When east is west
The hot new destination for a certain kind of Indian traveller is Croatia. The boom in Indian tourists has surprised the Croats who are generally unsurprised by a flow of new arrivals. Ever since Croatia became one of the locations for the TV show Game of Thrones, tourists from all over the world have flocked to its sights and the Croats, who were noted for the disgusting quality of their hotels and their restaurants, have suddenly had to get their act together.
But what intrigues Croats about Indian tourists is that they don’t appear to be Game of Thrones fans. Mention Khaleesi and they look uncomprehending. Talk about the King’s Landing scenes shot in the Croatian city of Dubrovnik and they have no clue what you are referring to.
So why are so many Indians going to Croatia? Well, the short answer appears to be that, like the Japanese, we travel in herds. Once a destination becomes popular, hordes of Indians will descend upon it.
There was a time when Indians loved Switzerland. Perhaps this was because of all the Yash Chopra movies shot there. For whatever reason, the Swiss town of Interlaken, once a favourite of European visitors, has now turned into Bollywood-on-the-Alps and is packed out with restaurants that serve vegetarian Indian food.
Indian tourists still go to Switzerland but I suspect that Interlaken’s moment has passed. For one thing, most people who want to go there have already been. And for another, Switzerland is one of the world’s most expensive destinations. It is a long way to go and you need to spend a hell of a lot of money just to see a few snow-covered mountains.
So Indians have looked for fresh destinations. And the newly emerging destinations of Eastern Europe have emerged as the obvious alternatives to Lucerne, Geneva and Interlaken. They seem totally European and yet, most of them are one half of the price of Switzerland or Austria. So visitors to say, Vienna (hideously expensive), will only spend a day there before going on to Prague (much cheaper) and then perhaps to Budapest (even cheaper than Prague!). That way, tourists can feel they have done Europe without having to pay Western European prices.
Hence, the sudden affection for Croatia among people who have never heard of the Lannisters and the sudden rise in interest in such cities as Prague. And the newfound affection for Budapest, which, I suspect, may well be the next big thing.
Budapest gets fewer Indian tourists than other Eastern European destinations but this will change over the next few years as prices rise in the already overcrowded Croatian market.
For people of my generation, however, it is hard to think of Eastern Europe outside of the context of the Warsaw Pact. After the Second World War, nearly all of Eastern Europe fell under the Soviet sphere of influence (defined by the Warsaw Pact) and new countries (like Yugoslavia) were created, with the encouragement of Moscow. While Western Europe prospered, the Soviet bloc countries of Eastern Europe became grey, boring places run by repressive regimes who mostly drew their authority from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
From 1945 to about the start of this century, the only people who bothered to visit Eastern Europe were tourists from other Soviet bloc countries.
After the collapse of the Soviet bloc, Yugoslavia turned into a war zone and broke up and the other countries also faced crises of their own. So there really was no point in visiting any of them.
But the terrible oppression of the Communist era and the chaos that followed blinded many of us in India to the pre World War II history of Eastern Europe. Till the Russians arrived and broke the souls of their populations, these countries were not very different from their counterparts in Western Europe. Prague may not be as beautiful as Vienna but the architecture is not very different.
As for Budapest, it was once part of the great Austro-Hungarian empire and was renowned for its beauty. The stunning Danube river that separates the city’s two parts, Buda and Pest, and some spectacular buildings are justly famous.
The Soviets could not destroy the architecture but they committed various acts of vandalism, including placing a Communist star on top of the old parliament building so that it became the tallest building in the city (if you included the height of the star!). They also disfigured lovely, stately parts of old Budapest with enormous statues of murderous despots like Joseph Stalin.
When I went to Budapest a few months ago, I was reminded of how different history could have been. The Hungarians, proud people that they are, have suffered under a succession of foreign rulers. They were part of the (Turkish) Ottoman empire. Then they suffered Teutonic imperialism as the Austrian empire took over. During the Second World War, the Nazis arrived. And after 1945, the Soviet took charge.
But there was one moment when history could have been changed. In 1956, Hungary revolted. The Hungarians believed (as they had been assured by the CIA) that if there was a chance of breaking the Warsaw Pact, then America would help them. But Washington did nothing (perhaps because it had a deal with Moscow over Suez) and the Soviets sent their armies in to crush the uprising with great brutality. To this day, there are buildings in Budapest that bear the scars of the Soviet shelling in 1956 and many structures still have bullet marks dating from that period.
Just as the stately buildings in Budapest remind you of the city’s imperial past, you can’t miss the imprint of more recent history in nearly every area. Take the hotel I stayed at. It was opened in 1896 as the Grand Hotel Royal and was the city’s top hotel with its own auditorium (which later became a cinema), 350 guest rooms and a spa. Till the Second World War, it was one of Europe’s grand old hotels.
Then, the Nazis took over Budapest and the Grand Hotel Royal became the headquarters of the Gestapo. Any hope that it would return to its former glory once the Germans were defeated ended when the Soviets replaced the Nazis and ran the hotel as a state enterprise.
Despite the Soviet control, the hotel became one of the bases for the 1956 Uprising and the leaders of the rebellion operated from there. When the Soviet army arrived to crush the rebellion its tanks targeted the hotel and destroyed much of the original structure.
The hotel remained a burnt-out shell for five years till the Communist regime decided it needed a great hotel for state guests. The Grand Hotel was revived and enjoyed a fleeting moment of fame before succumbing to public sectoritis again. And as communism fell in 1991, the hotel shut its doors, its history and its grand traditions forgotten.
It was revived in this century by the Maltese Corinthia group (it is now called The Corinthia Budapest), which spent millions of dollars rebuilding it. I stayed there and was impressed by how well it was run. But it also seemed to me to be a metaphor for Hungary and Budapest – years of glamour, followed by destruction by the Nazis, the Soviets and other oppressors. And then finally, a glorious revival.
The rest of Budapest has not been revived as successfully as the Grand Hotel Royal. Wages are low in Hungary and so there is not that much money to go around. Nevertheless, there are fancy bars, boutique hotels, Michelin-star restaurants and designer shops. From an Indian tourist point of view, all this makes Budapest an attractive destination because it has many of the charms of Western European cities at half the price.
Eventually, I suspect, fewer and fewer Indians will splash out on the great Western European destinations (except perhaps, London). Such cities as Paris are now absurdly expensive and, because of the language barrier, not particularly attractive to Indian tourists. Eastern Europe with its Western European buildings and Indian-friendly prices (hotels in Budapest are cheaper than hotels in most Indian cities) will seem more and more alluring. Already, Hindi film producers have begun using Hungarian locations. At first, producers passed the bridges over the Danube off as the Parisian bridges on the Seine. But now, they are happy to set their stories in Eastern Europe.
And as the Swiss will tell you, it’s not Game of Thrones that decides where Indians go. It is always Bollywood that gives the lead. And Bollywood has discovered Hungary.
From HT Brunch, February 11, 2018
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