Fabulous value, fewer crowds and plenty of opportunities for local immersion put this emerging region front and center for travelers of all kinds.

According to Virtuoso’s 2018 Luxe Report, “exploring new destinations” is the year’s top trip motivator—and when it comes to Europe in particular, there are a number of factors driving travelers to seek the road less traveled.

For one thing, Europe’s traditional favorites increasingly face the challenge of overcrowding, motivating travelers and providers alike to turn to alternative destinations. And by stepping off the beaten path, travelers accomplish another major modern goal as well: finding more unique and authentic experiences that will satisfy their cravings for something different.

So where are these trends leading wanderers? More and more, the answer to that question is Eastern Europe. From Croatia and Serbia to Montenegro, Bosnia and beyond, the traveling public is discovering the incredible appeals of this skyrocketing region, which typically offers fabulous value, fewer crowds and plenty of opportunities for authentic local immersion.

However, travel agents and their clients face one challenge regarding this region: They don’t know enough about it. But within that challenge lies a big opportunity for motivated agents to get in on the ground floor of an emerging market.

“Eastern Europe is still ‘young’ and ‘fresh,’ and great value for your money,” says Uly Silkey, a luxury travel advisor with Casto Vacations. Agents are needed to help travelers navigate this emerging region because “most clients do not know how to best access these areas, and are sometimes insecure about safety and language,” says Silkey.

With the help of good travel partners, Silkey’s bookings for Eastern Europe have gone up “immensely” ever since “Game of Thrones aired and Croatia starting receiving huge and well-deserved hype,” says Silkey, who is selling not only Croatia, but also off-the-beaten-path destinations like Slovenia, Macedonia, Poland and Romania.

With such huge potential in this market, agents will reap the benefits of educating themselves and their clients on everything Eastern Europe has to offer, and how it fits the bill for the vacations they crave.

Eastern Europe’s Appeals
Agents with a finger on the pulse of today’s trends already know that travelers are pushing beyond their comfort zone into pristine, unfrequented and unique places. What they—and their clients—might not realize is that Eastern Europe offers all of this and more.

Alfred Hernandez, a vacation travel executive with Express Travel, says, “A lot of clients know Paris, Rome and the cities in Spain, and they are familiar with Budapest and Prague. But increasingly, the Balkan countries have a lot of interest. They’re so accessible.”

Though some travelers may be concerned about language barriers, in fact, Eastern Europe doesn’t pose as much of a language issue as clients might imagine, as English is understood by many people in the region. It’s also safe for travelers, offering Western convenience without a Westernized experience.

“When clients come to us for something different, I tell them about Croatia,” says Lisa Bain, a leisure travel advisor with Forbes Travel. “It has a stunning coastline, and the people are amazing. Everyone who comes back raves about their holiday there.”

Another trendy appeal of Eastern Europe is the region’s opportunity for personal enrichment on vacations, especially for travelers seeking immersive experiences like interacting with locals, discovering native traditions, learning new crafts or sampling local cuisine.

Zvonimir Androić, owner and president of Via Tours Croatia, points out that Eastern Europe and especially Croatia have “so many little towns and islands that are away from tourists’ eyes. We’re able to create out-of-the-box experiences with actual locals, whether that’s a cooking class with the chef of a local restaurant or visiting a family-owned vineyard to pick grapes and make your own wine.”

What makes it even better is that these authentic experiences can be tailored to any client’s budget. “There are moderate to high-end options,” says Hernandez. For example, he says, “Croatia and Poland are in the European Union but have their own currencies, so you get a lot for your dollar.”

Selling the Region
While some clients may already have heard the news about Eastern Europe, agents are missing out on valuable opportunities if they aren’t marketing the region to a wider clientele as well.

One way to generate excitement about travel to these countries is by highlighting how popular Eastern Europe has become for film and television. Clients may have seen movies that were recently shot in the region, including Star Wars: The Last Jedi and the new Robin Hood, as well as Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, which showcased the Croatian island of Vis.

“Of course, Game of Thrones put Croatia on the map,” says Hernandez. Androić adds that Anthony Bourdain helped shine a spotlight on Croatia’s food and wine. “It’s getting a lot of publicity and becoming more popular,” he says. “People don’t know what to expect, but when they get there, they have a positive reaction.”

