Responsible tourism in Hungary

Hungary hit record-breaking numbers of visitors in 2018, up by 5 percent on 2017. It’s not an anomaly, either; it’s a trend. And it’s not necessarily the numbers that ring alarm bells. It’s the fact that those 12.5 million guests are largely aiming for just a few places: Budapest, Lake Balaton and the Danube.

So what – are we telling you that you shouldn’t go? Not at all. Just tread thoughtfully. Even better, use a tour operator that knows Hungary’s best and worst bits. They’ll tweak your trip so that Hungarians, wildlife and the environment benefit from your trip – and you benefit from avoiding the characterless cacophony of mass tourism. Read on to find out how to be a responsible tourist in Hungary.

People & culture

Overtourism

Let’s start with overtourism – a well-publicised force to be reckoned with that’s pummelled European capitals like Venice and Barcelona. And according to a report by the European Parliament’s Committee on Transport and Tourism (TRAN), it’s coming for Budapest. But despite its ability batter away at the lives of everyday Hungarians, overtourism is one of the easiest problems for you to help solve. It’s where your individual holiday choices really do make a difference.
Overtourism in Hungary is caused by large groups of visitors concentrating on too few places. It’s caused by the travellers who want a tick a place off their list without considering the quality of their own – or of their fellow Hungarians’ – experience. It’s the coach trips that dump people in their scores at certain points in Hungary: Castle Hill; the Danube River; Lake Balaton. It’s when Airbnbs start replacing residential homes, driving up house prices and forcing locals out. It’s when there are so many tourist boats navigating the Danube at night, that congestion – and recently, fatal crashes – occur. But these are all avoidable.
William Counsell from UTracks, cycling specialists at our partner World Expeditions Travel, says: “Budapest claims the bulk of tourism in Hungary. As responsible travellers, it’s important to get beyond this main hub to spread our tourist dollars across lesser seen regions. Ultimately, this is beneficial for travellers because experiencing the genuine countryside and local hospitality creates better travel memories. Cycling the route towards Budapest allows you to immerse yourself in the beautiful countryside and to experience genuine Hungarian culture away from the capital.”
Emma Nelson, from our small group adventure specialists Tucan Travel, agrees: “Budapest gets a lot of coach tours. When you’re there on a small group tour or travelling solo, you can avoid the times when those coach tours arrive (because they never arrive at 6am; they’re always later in the day). You’re going to see the city without all the crowds of people – it’s much better.

“I think the right tour guide can make the experience too. They can say to you, ‘Look, I know this is what Google promotes, but it’s actually overpriced and really touristy now, so it’s not worth it. This is where you should go instead.’ All the guides I’ve met have done it because they love it and they’re passionate about it. For a lot of our guides, it gives them a new passion for the city and it also gives them a new challenge to find different places. For example, we’re now seeing more gluten free and vegan travellers. And if you’re not vegan, you might have never looked up where to eat vegan in Budapest, even if you’ve lived there your whole life.”

What you can do:
Help put the brakes on overtourism: time your trip outside high season, avoiding July, August and Christmas. Instead of coach crowds and congested waters steaming in 30°C temps, you’ll be treated to blossoming boulevards in spring and bright coppery forests in autumn…and several million fewer people. Travel with a responsible tour operator that’ll pick out welcoming independent guesthouses and small hotels. Instead of buffet breakfasts, it’ll be soft poppyseed bread, túró cheese and paprika-studded salami, or scrambled egg with Mangalitsa bacon. Your money will go to Hungarians instead of hotel brands with HQs on the other side of the planet.

