Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Central Europe: Castles Gear Up for Business

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Central Europe: Castles Gear Up for Business

Article excerpt

From the Danube to the Baltic, a French-backed initiative is drumming up funds to transform a string of palaces into top-notch hotels

He never dreamt he would return to a free country. But nearly fifty years after fleeing his native Hungary, Lazlo Karolyi is now occupying one wing of the 140-room castle where he lived until the age of 12 before fleeing the advancing Red Army with his family. After the 1956 Hungarian uprising, the castle, a 19th-century neoclassical jewel located outside Budapest, was turned into a centre for abandoned children. "There was absolutely nothing left in it," says Karolyi in a polished British accent. In a pattern found to different degrees throughout Central Europe, collections were dispersed or simply destroyed. "We had a library of 30,000 French and Latin manuscripts that were burnt in the courtyard in 1949. My parents buried some silver and china in the grounds when they left that we have found again."Two years ago, Karolyi accompanied his 88-year-old mother over from the United States to attend a charged reinstatement ceremony: the Red Star adorning the front of the castle was removed and proudly replaced with the restored family crest.

Feasibility studies

Now, in his wish to give the neoclassical palace a fresh lease on life, Karolyi is taking part in a project that will eventually transform some 30 to 40 aristocratic residences into a chain of top-notch chateaux-hotels spanning four countries - Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic and Poland - a route running from the Danube to the Baltic.

Launched in the early 1990s, the initiative is the brainchild of Christian Dromard, a Frenchman specialized in the field of heritage and tourism. In a context of restructuring in dire economic conditions, tourism from the West was viewed as a potential source of revenue for Central European countries, but restoring the region's considerable wealth of castles could hardly be deemed a priority for financially strapped governments.

As part of a Council of Europe working group on cultural heritage and tourism in Eastern Europe, Dromard put forward a few basic development principles to partners from the region. "The basic premise is that the upgrading of the castles had to be seen as part of an investment and tourist development programme that would help to finance restoration and give historic monuments an income-generating activity while playing up their cultural value. This was readily accepted."

As such, with cultural and tourist authorities in each country, Dromard has spent the past six years drumming up financial support for his cause while traveling across Central Europe with experts on restoration and hotel development to select ideal settings. "Heritage is not a business like any other. The bottom line is that the historical and cultural potential of the buildings must be safeguarded," says Karel Nejdl, head of the Czech Tourist Board. Feasibility studies were conducted for a number of locations. While the first chateaux-hotels will be near capital cities, the project aims, in the long run, to bring tourists to regions that are still largely unexplored by western travellers.

"The idea we have been trying to get across is that monuments are part of a country's tourist offering. As such, they should be regarded as an infrastructure investment, just like the building of an airport or a road. This was the only way that external funding could be obtained for the project," said Dromard. Experience shows that revenue from tourism alone can rarely pay off the cost of restoring castles - Dromard set the average cost at around 30 million French francs ($5 million) - hence the need for state funding and long-term development loans. Gradually, over the past decade, perceiving restoration in the context of economic development has made its way in international financial circles.

Catering with a local flavour

In the past two years, the World Bank and the Council of Europe have made historic monuments eligible for financial aid programmes. …

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