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Poland: heritage that appeals to visitors and hotel operators

Poland spent a long time off the beaten path of European grand tours, but today it is attracting more and more international visitors. The biggest and most populated member of the European Union in Central and Eastern Europe, it is a veritable crossroads of people and civilizations on the continent, testifying at once to the refinement of its heritage and its tumultuous past.

The year 2016 is already proving to be particularly rich for tourism in Poland. On January 15, the city of Wrocław officially opened as European Capital of Culture, and is sharing this title with San Sebastian in Spain. More than a hundred cultural and artistic events were scheduled on that weekend in the Lower Silesian Region (southwest) to inaugurate this exciting year when visitors should abound on their quest to discover the country's remarkable multi-faceted heritage.

But Poland is already in the spotlight for another reason: from January 15 to 31, the country is hosting the European Men's Handball Championship for the first time, co-organizing the event with Krakow, Gdansk, Katowice and Wroclaw, which decidedly holds the place of honor at this beginning of the year. In a whole other level, World Youth Day will take place in Krakow at the end of July. "WYD" was created in 1984 by Pope John Paul II, a native of the region where he was was archbishop for 14 years before being elected pope. Undoubtedly, the event, which drew several million participants in recent years, should be a great success. The WYD events held in Częstochowa in 1991 drew 1.6 million pilgrims who wanted to see the country's son and admire the "Czarna Madonna".

Poland's appeal to visitors has grown in recent years, particularly after it hosted the UEFA Euro in 2012, which was co-organized with Ukraine. Tourist arrivals in the country have followed a steady uptrend since this event, accompanying ambitious investments in terms of infrastructures, lodgings, and the promotion of tourism assets throughout its Voivodships (administrative regions). The number of international arrivals is up by close to 20% between 2011 and 2014, to reach the benchmark figure of 16 million visitors. While we may observe a slump in growth since 2013, the current development suggests new growth in 2015, particularly since the country has a bigger and bigger following from outside its traditional source markets. Poland has earned a place for itself as an important destination on Europe's tourism map, and the traditional favorites of Central Europe -Budapest and Prague- have just been joined by the cobbled streets of Krakow, a city with character and exceptional heritage and certain tourist assets, and also lively terraces in Warsaw, the dynamic capital that keeps reinventing itself.

Poland's tourism industry has long distinguished itself with the preeminence of strategic source markets, which account for a significant share of international visitors. The case of Germany is the most evident: in 2014, tourists from the Federal Republic of Germany accounted for close to 36% of all foreign tourists in the country, with 5.7 million visitors. This dynamic is all the more significant since there is an uptrend: in 200 they were "only" 4.6 million. They travel in particularly high numbers to major cities in the west and north of the county (Gdansk, Gdynia and Szczecin), but also to beach resorts on the shores of the Baltic Sea. Poland is also remarkable for the high volume of arrivals from neighboring countries that are not members of the European Union. In 2014, the country welcomed more than one million Ukrainians and Russians, but also 811,000 Belorussians. Its tourism, which suffered in 2015, would thus benefit from potential relax of geopolitical opposition of the European Union and Russia.

Polish tourism is nonetheless no stranger to visitors from more traditional markets. In 2014, Poland welcomed many travelers from Great Britain (1.1 million), the United States (645,000), France (515,000). The country may also count on the dynamism of its diaspora (or "Polonia"), which is one of the biggest in the world. But the riches that Poland offers tourism is intriguing to tourists from heretofore less receptive tourist source markets: according to figures from the central statistics bureau, a record figure of 160,000 Chinese tourists traveled to Poland in 2014. Between January and August 2015, arrivals from the Middle Empire were already up 22%, suggesting renewed, very positive performance. As Chinese visitors, together with Americans, are the country's biggest spenders, Poland has launched an ambitious campaign to convince these new tourists. Backed by the EU, the Polish Tourist Organization invested 50 million zlotys in its tourist programs, specifically targeting Asian clientele.

Poland's tourism map illustrates the distribution of its major cities, which attract both leisure tourists who are curious to visit their historic centers and famous "rynek" (market places mostly dating from the Middle Ages) and also growing numbers of business travelers who visit this country with its dynamic economy. The shoreline and border regions also attract a particularly high volume of visitors, as do the voivodships located along the Carpathian mountain chain, and the sub-region of High Tatras in particular. In the country, 20% of powiats (counties: the subdivision of the local territory between voivodships  (regions) and municipalities) account for almost 81% of nights: nearly all shoreline powiats are concerned. Warsaw and Krakow continue, however,  to be the favorite destinations of international tourists. Near Katowice in the south of the country, the disturbing site of Auschwitz-Birkenau is one of the leading memory tourism destinations in Europe – the site drew 1.4 million visitors in 2014.

In the Northeast, some of nature's wonders attract lovers of the outdoors. In the province of Varmia-Mazury, the Lake District offers an impressive palette of colors and open wide open spaces. The region also attracts boaters with its many waterways and lakes for sailing and yachting. Further east, in Podlachie, the forest of Białowieża is one of nature's masterpieces, and remains relatively unknown outside the country. It is the oldest primary forest in Europe that has been historically preserved from all significant human presence. Listed on the UNESCO world heritage sites, Białowieża is one of the last places where European bison may be observed in liberty.  More generally, Poland is currently working to develop this tourism that is off the beaten track and respectful of the environment; the country currently has five sites that have the European Destinations of Excellence (EDEN) label, a project begun in 2006 by the European Commission.