History, politics & borders

The best holidays to Hungary open your eyes to the lives of everyday Hungarians living under the loud, populist politics of Prime Minister Viktor Orban. In case you weren’t familiar with his charms, that’s the Viktor Orban of the Fidesz party that shouts about “procreation, not immigration” and “the homosexual lobby…laying siege to Budapest”.
You’ll also learn about the Magyar communities of the Hungarian Plain, border towns split by the Danube, people quietly getting on with growing vines in the Eger Valley, and the student protests in Budapest. Because while you might have heard about Orban’s far right leanings, you might not have heard about the kickback that saw centre-left Gergely Karacsony elected Mayor of Budapest in 2019. Travelling is one of the best vehicles for understanding the complexities of a country.
Most holidays to Hungary are part of a grand tour through several countries. It’s a good way to understand Hungary’s history and the comeback of the far right. It’s not the first time that fear and nationalist politics has had its hold over the country, after all. A cycling trip down the Danube though Germany, Austria and Hungary leads you through countries once occupied by the Nazis and haunted by the Holocaust. Tours that take in Hungary, the Czech Republic and Romania peek into the post-war days of Sovietism and revolution. Some trips dip down as far as Turkey, where you’ll get a deeper understanding of Hungary’s bath houses and paprika-laden food. All in all, it’s a fascinating, rounded view of Hungary’s place in the world – both then and now.
Emma Nelson, from our small group adventure specialists Tucan Travel, points out that looking beyond borders enriches the tour guide’s experience, too: “They get so much inspiration from meeting people from around the world, because our travellers will say, ‘Oh, it’s so interesting that this is how they do things in this place, because it’s completely different to back home.’ Or, ‘We don’t have this in Australia.’ Or, ‘That law’s different from back home.’ It makes you appreciate what your country does offer, and then it can also highlight the things that they’re not doing right.”

What you can do:
Listen. Take a walking tour of the Jewish Quarter and Dohany Street Synagogue in Budapest. Cycle to Memento Park to understand why the Communist statues were banished to the edge of the city, but not destroyed. See the bullet damage downtown that lingers half a century after the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Use a local guide where possible. They’ll recommend which ruin bars to go to (and which to avoid) and give you an unfiltered view of Hungarian politics today. Just remember to listen rather than judge, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Hungarian is an ‘orphan language’ more akin to faraway Siberian dialects, with consonants that can be a tongue-twister to those used to Latin-based languages. But a few words of Hungarian goes a long way – even if it’s just szia (hello) and köszönöm (thank you).

Environment & wildlife

Low carbon travel

Hungary gets an A-plus for its public transport system, and some of our best holidays give you the chance to use it. That’s great news, what with trains being one of the least polluting ways of getting from A to B.
Sam Sagar works at our train travel specialists, Euroventure. He spoke with us about how the environmental perks are just one of the good things about train travel in Hungary: “Train travel is very popular in Hungary. They have a really good rail system in Budapest, connecting the rest of the country by train, and connecting the country to other countries. A lot of people come in from Vienna or Prague, and it’s very scenic on the way in. Coming by train lets you take all this in.
“Buses take a lot longer, and you’re travelling with 30-40 people for long periods of time. In the country, you go through the hills, and up and down mountains, and it can be quite time-consuming. For people travelling around Europe, especially on Interrail passes, time is important. It’s much more comfortable; you can go to the toilet; they have better seat reservation options. And obviously, it’s much better for the environment. It’s more sustainable than flying.”
The cycling network in Budapest is like a jigsaw with half the pieces missing. It’s a bit of a work in progress. The Danube, however, is part of the Danube Cycle Path that whisks you as far north as Germany and as far south as Romania.

Vivien Urban, from our activity holiday specialists Exodus Travels, spoke about exploring her home country by bike and boot: “Cycling in Hungary is easy, especially along the Danube River, as this is a flat terrain. Cycling through villages is a great experience on the bike – you can see and experience more. The countryside is not so touristy and the people are welcoming. There are good bird watching opportunities in the national parks and Lake Balaton is stunning. There are some great hiking routes, especially in the north part of the country.”

