U.S. Agents Get First-Hand Look at 'Intriguing, Surprising' Poland

Reed Travel Features associate editor Caroline Scutt explored Poland with an agent fam tour. Her report follows:

WARSAW, Poland -- Although it has been several years since this former Eastern Bloc country shed its communist skin, Poland still is a largely untapped destination for most Americans.

That is beginning to change, though, as interest in Poland among U.S. travelers -- and their travel agents -- grows.

More than 100 North American travel agents paid their first visits to Poland on a study tour sponsored by the operator American Travel Abroad.

As the agents explored Warsaw, Krakow, Zakopane and other locations, most found themselves intrigued and surprised by this country of paradoxes.

"Even while Poland is finding its way and still struggling to overcome the years of communist rule, it is a fascinating country," said Rena Kalna, vice president of Kalna World Travel in Atlanta.

Susan Petit Ponte, president of Scarsdale Travel Services in Scarsdale, N.Y. said she found the people, especially the younger ones, to be energetic and vibrant.

"This is a country that is going places," she said with enthusiasm.

Warsaw reminded her of Budapest, Hungary, 15 years ago, "a gray city that will brighten with time as Budapest has."

Ponte said she also was impressed with the quality of accommodations, particularly in Warsaw.

Because Warsaw is the country's business center, there is a good selection of hotels, she noted.

Like other agents on the study tour, Ponte thought she wouldn't like the food but was happy to be proved wrong, and was pleased with the efficiency and friendliness of the staff in the restaurants and hotels.

Kalna said she found it interesting that Poles seem to want to catch up with western Europe and choose to serve French cuisine and other Continental fare instead of showcasing Polish dishes.

When Kalna mentioned this to a Polish woman she was seated next to at dinner one evening, the woman's response was, "Americans come here and expect that we will all dance polkas and eat kielbasa. Those things exist but so do many others."

English is spoken by many Poles in major cities, however, if clients venture off the beaten paths, they should have a phrase book or dictionary handy.

Language probably won't be a problem for clients on a group tour or just visiting major cities, said Kalna, adding that dzien dobry (good day or hello) and dziekuje (thank you) are two phrases every traveler to Poland should know.

Shopping is right up there on the list with communicating and eating, and Poland earned high marks from the study tour participants on the quality and variety of goods available.

"I thought I wouldn't do much shopping and ended up paying duty at the airport," Ponte said.

U.S. visitors will find a favorable exchange rate; about 2.67 zlotys for one U.S. dollar (U.S. currency is widely accepted for goods, however, exchange rates will vary significantly from vendor to vendor).

For example, lunch at an upscale restaurant in Warsaw will cost about $15 per person, including wine and tip.

Credit cards are becoming widely accepted; visitors carrying travelers checks will find that they are only accepted in banks, Orbis Polish Travel Bureau offices and hotels.

Currently, Ponte's agency only sells Poland as part of packaged tours that include surrounding countries, but after seeing parts of the country first hand, she said she would encourage clients to spend more time there.

All of the agents interviewed on the study tour agreed that Poland isn't for everyone, and said they will target sales efforts to seasoned travelers looking for someplace different and, of course, to Polish-Americans.

Kalna World Travel's Kalna, who happens to be Polish-American, said that in addition to targeting the ethnic market, she will approach well-traveled clients "who have had their fill" of western Europe.

"We don't sell a lot of Poland now, but we are going to."

Coincidently, her agency, which specializes in ski vacations, already had planned to bring a group to the ski resort town of Zakopane in March.

The group consists of about 30 university professors from Alabama who had been to a number of ski resorts in western Europe and wanted to go someplace new, she said.

Diana Seidman, an account executive at Pathway Travel Agency in New York, was born in Zakopane and hasn't been back since she left as a toddler.

Although she had mixed feelings when she returned as part of the study tour and found herself overwhelmed with emotion, Seidman said she was glad she made the trip.

Seidman's reluctance to visit Poland is shared by some Jewish-Americans who have ties to this country.

Although there are many wonderful places to visit in Poland, it also was the site of some of the more notorious Nazis concentration camps.

A visit to a former camp might be difficult, but all of the agents interviewed agreed that tourists should make it part of their itineraries.

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