas and shopping’, while expatriates’ choices tend to be limited to skiing and winter resorts.
Zolton Somogyi, Hungarian state secretary for tourism, said his country was keen on attracting Middle East-based tourists to the country and the country is in the process of launching awareness campaigns in Dubai and the GCC.
Austria has gone one further, with the setting up of a local tourist office, which organised the delegation to this year’s ACTB.
Beyond the marketing, then, as always, visas are one issue holding tourists back. Currenty, GCC nationals and South Asian expatriates in the region need a separate visa to tour Hungary.
“Visas are always a deciding factor in the choice of destination. For example, it takes about 10 days to get Czech visas. But perhaps the situation will improve by the end of this year when Central European countries join the Schengen visa system.”
But one GCC-based Hungarian consular official whom TTN spoke to urged travellers to plan in advance and said they should not be discouraged by the need for a separate visa. “According to general practice, other non-Schengen EU visas are a straightforward process if the applicant has already obtained a valid Schengen visa,” he explained.
Marketing aside, Shawi said the high euro was one of the important factors influencing where customers want to go.
The ACTB is already seeing its first results, however: alongside France, the UK and Italy, Spain and Austria form part of Thomas Cook’s Europe strategies this year – as does the Czech Republic.
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