But it’s not just film buffs who enjoy exploring Eastern Europe. Since the region has so many diverse offerings, agents can market the region to a wide variety of clients. “For example, if a client is into soft adventure or active travel, then Slovenia, Croatia and Montenegro are great options, while boating and beaches are amazing in Croatia,” says Androić. For millennials, Androić also suggests Serbia: “It’s very vibrant, and the big plus is the direct flights from New York to Belgrade. It’s where young people go for concerts, nightlife, food and wine.”

Eastern Europe is also a favorite with groups, especially because the money goes further. “There are lots of historical sites, museums and old churches that appeal to everyone in a group,” says Bain. “I’m sending six women who are celebrating birthdays there.”

And don’t forget families: Croatia was recently listed among Virtuoso’s Top 10 Unconventional Family Destinations, which credits Gen Z (those aged up to 23) for pushing their families beyond the tried-and-true locales. “Croatia is definitely a country that is excellent for families,” agrees Hernandez. “You have everything there—nature, culture, religion and history. I like the beaches better there than Greece.”

Another great opportunity for agents is to tap the wine-lovers on their client list for Eastern Europe travel. Indigenous wines from this region are gaining an increasing amount of international attention, and subsequently drawing increased tourism interest as well. Places like the Czech Republic and Slovenia offer not only long histories of winemaking, but also charming atmospheres and boutique properties for visiting and staying.

Androić also notes the “cool connection” between California Zinfandel and Croatia, which agents can tell their wine-enthusiast clients about: “They found the parent of Zinfandel actually originated near Split and was brought to California,” he explains.  

Hot Spots
Agents looking to sell more Eastern Europe can take advantage of the major buzz a few destinations are currently generating.

For instance, Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, is on AirBnB’s list of 20 top destinations, while TripAdvisor featured Rovinj, a coastal Croatian city, among 10 destinations on the rise. “It used to be Prague and Poland were hot, but now it’s all about Croatia, because it’s stunningly gorgeous,” says Bain. “The water was so warm when I was there in October; the most crystal-clear water I’ve ever seen.”

And it’s no wonder the country is gaining so much attention. Croatia’s coastline stretches 3,000 miles with over 1,000 islands, and the country is also home to 10 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and eight national parks. “In the summer, people from all over come to Split for festivals, dining and nightlife,” says Hernandez. “Opatija, on the northern coast, is in the truffle region, while nearby Pula has a colosseum that’s in better condition than Rome’s—without the crowds. And Zagreb’s Christmas market has been considered the best for several years. They turn the water fountains into an ice-skating rink.”

Another Eastern European destination on the rise is Slovenia, thanks in part to being the home of Melania Trump. “The capital of Slovenia, Ljubljana, has exploded into the media because of our First Lady,” says Hernandez. “That’s been intriguing people.”

Slovenia was also named the world’s most sustainable country by the United Nations last year, with Ljubljana anointed the greenest city in Europe by the European Union in 2017. The country’s cobblestone towns are surrounded by lush forests, with more than 40 parks and reserves—making it a perfect choice for the eco-minded traveler.

For luxury-seekers, the region’s hot spot is Montenegro, which is well known for its upscale hotels and resorts. “Montenegro is the playground of the rich and famous in Europe, with the added bonus of a lot of history and beautiful architecture. It’s really magical,” says Hernandez.

Looking ahead to the future, Androić is already anticipating the next big thing. “Albania is definitely going to be out-selling Croatia,” he says. “It offers super value and is untouched by tourists and without chain brands—so the hotels, restaurants and markets are local.”

With so many diverse offerings and buzz-worthy destinations, agents can also easily recommend multi-stop Eastern European trips to clients. Silkey says she pairs Vienna, Zagreb, Split and Dubrovnik, and also recommends Italian destinations like Milan, Venice and Trieste as an accompaniment to Slovenia and Croatia. Hernandez sends clients to Ljubljana in Slovenia, along with Budapest and Vienna.

“Eastern Europe offers so much more than people think,” says Androić. There’s really something for everyone: foodies, active travelers, adventurers, history buffs and more.”

JDS Travel News JDS Viewpoints JDS Africa/MI