Eastern Europe: Why it might be the next holiday hotspot

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Trends in global tourism are shifting, and while France, the U.S., and China continue to lead in terms of visitors, countries not known first and foremost as tourist hotspots are emerging as low-cost but option-rich destinations.

While Europe remains the most visited region in the world, tourism growth in 2012 and early 2013 was led by destinations in central and Eastern Europe, according to the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).

The organization forecasts that over the long term, international arrivals in the emerging economies, including Central and Eastern Europe will grow at double the pace of that in advanced economy destinations.

By CNBC's Alice Tidey

Russia
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2012 year-on year growth: 13.4 percent.

Russia is not necessarily the cheapest place to visit, with capital city Moscow rated as the fourth most expensive city in the world for expatriates, according to a report by consultancy firm Mercer.

But the Russian Federation's embassy in the U.K. said the country's most popular attractions are actually the cities forming the country's "Golden Ring" north of Moscow, which it says showcase traditional Russia at its best.

In 2012, the tourism industry represented 5.9 percent of the country's economy, but looks set to grow. Since 2005, Russia has introduced 23 "special economic zones" aimed at both attracting foreign direct investment and improving infrastructure, 13 of which have been developed for tourism and recreation.


Ukraine
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2012 year-on year growth: 7.5 percent.

Ukraine, one of the largest countries in Europe, is home to a wide variety of landscapes ranging from mountains to vineyards. But two destinations - the capital Kiev and the Crimea - currently attract an overwhelming majority of the country's tourists (60 percent), according to consultancy firm Timetric.

However, with over 4,500 villages founded more than 300 years ago, Ukraine is centring its strategy on rural tourism as travelers' interests shift towards nature and culture.

And there's an additional advantage of visiting Ukraine: according to the UNWTO, the country is ranked 47th in terms of international tourism receipts, making Ukraine the cheapest country among the 20 most visited in the world.


Poland
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2012 year-on year growth: 11.2 percent.

For Sean Tipton, media relations manager at holiday industry association ABTA, Poland is "almost exclusively a city break destination," with Krakow and capital Warsaw attracting the bulk of tourists.

But its "largely unspoilt" countryside offers potential for growth, Tipton said. Poland also has the seventh highest number of health spas in Europe and the second-highest numbers of lakes after Finland, according to consultancy firm Weastra.

Located at the center of Europe, the country is the beneficiary of many European Union (EU) funds. In fact, since 2007 the Polish tourism sector has received nearly 231 million euros ($312 million) in EU subsidies for tourism investment projects, and between 2014 and 2020 it should receive another 70 million euros to expand and improve its infrastructure.


Croatia
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2012 year-on-year growth: 4.5 percent.

With its warm climate, Croatia's beaches are its main attraction. Indeed, according to the country's tourism report, over 92 percent of tourist overnight stays took place on the sea coast.

The Istria peninsula, well-known for its emerald-blue water and stunning shoreline, is the country's most popular destination, with 31.7 percent of overnight stay taking place there.

With around 19 percent of Croatia's gross domestic product (GDP) coming from tourism, the government is keen to keep the momentum going and in February 2013 announced that it would invest around seven billion euros ($9.45 billion) in the sector before 2020.


Hungary
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2012 year-on-year growth: 1 percent.

Budapest remains the major attraction for international tourists visiting the country, with 57.3 percent of international guest's bedding down in the capital, according to the Hungarian Tourism authority. Spas and health resorts are also a major attraction for foreigners, as the country boasts around 1,300 natural thermal springs, in use since Roman time.

In its "Travel & Tourism Economic impact 2012: Hungary", the WTO estimated that the sector's contribution to the country's economy was above 8 percent in 2012 and is set to grow by an annual average of 2.7 percent until 2022. It expects investments to grow by an 4.5 percent annually to reach $1.2 billion in 2022.


Czech Republic
Prague
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2012 year-on-year growth: -1.2 percent.

Prague remains the "main draw" according to Sean Tipton, media relations manager at ABTA, and it is "easily the most popular city break for U.K. holidaymakers in eastern Europe".

The financial crisis hit the Czech tourism sector quite hard, as tourist arrivals in the country declined between 2007 and 2012, but the sector is starting to recover.

In fact, Euromonitor International, the market intelligence firm, believes that the country "still has relatively untapped potential for tourism development" and predicts that it should record positive growth in all markets until at least 2016 due to investment in new health programs and improving tourism services.


Kazakhstan
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2012 year-on-year growth: 8.4 percent.

Kazakhstan's unique position, at the intersection of Europe and Asia, as well as its sheer size, means the country has a wide variety of landscapes and cultures.

The country boasts a huge natural habitat, and also has Silk Road appeal, as it connects the East with Europe, Turkey and the Middle East. Almaty, the former capital, is the main tourism hub, and located at the foot of the Tien-Shan mountain, it offers a wide range of outdoor activities, as well as world-class skiing facilities.

Earlier this year, the Institute of Industry Development announced that it would start investing to diversify into adventure and beach tourism in the hope that by 2020, the country features among the world's top 50 or 60 countries by tourism volume.


Estonia
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2012 year-on-year growth: 3.0 percent.

Estonia is primarily a rural country, half of it covered with forest, but the main attraction for foreign tourists is the capital, Tallinn. "Lots of stag parties travel to the capital Tallinn", explained the ABTA's Sean Tipton.

After northern Estonia, where the capital is situated, the most attractive region for tourists is the western coastal region, with its 1,500 islands.

The government is keen to develop its tourism sector and has already invested about $268 million between 2007 and 2013 and announced in June of this year that another $165 million would be poured into the sector before 2020.


Azerbaijan
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2012 year-on-year growth: 27.1 percent.

Unusually combining nine of the world's 11 climate zones, mountains, beaches and a water temperature of 22-26 degrees for five months a year, Azerbaijan is growing hotspot.

The Old City of Baku, the capital, was the first location in the country to be classified as a World Heritage Site by Unesco and is one of the most popular destinations because of its wealth of historical and architectural monuments.

Aided by a state program for tourism development for the 2010-2014 period, the country has launched several infrastructure projects and hopes that visits will increase by 70 to 80 percent within the next five to six years.

Its enthusiasm for the sector is echoed by the World Travel & Tourism council, which in a survey of 181 countries showing the growing importance of tourism in a nation's gross domestic product (GDP) over the next decade, Azerbjian ranks fifth.


Georgia
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2012 year-on-year growth: 35.7 percent.

"A rustic ski wonderland on the verge of discovery" is how the New York Times described the country in 2011, ranking it sixth out of 41 top places to visit.

Tbilisi and the seaside city of Batumi attract the bulk of tourists but several mountain resorts are becoming more and more popular according to East Invest, a regional investment and trade facilitation organization.

The country's aggressive strategy to develop tourism should boost its profile, according to Euromonitor International, which also highlights some of the major projects being put in place. Among them is a new ski resort, an hour away from the seaside, "which will enable tourists to enjoy both winter and summer resorts during a single day trip in the next few years."