Krakow? The director of the Warsaw tourist office, Barbara Tekieli, is at pains to point out that her city has much higher numbers. For proof, look no further than the latest statistics from the Polish national Institute of Tourism which show that in 2009, Warsaw welcomed 2.2 million foreign tourists who spent 800 million euros. According to the same report, only 900,000 visited Krakow, spending 330 million euros.
The skyscrapers of Warsaw
However, this data is not taken seriously in Crakow. The correct figure for the number of foreign tourists in 2009 is not 900,000 but 1.95 million, and the information provided by Warsaw is simply inaccurate, insists Paweł Mierniczak, director of the Lesser Poland regional tourist office, who claims that the conflicting statistics have resulted from differences in methods used to gather data.
At the same time, Mierniczak acknowledges that there is no doubt that Warsaw is more dynamic. The central Polish city is rapidly developing an array of new tourist attractions. No less than eight museums set to European standards have recently been inaugurated or will shortly open their doors to the public.
Warsaw has also offered a creative outlet to some of the world’s best known architects: including the designer of the Freedom Tower at Ground Zero, American Daniel Libeskind, whose residential skyscraper Zlota 44 is currently under construction next to the city’s central station, and Germany’s Helmut Jahn, known for his remarkable Sony Centre at Berlin’s Potsdam Square. As it stands, with the exception of Paris, London and Frankfurt, no other city in the European Union has as many skyscrapers as Warsaw.
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Chopin - a bankable attraction
The capital has also become a sought after destination for residents of the former Soviet Republics who are attracted by the lure of two of Europe’s largest shopping destinations: the Arkadia Shopping Centre and Zlote Tarasy.
A runaway success ever since it opened five years ago, the Warsaw Rising Museum will welcome 600,000 visitors this year, and is now the city’s second most popular tourist attraction, after the Warsaw Zoo. "In other countries, everyone has heard of the Warsaw Ghetto, but hardly anyone knows the story of the Warsaw Uprising [the main rebellion of the Polish Resistance against the Nazi occupiers in August 1944 ]. It will take time to change that. But we have already made some progress," points out museum spokeswoman Anna Kotonowicz.
The figure of Chopin has also emerged as a bankable attraction. Since the April-2010 opening of a new ultramodern museum devoted to the composer in the Ostrogski Palace, the number of Japanese tourists visiting the city has increased by a third. At the same time, the inauguration of The Museum of the History of the Polish Jews, which is set to open in 18 months time, is expected to become a major draw for young Israelis, who come to Poland to trace the history of the Holocaust. Until now, these visitors only spent a few hours in the city, but with the opening of the new museum, they are expected to spend a day and probably a night in the Polish capital.
Has Krakow exhausted its potential?
In the face of such stiff competition, Krakow has not given up the fight. An ultramodern museum which tells the story of life in the city in the Middle Ages has just opened its doors in the former capital’s historic centre. The month of October was also marked by the re-opening of the famous Sukiennice drapers’ hall, which had been closed for an extensive renovation programme. And taking advantage of the publicity offered by Steven Spielberg’s film, Oskar Schindler’s factory has been transformed into a museum of life during the WWII occupation.
Unlike Warsaw, Krakow is located in a region with many places to visit. These not only include Auschwitz (the site which attracts more foreign tourists than any other in Poland), but also the Wieliczka salt mine, the Jasna Gora Monastery, and the natural beauties of the Carpathians: the Tatras and Pieniny National Park, and the Dunajec River Gorge.
Notwithstanding the lure exerted by all of these attractions, several indicators show that Krakow has exhausted its potential and will have to do more if it wants its tourist industry to grow. The city, which has set its sights on becoming a second Prague, still attracts only half as many tourists as the Czech capital.
Only the beginning…
In two years’ time, the Euro 2012 football championship, for which Krakow will not be a venue, will provide Warsaw with a unique opportunity to welcome new visitors. Some 100,000 supporters are expected to attend matches in the city. At the same time, along with five other Polish cities, Warsaw is competing to become the 2016 European Capital of Culture. Here once again, Crakow is not in the running.
The ongoing development of world tourism will mean that the number of visitors to Warsaw will continue to grow. Once you have been to Paris, London and Rome, and when you know Prague and Vienna like the back of your hand, then you inevitably develop a yearning to explore somewhere new. That is when Warsaw becomes an interesting option.