World Heritage growth inspires Europe operators

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STUTTGART, Germany -- Welterbe, or "world heritage," may be the most germane term in Teutonic tourism this year and next.

News that three historic regions in Germany have won World Heritage Site status from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco), bringing the country's total to 27 such attractions, follows the launch of a joint German-Austrian effort to develop -- in partnership with tour operators -- first-ever, cross-border tours taking in Unesco sites in both countries. And now two U.S. operators to central Europe say they plan to offer itineraries based on that effort in 2003.

"I've been working with the Austrians on this, and I plan to publish brochures combining Unesco in Germany and Austria next year," said Michael Barszap, president and chief executive of I.T.S. Tours and Travel, College Station, Texas. "It's a very popular country combination, given the cultural ties and common language."

I.T.S. already incorporates stops at Unesco sites in existing products to Austria and the Czech Republic, and will develop similar tours to Hungary. "I'm very much interested in this whole project," said Barszap. "I hope we can become the main operator for Unesco site programs."

Hallstatt, in the Salzkammargut salt-mining region of Austria is one of the Alpine nation's eight Unesco World Heritage sites. While sample 10-day and five-day itineraries -- from Frankfurt or Munich to Salzburg and Vienna -- have been devised by a binational committee of tourism officials, no U.S. operator has committed yet, said Birgit Dittmar, Unesco product manager for the German National Tourist Board (GNTB) in Frankfurt am Main, Germany.

But Austria specialist Smolka Tours also is crafting Unesco-themed FIT packages to both German-speaking nations based on those recommendations, said Doris Percht Clark, president of the Tinton Falls, N.J.-based company.

"It's simply the nature of World Heritage Sites that you really shouldn't concentrate on just one country, but instead combine them in one tour," she said.

Smolka's first Unesco FIT packages should be ready for April or May. Group itineraries may follow, Clark added.

For its part, I.T.S. also plans to combine its German Romantic Road tours with a similar Austrian itinerary next year, said Barszap.

That jibes with Unesco's recent decision to add the 40-mile-long upper middle Rhine Valley, similarly dubbed the "Romantic Rhine," to its list of heritage sites in Germany, along with the medieval Baltic trading towns of Wismar and Stralsund.

German World Heritage sites of longer standing recommended by the GNTB in its Unesco itineraries include Speyer Cathedral, the Wuertzburg Residenz Palace, the Wieskirche at Pfaffenwinkel and the historic city center of Bamberg.

Austrian stops include the Semmering Railway, Hallstatt and the surrounding salt-mining region, and the historic centers of Salzburg and Graz. Importantly, Graz will reign as the European Union's sole Cultural Capital for 2003.

The packages, as conceived by the GNTB and the Austrian National Tourist Office, would consist of accommodations at Unesco partner hotels, guided town tours, city and museum passes and visits to the World Cultural Heritage sites.

Officials from both countries are interested in devising similar Unesco tours in partnership with Switzerland.

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