Free market puts crimp in Poles' chances to go on vacation and pay for it

August 26, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

POPOWO, Poland -- Tadeusz Durzynski has a bad case of vacation blues, even though he is one of the lucky ones not marooned at home.

Mr. Durzynski is spending two weeks with his family at this woodsy resort in central Poland, just as he has every August for the past 15 years. The problem is that none of his friends is here, and the no-frills holiday is setting him back nearly two months' pay.

"This is capitalism," the bushy-eyed tractor mechanic moaned during a stroll through a cluster of deserted cabins. "This used to be like one big family. We knew everyone. Now, no one has the money to pay for it."

Summer vacations, once as inveterate for workers in Eastern Europe as the annual May Day parade, have become an anachronism for people of everyday means under the new -- and less obliging -- rules of the free market.

As with almost everything in the former Soviet bloc, only the rich or lucky can afford most vacations and the pinched proletariat, ,, finally free to travel the world, is feeling angry and cheated.

"Everyone thought it would be better and easier when we were given democracy," says Edward Nowakowski, who works at the same tractor factory as Mr. Durzynski and has not gone away on vacation in four years. "I don't know when I'll be able to get away again."

Nearly three-quarters of Poles say they are leaving home for less than a week this summer, opinion surveys show, and many of those fortunate enough to get away are staying with friends and relatives because of tight budgets. By contrast, about half of Poles in the late 1980s took a summer vacation of more than a week, and most of those who stayed home did not blame their pocketbooks.

Tourism and government officials say the situation is comparable across the former Soviet bloc, including in Russia, where widely publicized accounts of Russians sunning on Italian beaches and dining in French cafes tell only a fraction of the story. The exception is the prosperous Czech Republic, where one official estimated 80 percent of people still can afford a summer vacation.

The adjustment has been agonizing, particularly for families with young children, since nearly everyone under socialism was allowed a summer holiday -- and a long one, at virtually no charge -- courtesy of behemoth state enterprises. The companies, which often also provided schools and other social services, owned hundreds of holiday centers from the Baltic Sea the Black Sea, and workers were assigned a time and place to relax.

But with a majority of Eastern Europeans working for private companies with no tradition of holiday giveaways or for state-owned enterprises teetering on the brink of insolvency, the free ride is over for summer vacationers of limited means. In Russia, the cost of a flight from Moscow to once-jammed Crimean vacation resorts costs $200, more than most Russians make in five weeks.

"For the typical two-week vacation, you now have to pay what the average person earns in two months," says Ilie Ivan, a Romanian government official. Many of the most popular vacation resorts have been handed over to private operators, who have jacked up prices and opened doors to anyone who can pay top dollar -- usually Germans and the richest Eastern Europeans.

In the secluded Mazurian lake district in northern Poland, the Lansk holiday center was for years a clandestine hideaway for the highestCommunist Party officials from across the former Soviet bloc. The center's elite guest list used to read like a Who's Who of communism, including such names as Nikita Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev, Erich Honecker and Fidel Castro. The 750-acre lakefront resort was too secret to appear on maps. Today the center is one of the most popular resorts still owned by the Polish government, but at $25 a night per person it is so unaffordable that only the richest Eastern Europeans can visit.

Even with dramatically higher prices and a small but entrenched class of wealthy wanderers, the precipitous drop in vacationing among Eastern Europeans has pushed many former state-run holiday centers toward bankruptcy.

Largely lost in the bumpy transition toward the bottom line have been the employees of the former state-run companies -- the people for whom the getaways were originally intended.

"There really isn't much difference for us," says Tadeusz Krogulec, a 24-year employee and shop foreman. "Before we couldn't go. Now we can't afford to go."

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