Today, 10 primarily central and eastern European countries will join the already 15-strong European Union. These nations are young, ambitious and eager to exploit the benefits of the "Made in Europe" insignia to increase their profiles, their economies and, not least of all, their tourism industries. Some of the new members already have -- for years, Prague and Budapest have been as much a staple of the European experience as Paris, Amsterdam and Rome. And if Ljubljana, Tallinn, Warsaw and Bratislava get their way, they will be too.
The addition of these lesser-known countries under the European banner not only raises the number of EU states, but it also increases the union's surface area by 23 per cent and its population by 75 million to number nearly 400 million. These newcomers will change the dynamics of the entire continent, stretching it farther east than it has ever been. And they are bringing with them a wealth of new tourist destinations, further diversifying Europe's already eclectic history, language and culture.
While provocative topics like immigration quotas, parliamentary seats and monetary policies have increasingly dominated European newspaper headlines as the May 1 inauguration approached, few industries will be affected so profoundly as tourism. This is because the EU, already the world's leading tourism destination, can expect the number of visitors to its castles, ruins, monuments and hotels to double in the next 25 years.
According to the World Trade Organization, 717 million tourists will arrive at EU destinations in 2025. The bulk of this enormous growth will come in the young emerging markets of its newest member states. North Americans, Asians and particularly Europeans are increasingly being lured to the uncharted charms of these relatively undiscovered landscapes. The choice between suffering the July congestion of Tuscany or flying free through the rugged forests of Slovakia or the Baltic States has become for many a no-brainer. EU endorsement simply makes this choice easier.
For smaller countries such as Malta, Estonia and Slovenia, EU membership brings with it greater exposure to European consumers. And not only that; as EU members, these countries will also have almost immediate access to hundreds of millions of euros in EU subsidies administered from cash-rich Brussels, money earmarked to upgrade public infrastructure such as airports, roads and, in some cases, water management systems to ensure cleaner beaches.
For travellers, relaxed passport control and eventually a common currency will lessen the hassle of travelling. Market liberalization will improve the quality of service and eventually lead to lower prices, particularly among airlines. Here follows a brief guide to Europe's new gang:
Since 2500 BC, Cyprus has been at the crossroads of European, Asian and African trade. Throughout its history, the third-largest island in the Mediterranean has been ruled by just about every great foreign power both ancient and modern, and each left behind a piece of its culture.
Today, the island is a heady blend of antiquity, exotic local colour and the Mediterranean Sea, a mix that has turned it into one of Europe's major holiday destinations.
But Cyprus will enter the EU a divided country, much against the European Commission's wishes. The dupes of the failed April referendum are the Turkish Cypriots, whose half of the island will not be flying the EU flag or enjoying the fruits of its money. The result is that while the Turkish side will likely stagnate, the Greek side, or southern Cyprus, will continue to increase its amenities, services and infrastructure. On the other hand, an empty northern Cyprus with inherent Turkish flavour might just turn out to be the most interesting half to visit.
Since the mid-1990s, the Czech Republic has felt more European than most parts of Europe. The beauty of the country's capital city, Prague, has enticed thousands of Europeans and North Americans to set up shop amid the Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, baroque and art nouveau façades. The guidebooks and novels the original pioneers wrote attracted even more. Prague had a jump on the rest of Europe and it shows. The ubiquity of its beer halls attests to a young clientele and the recent string of designer venues such as Hotel Josef indicate that Prague is catering to the European jet set.
Beyond Prague, the country's undulating landscape, picturesque castles and Bohemian breweries in Pizen and Ceske Budejovice are only half as crowded in the summer as southern European staples such as Italy and Spain. And, in the winter, its ski regions are becoming popular, not for the quality of skiing, but for its cheap lift tickets and bargain alcohol.
What makes Estonia so attractive is that it is at once both familiar and remote, as much Western European and as it is Eastern European. Estonia's capital, Tallinn, is just 80 kilometres south of Helsinki, and a helicopter shuttle flies regularly between the two cities.
Tallinn, an exquisitely medieval town and UNESCO World Heritage Site, has stepped up to fill the Bohemian outpost void left behind by Prague, which no matter how you look at it has gone mainstream. Swedish cash and curious Europeans, always in search of new frontiers, have turned Tallinn into a chic urban resort with all the amenities to keep them busy for a long weekend.
Still undiscovered, however, are Estonia's forests, lakes and Baltic beaches.
After the Westerners colonized Prague, they moved south to Budapest, the capital of Hungary.
Budapest has long established itself as a "city of spas," named for its numerous thermal and curative springs. No trip to Budapest is complete without a Hungarian-style dip at the Gellert spa.
The city is divided by the wide, yawning Danube River. On the Buda side, atop the 235-metre high Gellert Hill, stands the Royal Castle, the Hungarian National Gallery and the picturesque Castle District.
On the Pest side you've got the neo-Gothic architecture, the bars, restaurants and cultural venues.
The two sides complement each other seamlessly and have turned Budapest into an exciting destination. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Budapest is that while it resembles Vienna -- like Vienna, Budapest is a product of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and its ornate architecture stretches well beyond the city centre -- it does so without the Austrian capital's hautiness or high prices. The eventual introduction of the euro could bring an end to that.
