"Madama Butterfly" at the Vienna State Opera too pricey? Avid operaphiles might want to head to Ukraine for a just-as-magical yet much cheaper experience at the Odessa Opera and Ballet Theater. But act fast, as you soon might not be able to reserve a seat at this Eastern European hot spot.
That's because travel to the region is brisk. The recent strength of the euro and a number of countries easing visa requirements have more tourists trekking east in search of architecturally, historically and culturally significant sights that for years had been practically overlooked.
"People go where their currency is strong," says Julia Glozman, manager at New York-based Complete Travel and Visa Center, a visa-passport agency specializing in luxury travel to countries of the former U.S.S.R. Ticket and visa sales to Eastern Europe, she says, have soared in the last five years.
"Since the euro was introduced," Glozman says, "individuals began seeking new historic places to travel to, and thus the gates were opened to Eastern Europe, with budget-minded tourists flocking to see Baroque influences in countries like the Ukraine and the Czech Republic, and the grandeur of Italy's Renaissance in Bulgaria. And then, word-of-mouth spread like wildfire."
Russia—specifically St. Petersburg—recently became her clients' most desirable destination because of its expanding number of relatively inexpensive luxury accommodations and its architectural similarities to France.
The Peterhof Reserve, for example, just 29 kilometers (18 miles) outside of St. Petersburg, is often compared to the Versailles Palace for its extravagant palaces, gold fountains and striking, 18th-century landscaped gardens.
Nebet Tepe, known as one of the best places in Bulgaria for sightseeing, is another landmark gaining tourist attention. Part of a three-hill range, Nebet towers 203 meters (666 feet) above sea level and offers its visitors a stunning panorama of the Balkan Mountains, the Bulgarian Renaissance-style architecture of Old Town Plovdiv, and multiple ancient ruins dating back to the third century B.C.
Increased travel to Russia and Bulgaria has affected their gross domestic products. In fact, last year Bulgaria, Latvia, Romania, Croatia and the Czech Republic experienced the highest growth in tourism, according to Clement Wong, travel and tourism manager for Euromonitor International, a global market research firm. In 2007, Latvia's GDP exploded by 10.3 percent, Bulgaria's by 6.1 percent, Romania's by 5.9 percent, the Czech Republic's by 5.7 percent and Croatia's by 5.6 percent, according to the "CIA World Factbook".
Those numbers are expected to grow. That's because experiencing Eastern European landmarks recently became much easier for individuals requiring a visa to enter Europe. In December, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Slovakia, Slovenia and Poland signed the Schengen Agreement, which enables individuals to use one visa when traveling to participating countries.
"There will be more people from India and China traveling to Eastern Europe over the next five years," predicts Wong. “The expansion of the Schengen Agreement [will allow] them to travel throughout Europe without the hassles of having additional visas. Also, it's more cost-efficient to travel to Eastern Europe than to Western Europe.”