Poland On the Verge
By James Ruggia
October 02, 2012 11:45 PM
How is it that with nine million ethnic Poles living in the U.S., American travelers know so little about Poland as a destination? Surely they are about to discover this country in a big way. It’s a great time for it. The Poles are relishing total independence for the first time in their history. Without a war or a tyrant in sight, they are eager to ride their surprisingly strong economy, educated populace and technical sophistication into this new century. Maybe more than any other European country, Poland sees more glory in the future than in the past.
Jan Rudomina, director of the Polish Tourist Office, located in Hoboken, N.J., believes that Polish Americans make up about half of the 300,000 Americans who visited Poland last year. The best year for U.S. travel to Poland was 2007 when 360,000 Americans visited, but those numbers tumbled in 2008 with the banking collapse. Since 2008 the curve has been trending upward at a gradual, but steady pace.
“We have a lot to offer American tourists, with a rich culture that expresses itself in architecture, performing arts and food,” says Rudomina. “Our cities, especially Krakow and Warsaw, are extremely popular with visiting Americans, but there are also interesting things to see and do on the Baltic Sea Coast, the Tatras Mountains and many other places.”
Poland sees joint tourism marketing with its neighbors as one way to stimulate the U.S. market. The Oder Partnership joins Visit Berlin and the Polish Tourist Office in marketing Polish and German destinations straddling the border between Germany and Poland. The Polish border is a short drive from Berlin and German states such as Mecklenburg Vorpommern and Saxony combine nicely with Polish regions like West Pomerania, Lubusz Land and Lower Silesia as potential excursions from Berlin. When the new Berlin Brandenburg Airport opens next October it could give a real push to tourism in Western Poland. Poland, along with the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia, also participates in the European Quartet marketing effort to train travel agents through Travel Agent Academy.
Poland’s cities also a vibrant centers of culture and history. For example, arts are sprouting up everywhere in Krakow. Though the city’s cafes and galleries seem especially vital right now, Krakow has been a center of science and culture as far back as 1364 when it opened Jagiellonian University. The mothership of art in Krakow is the National Museum, which is located in the medieval Cloth Hall that centers the Old Town’s Main Square.
Visitors can find the factory that once belonged to Oscar Schindler, who rescued thousands of Jews from the Nazis. His factory is now a museum that tells the story of Krakow under the Nazis. For those that can stomach it, Auschwitz is about a 90-minute drive from the city. The nearby Wieliczka Salt Mine offers a labyrinth of tunnels and mine shafts that go several hundred feet beneath the earth. Among the many chambers below the surface are chapels, a restaurant and a spa.
Krakow is often compared to Prague, thanks mainly to the Main Square and the healthy nightlife all around the square. “Krakow isn’t a political capital like Prague, so it’s much more laid back,” Rudomina says. “Krakow is a city for artists and musicians, not government people.”
The difference between Krakow and Warsaw is less rooted in Warsaw’s status as Poland’s capital than in the fact that Warsaw was 90 percent leveled during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. That uprising also cost the lives of 200,000 Poles who were annihilated by a Nazi army that was soon to surrender to the Russians. The Red Army could easily have stopped the massacre, but watched and did nothing instead. As one Pole explained it to me, “Stalin knew he was going to kill us anyway, so why not let the Nazis use their bullets.”
What’s left of the original Warsaw can only be found at the Belvedere Palace and the former Royal Gardens. Ironically, the occupying German SS troops liked this part of town so much that it was spared for their benefit. Though the buildings were largely obliterated, Warsaw’s Old Town was rebuilt and so visitors can get some idea of what it was like before. The past makes itself felt in statues of Chopin and Copernicus. The city also is famed as the home of such giants as Madame Curie, Josef Conrad and Pope John Paul II.
Nowadays Poland also is an even easier and more comfortable destination to visit. On Sept. 1, LOT Polish Airlines move into JFK’s Terminal 1. The airline will transfer all of its Newark flights to JFK airport beginning Oct. 29. The move allows LOT, a Star Alliance member, to provide a more consistent and attractive schedule for passengers traveling from New York and for those traveling from more than 80 cities within the U.S who are connecting to LOT flights from its U.S. partners. LOT offers direct service from JFK and Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. On the hotel front, Radisson and Hilton now have new properties in both Warsaw and Krakow. So come to Poland, but get here before the crowds!
James Ruggia is executive editor covering Europe and Pacific Asia for TravelPulse.com.