Just south of Estonia, Latvia hardly enjoys its northern neighbour's popularity. Whereas Estonia is Scandi, Latvia is Slavic.
Larger than Belgium and the Netherlands combined, Latvia offers a characteristic Baltic mix of pristine forests, well-stocked lakes and long stretches of empty Baltic coastline.
About a third of Latvia's population lives in Riga, the capital, which, admittedly, is more adorable than it is thriving. Like its Baltic neighbours, Riga took shape under the Hanseatic League in the 13th century and its medieval roots still shine today. Despite having the misfortune to be in the path of the 20th century's most pervasive warmongers -- i.e. Stalin and Hitler -- Riga's worst scars derive from bad Soviet urban planning. Fortunately, the Soviets left most of the old town alone, ensuring visitors a few days worth of meandering the narrow cobblestone streets between the art nouveau buildings.
Even though Lithuania is the largest Baltic State, it is also the most remote. Situated between two of Eastern Europe's least appealing destinations -- Belarus and Kaliningrad -- Lithuania has the same forestry and flatland appeal as Latvia and Estonia, but its natural trump card is the Curonian spit, a 50 kilometre-long peninsula that serves as a resting spot for about 15 million birds during the migration season. It is a remarkable experience that immediately qualifies as one of Europe's uncharted gems.
Like the other two Baltic States, Lithuania's lifeline is its capital city, Vilnius, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It goes without saying that countries such as Lithuania will benefit greatly from EU membership, if only from a marketing perspective. Few travellers know that Lithuania exists much less where it is. The coverage in the next few months will do this country, and its Baltic neighbours, wonders.
Situated between Europe and Africa, Malta, like other Mediterranean islands, has been governed by just about every major civilization in European history, most recently the British. This explains the English fluency of the Maltese and the enormous number of English tourists that populate the island's shores each summer. As a result, these days Malta looks like Monte Carlo, with enormous all-inclusive hotels that overshadow the island's historic architecture.
But Malta is thriving. With virtually no natural resources of its own, it has marketed itself well as an open-air museum of sand and sun. Unfortunately, it doesn't have a lot more than that.
In the past few years, Malta has diversified into the film business -- large parts of Gladiator and Troy were filmed here -- which has attracted an entirely new wave of cinema tourism.
It is rarely a good sign when a country's most famous tourist attraction is named Auschwitz or that its capital city, Warsaw, suffered horrendous wounds during the Second World War. Nonetheless, Warsaw's 1.6 million inhabitants make it Poland's most dynamic hub, and the city has gone through great pains to beautify itself in recent years, with much success.
But for culture, and the medieval architecture that goes with it, you must head to Krakow. Not only is it one of Poland's most beautiful town, but also its most entertaining. It has a vibrant student community to go with it.
Poland's distance from Western Europe has deterred the continent's many campers from making the venture so far east; most prefer to pitch their tents in the much closer Czech Republic. As a result, Poland's Baltic beaches, the Mazurian Lake District, its enormous forests and the Carpathians and the Sudeten Mountains remain uncrowded throughout the summer.
What holds true for the Czech Republic's still relatively untapped nature is even truer for Slovakia. When the Czech Republic and Slovakia -- formerly Czechoslovakia -- went their separate ways in 1993, Slovakia inherited most of the Soviet-era factories but also the peaks of the High Tatras with their Alps allure.
Serious wilderness scouts have taken advantage of Slovakia's low profile, and bankers have capitalized on Bratislava's low taxes and cheap prices to gradually turn the capital city into a dynamic little hub. Cheap alcohol and cigarettes have also made Bratislava a perennial favourite among Austrian youth.
Bratislava is not nearly as beautiful as Prague, but it is well on its way to becoming the Luxembourg of Central Europe.
Slovenia is a small country with an extremely sportive population. This is because Slovenia, the only new EU country from the former Yugoslavia, has just enough of the Adriatic Sea and the Alps to function as an outdoor nation.
Bordering Italy, Slovenia is the perfect launching pad into the Balkans. Its picturesque capital, Ljubljana, has the Middle Ages integrity of a city that belonged to both the Romans and the Austro-Hungarians.
Slovenia is a wealthy country and it shows. Its mainly historic buildings have been renovated and its hospitality sector has moved up market, so much so that it has become the type of town where world leaders like to mix.
Together with the increasingly popular Croatia, which won't be joining the EU in May, Slovenia will continue to be the Balkans tourist engine for the coming decades.
EU15 MEMBER STATES:
EU25 MEMBER STATES AS OF MAY 1, 2004:
THE NEW EUROPE, NEXT SATURDAY: IS TALLINN THE NEXT PRAGUE?
EU visas: Travellers no longer need tourist visas to travel to any country in the expanded European Union. As of May 1, the Czech Republic and Poland dropped visa requirements for Canadian travellers visiting the countries for up to three months. Incorrect information, based on the position of both countries at our deadline, was published in the Travel section on May 1.