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It is almost time for us to put down our quill pens and leave the scriptorium for the last time this year. Three weeks of quiet retreat are in the offing, a chance for us to recharge our batteries and plan a few journeys for 2010. So a good moment, perhaps, to look back and see what 2009 meant for travel in Europe.
We have over the past twelve months spent time in and reported from some twenty countries across Europe. The year has seen a lot of changes. We are pleased to see some governments across Europe beginning to levy heftier taxes on aviation, and we hope that 2010 will see more following in their wake. Higher plane fares within Europe will be a big incentive to encourage more responsible traveling. Britain has taken a welcome lead in this. We applaud the decision in Scotland to subsidize ferry fares on longer routes to the Hebrides - another important step in encouraging travelers to think twice before hopping on a plane.
Over the past year, travelers have benefited from Switzerland joining the Schengen group of nations and Slovakia adopting the euro. Iceland‘s financial misfortunes in late 2008, with a slump in the value of the Icelandic króna, suddenly made the island nation much more attractive for travelers from North America and mainland Europe. In ailing economies in eastern Europe, and particularly in the Baltic States, tourism has been a key element in the fragile recovery now underway.
New travel opportunities
Citizens of some Balkan states are today much less well traveled than their parents. But that looks set to change with the new European Union visa regulations that came into effect last weekend, ushering in a more relaxed visa regime for visitors to the EU from Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia. For Serbia, this is a tangible reward from the EU to the Belgrade government for playing the great game of European integration. Olive branches from Brussels are being offered to Minsk too, and we predict that 2010 will surely see some thawing of the relations between Belarus and the EU. That will perhaps in time make life easier for travelers bound for Belarus, which remains one of Europe’s most inaccessible and yet most intriguing countries.
Rail links and politics
A new train service would not normally be greeted as a major diplomatic event, but when the new service links Serbia with Bosnia via Croatia then folk do take notice. The Belgrade to Sarajevo route was severed during the conflicts of the nineties. Now it is back, with a very welcome once daily train from the Serbian to the Bosnian capital. The new service started in mid-December.
If train services are a mark of political cooperation, then we must mourn the demise of one of Europe’s key night train links – the daily service from Berlin to Kaliningrad. It ran for the last time ten days ago. The withdrawal of this train now leaves Russia’s Baltic exclave at Kaliningrad even more isolated.
Airlines that left the skies
Finally, a thought for all the staff and passengers affected by over a dozen airline bankruptcies in Europe in 2009. Casualties included the national flag carriers of Lithuania (FlyLAL) and Macedonia (MAT); discount carriers such as Sky Europe, Fly Globespan, and My Air; and niche carriers serving particular markets such as Sky South and KD Avia (with hubs at Shoreham and Kaliningrad respectively).
We shall be back next month, but meanwhile warm best wishes for the holidays from us both.