Poland also benefits from business tourism that is growing. According to the Poland Convention Bureau that has registered 18,000 events throughout the country, in 2014 these events attracted 4 million participants, including 1.3 million speakers and 1.9 million visitors to fairs in the country. Aside from the capital, the most attractive city in the country for MICE tourism was Gdansk (4,422 events), followed by Krakow (3,413) and Poznan (1,986). As far as these far-reaching events are concerned, Warsaw was ranked 39th worldwide by the International Congress and Convention Association in its 2014 report; the country came in 21st in the ranking by State (23rd in the ranking of the Union of International Associations). The country benefits from its location in the center of Europe and from its many cities with an international reach. Supported by the development of infrastructures, the dynamism of the sector is profitable to tourism and hotel professionals: the Poland Convention Bureau estimates that 11,785 events have been held in hotels, or 65% of the total number of events.

The Polish hotel industry is one of the most dynamic on the continent: the country posted growth in its supply by 5.7% in 2014, the second strongest increase after Malta, a much smaller market. The previous year Poland's hotel supply grew by 5.4%, while the organization of the UEFA European football championship had already strengthened the supply. In the decade 2005-2015, the hotel supply made a 66.3% breakthrough resulting in average annual growth by 5.2%. These results were all the  more impressive since the outlook remains positive for the years to come. The occupancy rate in Poland has been growing for seven years, increasing by 4.9 points across the year 2015 to reach 68.6%; it had already increased by 2.1 points in 2014, a sign that growth in the supply over the last two years was not to the detriment of occupancy at hotels in the country. According to the Central Statistics Bureau, Polish tourist accommodations in 2014 totaled close to 66.6 million nights, of which 35.7 million were at hotels.

With a 26.9% penetration rate for corporate chains, Poland attracted many international operators. With 28,431 rooms on January 1, 2015, the country is by far the leading market for chains in Central and Eastern  Europe. Accor, the European leader, represents close to 40.1% of the supply in the country (11,396 rooms). Satoria Group (ex-Puhit) with 3,148 rooms follows the French group, while the operators Louvre Hotels Group (1,902 rooms), Carlson Rezidor (1,823 rooms) and Best Western (1,813 rooms) rival with one another. The chain supply is concentrated on the upper hotel segments: the midscale represents 43.4% of rooms, while 35.2% of its properties' supply correspond to the upscale category. It should be observed that the portfolio of chain operators progressed less quickly (+3.2% in 2015 compared to 2014) than the hotel industry overall.

Several major hotel chains continue to invest in Poland. Last summer, Marriott International announced the opening of the Courtyard Gdynia Waterfront, a 200-room waterfront property at the Pomeranian port. The operator should also open an AC Hotel in the country in 2016. Carlson Rezidor, meanwhile, plans develop its brand Radisson Blu in Poland with two new properties scheduled for the end of 2016. The Radisson Blu Resort at the beach destination Świnoujście, on the shores of the Baltic Sea, will thus have 340 rooms. The Radisson Blu Hotel & Residences Zakopane (158 rooms and 687 apartments) will complete its supply in Zakopane, Poland's winter sports capital. Finally, Holiday Inn's first property in Poland should open in Warsaw in 2018 with 254 rooms just 500 meters away in the Palace of Culture and Science.

While Poland's economy continues to post growth that is significantly higher than European average (3.9% per year between 2004 and 2014, and 3.4% in 2014), investors would be wrong to ignore this strategic market. The country confirmed its position as the biggest economy in Central and Eastern Europe, and in recent years occupies a growing position on the international scene, as the Ukrainian crisis demonstrated.

Paradoxically, the current situation is giving rise to caution on behalf of investors. Following the parliamentary elections in October 2015 and the rise to power of the right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS), led by Jarosław Kaczyński, certain polemic new institutional reforms have alarmed part of the public opinion, leading many Polish nationals to protest in the capital. Following reforms undertaken at the the Constitutional Court and public media, which could drastically reduce their neutrality, the European Commission has even begun an effort to "safeguard the rule of law", a new mechanism implemented in March 2014 following the errant ways of populist Viktor Orban in Hungary. It remains to be seen if Poland's economy and tourism will suffer from the deviations of the current majority, as was the case in the country of the Magyars. 

Prime minister Beata Szydlo has, in any case, defended these institutional reforms to the European Parliament during a plenary session in Strasbourg last January 19, making it impossible to understand anything about a possible redirection by elected officials of the PiS. A few days earlier, the agency Standard & Poor's had decided to lower Poland's sovereign rating a notch from A- to BBB+), while pairing this sanction with a negative perspective due to the measures announced by the new government, estimating that they are detrimental "to the independence and efficiency of essential institutions." As for whether or not tourists and economic players will also sanction the country in 2016, uncertainty remains; but it could be observed that in recent years in Greece internal political vagaries do not necessarily slow the arrival of international tourists. Particularly since Poland has a busy events calendar and solid structural growth, which nonetheless also results in steady growth in supply. Within this context where very different dynamics are in place, the future evolution of the Polish hotel market will only be all the more interesting to follow.

Also read:

  • Poland: Wroclaw creates a place for itself under the spotlights of international tourism
  • Carlson Rezidor announces 2 new hotels in Poland
  • Courtyard by Marriott opens hotels in Poland and The Netherlands
  • Carlson Rezidor prévoit deux nouveaux hôtels en Pologne

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