What you can do:
Some of our most popular holidays to Hungary swap flights for train travel. If you live in Europe, rail specialists can book bespoke tickets from your nearest railway station. Others will arrange day trips from Budapest our to the Eger Valley vineyards – all by rail. Alternatively, cycle. The Danube Cycle Path follows the river from its German source through to Budapest, before taking a slightly bumpier path through Romania and beyond. It’s slow, immersive travel that takes you out of Budapest shows you the waterside fortified towns and national parks. Think about how to reduce your CO2 emissions while on holiday. It might sound like a challenge, but in fact simple pleasures like eating local food and walking around Budapest massively reduce your carbon footprint.

Wildlife & national parks

Traditionally, Hungary has favoured small-scale, low intensity farms and vineyards. That’s largely down to the world wars, revolutions and Soviet collectivism that have resulted in agricultural practices far less industrialised than much of Europe. UNESCO even goes so far as to call the traditional seasonal grazing of livestock in Hortobagy National Park an ‘intangible heritage’. Farmers here have followed the natural rhythms of the land for almost 2,000 years, avoiding wringing dry the land that birds and wildlife rely on.

But times they are a-changing. Hungary has one of Europe’s quickest growing agriculture sectors, with crop production growing by over 60 percent between 2010 and 2018. That’s great for pulling rural communities out of poverty, but a shock to the uniquely biodiverse woodlands and plains, plus the 400-plus species of birds that rely on that undisturbed land. Growth without environmental checks is a concern.

What you can do:
Show the government the value of national parks by visiting them. Fill the guest houses near the best birding sites, so that Hungarians benefit from keeping them around, too. And don’t umm and ahh over paying fees – they’re there to top up funding towards research and hiring rangers. Go bird watching with a guide that respects the wildlife’s comfort above your need to be close to it. They’ll minimise your impact and tell you about their (often lifelong) conservation work with landowners and national park rangers. Lake Balaton wins silver in the Hungary overtourism awards, only beaten by Budapest. Avoid staying in the resort hotels popping up along the shorefront that doubles as valuable bird nesting territory. Instead, travel with a holiday company that’ll match you up with a little guesthouse in a less popular spot. You’ll get a better deal out of it, too – the hotel owners will know the best owl woods and point out where you can see the bizarre but magnificent spiral-horned Hungarian Racka sheep.

Horse shows & horse breeding

Hungary is horse country, its studs famously bred as strong cavalry steeds. Most holidays offer you the chance to go to the Babolna Horse and Stud Museum. You can read about the ethics of horse breeding and decide whether it’s for you. Animal welfare is very unlikely an issue; Hungary has incredibly strict equine welfare standards and a historically whole-hearted love for the animals.

Puszta horsemanship shows are a different story. Horses are trained to sit and lie down: useful when in battle or avoiding highwaymen on the plains; not so great when they’re doing it for tourist tips. The claim that these moves preserve ancient Magyar cowboy traditions is a little flimsy. In reality, many of these flashy moves – including the acrobatic ‘Puszta Five’ – were invented in the 20th century, when the semi-nomadic way of life of the Puszta herdspeople was busy being romanticised by Austrian artist Ludwig Koch.

What you can do:
Avoid the Puszta horsemanship shows. They’re a standard day trip offered on Danube river cruises. There are better ways to support Magyar tradition than going to horse shows that illustrate traditions in a superficial way. Visit Hortobagy National Park to truly understand how Magyar cowboy culture was born in the Great Hungarian Plain. And go to the Szentendre Skanzan Village Museum, where you can learn about a less-than-bucolic 20th-century history that saw Communist forced labour camps darken rural life. This one’s a hard ask: eat in country restaurants serving traditional Magyar cuisine. You might not realise it when you’re busy scarfing down doughy lángos bread and cheesy walnut pasta (csusza), but you’re supporting restaurants – and people – that don’t often benefit from tourism, while preserving traditional recipes and the farms that supply the ingredients.
Photo credits: [Page banner: Peter Gyure] [Overtourism: a.canvas.of.light] [Politics (Viktor Orban): European People's Party] [Low carbon: Gabriel Garcia Marengo]
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