Eastern Europe may not be in UAE airlines' sights just yet - but that doesn't mean that travel agents can't capitalise on abundant city break, rural retreat and tailor-made opportunities, writes Dominic Ellis.
When anyone tries to define ‘Eastern Europe', it's a bit like pinpointing ‘MENA' or ‘Subcontinent', since there's rarely any consensus where it starts or ends. Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Romania would be on most people's lists, with Slovakia sandwiched between them, but then it starts to get interesting.
If you skate south through Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Slovenia and Albania, you've almost got one foot in Africa.
Then there's Turkey, a country sucked into ‘Middle East' time and again, but curiously, rarely qualifies as Eastern Europe - although doubtless it will, if EU accession talks prove successful.
Gaze further east, and we find vast Ukraine, smaller Moldovia and emerging Belarus, countries, which historically were not in the picture, but now, following political and cultural changes, lean more towards Europe than Russia.
So it's geographically confusing for starters, which doesn't help agents and operators. The Middle Eastern travel trade is at an additional disadvantage, given the paucity of direct flights, a strange anomaly given the region's vast size and abundance of outbound flights to just about every other European country.
The one exception is Ukraine, which is now definitely on the radar with Ukraine International Airlines reintroducing Dubai-Kiev services and Air Arabia starting services from Sharjah in October.
It's a shame there are not more. With cities steeped in history, stunning scenery and abundance of activities and attractions on offer, coupled with relatively short flight times from the GCC, we're all missing out.
John Flower, product manager at Alpha Holidays Dubai, says Eastern Europe accounts for only a small amount of its total business (3-4%), which he attributes to the lack of direct flights.
"With airlines like Czech Airlines pulling out of Dubai, that just makes the problem worse, but also makes me wonder if there is a plan that Emirates or Etihad will start on these routes," he says.
The potential for travel in Eastern European is massive, he believes. The destination is already a big hit in established markets such as Australia, Europe and the Americas - and that's another reason for optimism, he says, since the Middle East tends to follow trends from these areas.
Flower says city breaks could be promoted to begin with, followed by country retreats as the market becomes established.
"The advice I would offer is to start suggesting it to clients now. We offer a basic Eastern European experience with rail holidays incorporating Hungary and Czech as well as Croatia as a separate package and we plan to develop others in future. The more people talking about it will make the airlines and travellers sit up and listen," he stresses.
He believes Eastern Europe's trump card is that it is still great value for money and as more countries join the EU and take on the Euro, the more expensive and more commercial it will become - obviously with that comes a premium on the price.
"This is a ripe peach in my view - someone just has to pick it," Flower says.
Neither Emirates nor Etihad have sunk their teeth into it yet and Dnata Holidays doesn't feature anything in Eastern Europe. Emirates does serve Russia - a totally different market - and Etihad has tested the water following the launch of the airline's two-a-week services (Tuesdays and Thursdays) between Abu Dhabi and the Belarus capital Minsk in August.
"The airlines aren't silly, there has to be something in it for them commercially, and without decent feeder traffic it will be a difficult call," adds Flower.
"I think that if Emirates or Etihad wanted to test a route, they could incorporate it as a loop service with an established route, provided they have the freedom rights and test it. I think they would be pleasantly surprised."
Wajahat Kazi, sales and station manager for Ukraine International Airlines in Dubai, says: "I think once Emirates has more of its A380s, then they may use our route as feeders for the double-decker aircraft." The Ukraine
Ukraine International Airlines is set to reintroduce its Dubai-Kiev service from October 10 and aims to operate a four times weekly service using a Boeing 737 aircraft from November.
The airline's sales and station manager, Wajahat Kazi, says: "Once October starts, we have a lot of groups from Kiev and most of our flights are full. We have been doing bulk sales to tour operators."
Standard return economy fares are priced around AED 1460 ($397) plus taxes and to promote the route, the airline is planning all-inclusive three-night/four-day packages priced from AED 5000 ($1361) per person based on twin sharing and accommodation.
"Kiev has great nightlife so it's more popular with bachelors than families - having said that, we had a lot of families from Kuwait this year, explains Kazi.
"There are many people going for medicals because Odessa has good eye treatments."
He says the best time of year to visit is between March and November, because during the winter, the temperatures plummet into the minuses.
"But for people living in the desert, even winter is an attraction as people can come for a few days to experience the cold," he adds. Minsk, Belarus
A current Etihad Holidays promotion offers a variety of holiday packages to Minsk with prices starting from AED 2280 (US $620) per person for return flights plus five nights' accommodation in any of four top hotels and return economy flights. The flight time to Minsk is five-and-a half hours, meaning it falls into short-break territory for Middle Eastern travellers.
Tony Gauci, head of Etihad Holidays, says: "During the past 10 years Belarus has established itself as a firm favourite for independent travellers from across the world and therefore we are thrilled to give UAE residents a chance to experience the cultural and scenic delights of this famous capital city."
Culture vultures can explore the picturesque Minsk suburb of Troitsky, which is located on the banks of the Svisloch River.
Recently rebuilt, Troitsky, one of Minsk's most popular districts, gives visitors a glimpse of 19th century Belarus.
The four-star Hotel Victoria is featured (from AED 2280/$620), overlooking the Svisloch River and surrounding parkland with views of Troitsky, as is the four-star Hotel Minsk (from AED 2435/$663), located near the capital's business centre and next to Independence Square and the Red Cathedral.
Top of the bill include the new five-star Crowne Plaza - in the heart of downtown, within walking distance of the main shopping, cultural and sight-seeing attractions - with five nights and return economy flights costing from AED 3835 ($1044), and five-star Hotel Europe (from AED 5400/$1470), which is also centrally located and overlooks the Town Hall, and features a 17-metre tall mosaic beside the lobby's marble staircase.
