Russian tourists help Hungary spa town flourish amid crisis

Tue Apr 30, 2013 10:03am EDT
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By Krisztina Than

HEVIZ, Hungary (Reuters) - A former Soviet military airport in western Hungary where MIG fighter jets landed for decades when Hungary was under Soviet rule is now receiving a different type of Russian visitor - tourists arriving in charter flights.

Locals have welcomed the new Russian "invasion" of tourists who fly into Sarmellek to head to the spa town Heviz, saying they have brought money, new jobs, and even boosted the moribund real estate market during a deep, economic downturn.

While some former eastern bloc countries still resent the former overlord of ex-communist eastern Europe, residents of Heviz say the ill feelings towards Russia are long gone.

"How could we have a problem? We welcome all foreigners ... I once learned Russian but unfortunately I have forgotten most of it," said Eva Virt, who works in a clothes shop in the town.

Alongside regular flights from Germany, every Sunday two charter flights come from Moscow to Sarmellek where the derelict Soviet air base has been converted into a small commercial airport.

The huge concrete buildings that once housed Soviet troops are empty and overgrown with weeds, with only a few Russian school books scattered in the former school reminiscent of a past era. Russian troops left Hungary in 1991.

Tourist Lyudmilla Ilyina, who used to live in Hungary under the communist regime, said she had come to try the lake in Heviz, Europe's largest thermal lake whose waters are known for healing powers and attract German, Dutch and Austrian tourists.

"A long time ago, in my youth, I lived in Hungary for three years and it is very nice to fly back to see what's changed," she said after stepping off the plane.   Continued...

A woman enjoys the sun at the thermal water spa in Hungarian town of Heviz, 194 km (120 miles) west of Budapest, April 20, 2013. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo