Polishing
Poland's image

Through tourism and Peter Greenberg’s “Royal Tour,” a prime minister hopes to change the world’s perceptions.

Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, atop Niedzica Castle in southern Poland, waiting for a helicopter with a mounted camera to arrive and shoot the opening sequence of “Poland: The Royal Tour.” Photo by Karen Ballard

Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, atop Niedzica Castle in southern Poland, waiting for a helicopter with a mounted camera to arrive and shoot the opening sequence of “Poland: The Royal Tour.” Photo by Karen Ballard

Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, atop Niedzica Castle in southern Poland, waiting for a helicopter with a mounted camera to arrive and shoot the opening sequence of “Poland: The Royal Tour.” Photo by Karen Ballard

History has not been kind to Poland during most of the previous two centuries. Situated among powerful, empire-minded neighbors, its narrative has often been told only in relation to the stories of Austrian, German and Soviet domination.

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The personal history of Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, was shaped by the struggle to rid the country of the Soviets. And the country’s image in the aftermath of the Cold War has motivated him to turn to tourism to restore what he sees as his country’s true image, one that, almost 30 years after the fall of communism, isn’t widely accepted.

The Poland narrative he wants recognized is one that is heroic: a country that was an early proponent of democracy, blessed with natural and man-made beauty, populated by welcoming, cultured citizens and safer to visit than most Western countries.

Morawiecki’s demeanor fits his former profession — he was a banker before being elected prime minister — but he spent his teenage years as a freedom fighter working alongside his father, who was the leader of a militant wing of the Solidarity movement.

Following World War II until 1991, Poland’s progress was “frozen in time,” Morawiecki said during an interview with Travel Weekly. The setting for that interview provided ironic testimony to his country’s struggles: It took place in a historic government building in Warsaw that is dwarfed by the imposing Russian Embassy just across the road.

Morawiecki said that as the country emerged from the shadow of communism, “we were in a relatively weak position to tell our own story.” To explain in part why Poland had to struggle to make its voice heard, he quoted Bloomberg columnist Leonid Bershidsky: “Colonization by Western capital.”

Its period of economic weakness is easing, and the prime minister has high hopes that the story will emerge now. And those hopes are pinned tightly to the development of tourism.

Relative to most nations, tourism in Poland is anemic. On a list developed by the World Travel & Tourism Council that ranks nations by tourism contribution as a percentage of gross domestic product, the country ranks 172 out of 185.

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Focus on promotion

Morawiecki studied marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, and he’s ready to apply what he learned to help Poland move up that list. His first major initiative was to agree to participate in “Poland: The Royal Tour,” an installment of the PBS series that features a head of state acting as tour guide to CBS News travel editor Peter Greenberg.

“Poland: The Royal Tour” premieres April 22 on Chicago’s WTTW (dates will vary among PBS affiliates in different markets), and the places where Morawiecki chose to escort Greenberg are important to the prime minister for both historical and personal reasons.

This excerpt from Peter Greenberg's "Poland: The Royal Tour" takes a look at the architecture of Warsaw. Video courtesy of Peter Greenberg via YouTube

Although much of the country was damaged during the two world wars, impressive palaces and castles, many of which are magnificent examples of Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance architecture, are among the sites visited.

And the show aims to put a few little-known sites on the tourist map: In the prime minister’s hometown of Wroclaw, he brings Greenberg to a small restaurant with a secret door in a wall. On the other side of the door is a room where he, his father and others plotted activities to drive the Soviets out of the country. The room today is a shrine to their movement and includes photos of Morawiecki as a young revolutionary.

Morawiecki and Greenberg aboard the Legia in the port of Gdynia. The boat was used by Ryszard Kuklinski, a Polish colonel and Cold War spy, to deliver documents to NATO intelligence officers. Photo by Karen Ballard

Morawiecki and Greenberg aboard the Legia in the port of Gdynia. The boat was used by Ryszard Kuklinski, a Polish colonel and Cold War spy, to deliver documents to NATO intelligence officers. Photo by Karen Ballard

Morawiecki and Greenberg aboard the Legia in the port of Gdynia. The boat was used by Ryszard Kuklinski, a Polish colonel and Cold War spy, to deliver documents to NATO intelligence officers. Photo by Karen Ballard

The pair also visit a cathedral carved into a chamber in a salt mine that doubles as a subterranean art gallery where everything from sculptures to elaborate chandeliers is made entirely of salt.

The emotional core of the program is a haunting, foggy morning visit to the Auschwitz concentration camp. The presence of Nazi extermination camps in Poland has been a particularly difficult subject for the country to grapple with; Morawiecki bristles at the labeling of them as “Polish” death camps, and a political initiative designed to repress that characterization created an international controversy.

For a leader to sign on for one of Greenberg’s “Royal Tour” programs requires a significant up-front commitment of time, but Morawiecki was willing to bet that his seven days on the road with Greenberg would be an excellent investment.

“It will show the beauty of the country to people who do not know this country well, which is most of the people in the world.”
– Mateusz Morawiecki

“When I learned about this [opportunity], I thought to myself that it’s a good chance to actually present Poland in a different way and a true way, one corresponding with reality from the point of view of history, the nature of our people, our landscape, our architecture,” he said. “It will show the beauty of the country to people who do not know this country well, which is most of the people in the world.”

And he wants to show off contemporary Poland. Although Warsaw was almost leveled during World War II, the capital today is a vibrant, modern city — with a twist: Massive Stalin-era government buildings survive, some across the road from design-forward shopping centers and hotels.

This excerpt from Peter Greenberg's "Poland: The Royal Tour" features a friendly game of ping pong between Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and Peter Greenberg. Video courtesy of Peter Greenberg via YouTube

In the show, he brings Greenberg to a hall in the National Stadium in Warsaw. It’s there that, despite Morawiecki’s mild-mannered appearance, one gets a glimpse of his focus and intensity after he challenges Greenberg to a game of ping pong. The prime minister then proceeds to — I believe the word is “destroy” — his opponent. It turns out he was on Poland’s national table tennis team.

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Tourism beyond the ‘Royal Tour’

Morawiecki is focused on promoting some of the country’s characteristics that are not necessarily intuitive.

“Poland is a country whose population is quite dispersed,” he said. “We don’t have a capital like Madrid or Paris or London, even though we are in the same [population] bracket as those countries. There are 15 million people in the vicinity of Paris, but in Warsaw, it’s only two and a half million. We have hundreds of different towns and villages all around the country, and I’d like to bring more economic opportunity to them through tourism.”

Morawiecki and Greenberg in a historic government building in Warsaw. TW photo by Arnie Weissmann

Morawiecki and Greenberg in a historic government building in Warsaw. TW photo by Arnie Weissmann

Morawiecki and Greenberg in a historic government building in Warsaw. TW photo by Arnie Weissmann

As options outside the cities, he cited fishing, skiing and hiking and biking along lakes and through abundant forests. Poland is widely viewed as having the best conditions in Europe for kitesurfing and windsurfing, he added.

For Morawiecki, history is always part of the story.

“If you want to understand today’s world, come to Poland,” he said. “It provides an opportunity to look at history through the lens of fighting for freedom. Everything that has led to what you see today, you can see it in Poland, everywhere. You will understand the European Union better and better understand what happened after the Soviet Union collapsed. In Poland you can witness democracy reborn.”

“If you want to understand today’s world, come to Poland.”
– Mateusz Morawiecki

All of which spurred his interest in “The Royal Tour.”

“When visitors come here and begin talking to people, many things become clarified quickly,” he said. “The presentation of the country on ‘The Royal Tour’ will help in this. I’m absolutely certain that this will bring the perception of Poland closer to reality. And perception is reality.”

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At the intersection of politics and tourism

In Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki, “Royal Tour” producer Peter Greenberg has a leader/tour guide who has stirred controversy. He is sometimes mentioned in the same breath as Europe’s far-right nationalist leaders Viktor Orban of Hungary and Matteo Salvini of Italy.

In his interview with Travel Weekly, Morawiecki rejected that characterization, pleading guilty only to being Poland-centric. And he sees Poland’s values as being antithetical to the charges of intolerance often leveled against Europe’s far-right.

“My most important thoughts are around Poland,” he said. “And it’s one of the most tolerant countries. There were no religious wars. In fact, there was openness toward different groups of people who migrated into Poland. They found a new home and, at the same time, a country where democracy was born. Poland, with England probably, was the homeland of democracy. It had the first constitution on the European continent and was second only to the U.S. Constitution. Ours was better, because slavery was not allowed.”

And unlike the nativist politicians with whom he sometimes gets grouped, Morawiecki’s perspective on the threat of Russian hegemony makes him a strong supporter of the EU and NATO, while his background in banking makes him a fervent believer in free-market economies and capitalism.

“We have one of the lowest budget deficits ever, the lowest level of unemployment and very strong economic growth,” he asserted.

In fact, he said he believes that some of the criticism leveled against him is inspired by Poland’s economic progress.

“We’re doing exactly what the French are doing, what the Germans are doing, or the Spanish. We are just weaker than them. When we are getting stronger, they don’t like it. And they attack us through such notions [that we are extremist].”

Morawiecki and CBS News travel editor Peter Greenberg at the gate of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Morawiecki signed a controversial law intended to discourage suggestions of Polish complicity in Nazi war crimes committed in Poland. Photo by Karen Ballard

Morawiecki and CBS News travel editor Peter Greenberg at the gate of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Morawiecki signed a controversial law intended to discourage suggestions of Polish complicity in Nazi war crimes committed in Poland. Photo by Karen Ballard

Morawiecki and CBS News travel editor Peter Greenberg at the gate of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Morawiecki signed a controversial law intended to discourage suggestions of Polish complicity in Nazi war crimes committed in Poland. Photo by Karen Ballard

His desire to protect Poland’s reputation, however, caused international backlash when he signed legislation outlawing references to Polish complicity in Nazi atrocities that occurred on Polish soil. Accused of anti-Semitism and of stifling legitimate historical research, the law was amended to decriminalize such references, though lawsuits can still be pursued on similar grounds.

He makes no apologies for his government’s abrupt dismissal of several Polish judges, a move criticized by the EU as an attack on the country’s independent judiciary. He characterizes it as overdue judiciary reform.

“I’m a freedom fighter from the ’80s, and I saw judges continue in their positions post-communism who had sentenced my friends from the underground.”

Their dismissal, he said, was no different from what “East Germany did in 1990 and 1991, when only 30% of the judges [were kept]. But better late than never.”

Such controversies aside, he sees himself in line with U.S. mainstream politics. “You see extreme right-wing parties like [that of] Marine Le Pen in France or those in Spain, Italy, Hungary, even the Netherlands and recently Sweden. Our party is probably more like Republicans in the U.S., and the [opposition] party is more like Democrats.”

He acknowledged that his party “encompasses and accommodates some radical voices from the right, just as our political competitors accommodate some very leftist voters and voices. Sometimes people say stupid things, but generally we are a center-right party.”

Morawiecki also said there has been no apparent tourist backlash to his policies, asserting that tourism arrivals have risen during his administration.

For his part, Greenberg said, “If I based choices [for countries to profile] on the policies of the leaders, I wouldn’t have done any ‘Royal Tours.’”

Greenberg noted the series has in the past included controversial leader/guides, including Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa, who was giving Wikileaks founder Julian Assange asylum in London, and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “who runs his country based on a right-wing coalition.”

“The purpose is not to promote the country but to present the country through the eyes of someone who was born there and lives there — and just happens to be its leader.”

–A.W.

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