Belarus also offers visitors a variety of sight-seeing activities including museums, galleries and a world-class ballet and opera. The famed Philharmonic Orchestra performs several shows a day at the Minsk Musical Theatre and tickets are available at box offices all over the city centre.
All visitors to Belarus require a tourist visa. Normal visa processing takes five working days. Express visa processing is possible for an additional fee. The Belarus Embassy in Abu Dhabi can be contacted on +971 2 445 3399 between 11-1pm, Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays or email email@example.com. Prague
How to sell to
Charles Bridge links the two halves of the city. It is one of its most recognisable and popular monuments in the area.
The bridge is always busy - during the day, little stalls are set up selling souvenirs. At night, musicians replace the stalls. From the bridge you get excellent views up and down the River Vltava and at night, you get a wonderful view of the illuminated castle on the hill above. The bridge is totally pedestrianised, as trams and buses take other routes across the river.
River Cruises are a popular alternative to exploring Prague on foot. Many cruises include lunch or dinner and an onboard tour guide gives a running commentary. The cruises are reasonably priced and are an enjoyable and relaxing way to see the city.
The Cow Parade takes place in a number of cities around the world including Prague. Brightly painted life-sized cows can be found dotted around many street corners in the city centre. Many companies sponsor the cows and decorate them with company logos or images. The best decorated cow is awarded with a prize!
Prague Castle is situated on the top of a hill overlooking the city and is worth visiting if only for the views. Many areas of the castle can be visited for free and you only pay for certain areas if they appeal to you. The Castle is located in the Hradcany district of Prague. There are lots of old buildings in this area and for those interested in the historical aspects of Prague it's a must see.
The Old Town is definitely worth a visit with lots of souvenir shops and attractive venues; it's a real tourist-magnet in summer.
Wenceslas Square is similar in appearance to La Rambla in Barcelona. There are a number of bars and shops on both sides of the boulevard and it's also a good place to sit and people watch.
There are many high street shops with familiar names such as C&A and Levi's. It takes about 20 minutes to walk from Wenceslas Square to Charles Bridge or the metro takes about five minutes.
Transport in and around the city is very cheap if travelling by metro or tram. Tickets cost approx 44 US cents per person. Travelling by taxi can be a lot more expensive with a 15 minute journey costing anywhere between $9 and $27.
Eating Out is relatively cheap. A main course (eg. chicken and chips) can be purchased for approximately $4.50. Many places offer local cuisine but there are a number of Mexican, Chinese and Indian restaurants too.
Clubs and casinos can be found all over Prague. There are the more expensive nightclubs close to Charles Bridge that are occupied by tourists. Music in the clubs is varied and includes up-to-date chart, techno and house music. There are also a number of casinos, many close to Wenceslas Square and the River Vltava.
The Four Seasons Hotel Prague started remodelling all 161 rooms and public areas last year as part of a two-year project designed to emphasise its Classical European style. Its Allegro restaurant was awarded one Michelin star in March. The hotel is close to Charles Bridge, Old Town Square and the main cultural attractions.
The Augustine Hotel: The Rocco Forte Collection is set to make its entry into Prague with the 101-room The Augustine Hotel later this year. It's located in Mala Strana, the historic diplomatic zone of the city and will combine six old convent buildings dating back to 1265.
The property is close to Prague Castle - a popular tourist attraction - and will incorporate St Thomas Monastery where friars still reside. The rooms will provide views over Prague as well as a number of courtyards and garden squares. Croatia
Sample itinerary:Alpha Tours' seven-night Grand Tour of Croatia
Day 1: Dinner and overnight in Dubrovnik
Day 2: Dubrovnik-Mostar-Sarajevo
Morning departure to Mostar, city of bridges. After a Mostar city tour departure to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. On arrival enjoy a tour of Sarajevo.
Day 3: Sarajevo-Osijek
Morning departure to Osijek for a city tour including the cathedral and the Tvrdja (Old Fort). Dinner and overnight in Osijek.
Day 4: Osijek-Zagreb
Morning departure to Djakovo. Tour of the cathedral followed by departure to Zagreb. Upon arrival sightseeing tour of the Croatian capital city, Zabreb. Dinner and overnight in Zagreb.
Day 5: Zagreb-Plitvice-Zadar
Morning departure for Plitvice National Park, inscribed on the List of World Heritage Sites by UNESCO. Departure to Zadar. Dinner and overnight in Zadar.
Day 6: Zadar-Split
After breakfast, an orientation tour of Zadar (without entrances to the museums) including the 2nd Century Roman Forum. Departure to Split. Upon arrival, city tour of Split. Dinner and overnight in Split area.
Day 7: Split-Dubrovnik
Morning departure for Dubrovnik. Upon arrival, city tour of Dubrovnik. Dinner and overnight in Dubrovnik.
Day 8: Dubrovnik-departure
Priced from AED 4265 ($1161) per person.
• Air-conditioned vehicle at group's disposal as per itinerary. • Driver's license, board, lodgings and all travel expenses. • Experienced English-speaking escort throughout the trip as per itinerary. • Sightseeing tours of all cities visited: Mostar, Sarajevo, Osijek, Djakovo, Zagreb, Zadar, Split and Dubrovnik. • Hotel accommodation on a half-board basis (breakfast and dinner) as per itinerary (three-star hotels).• Guide's expenses, board and lodgings. • Entrance fees for National Park Plitvice Lakes and for Dubrovnik and Split museums. • Not Included: tips, drinks, telephone charges and incidentals.For all the latest travel news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.
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