Bucharest experienced the fastest growth in international overnight arrivals of any major European city between 2009 and 2016, data compiled by MasterCard shows.
Tourist numbers in the Romanian capital remain modest compared to major West European capitals and even Central European tourist hubs like Prague and Budapest. But the data shows a steady increase in arrivals in both Bucharest and nearby Sofia during the seven year period, as they are increasingly on the tourist map, helped by the growing number of routes offered by pan-European budget airlines.
International overnight arrivals in Bucharest in 2016 reached 1,299,959, a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 10.4% compared to 2009, according to the latest Mastercard Destination Cities Index.
In addition to the increasing number of airlines serving Bucharest — where the airport is long overdue for an expansion as it is struggling to cope with the hike in arrivals — Romania has become increasingly attractive due to efforts to improve the tourist offering both in Bucharest and destinations like Transylvania and the Black Sea coast.
Within Bucharest, the historic Lipscani district in the heart of the city has had a facelift in recent years, that has seen its main streets repaired and decades of grime stripped off some of the buildings. It’s been a remarkable turnaround for a district that narrowly escaped demolition by Ceausescu’s bulldozers in the late 1980s, and had since fallen into near dereliction. In the last few years, it has become increasingly gentrified with boutiques and pavement cafes now almost (though not entirely) replacing the old strip joints and massage parlours.
At the same time, the city authorities have been creative in raising Bucharest’s previously rather low profile, for example by inviting dozens of social media influencers to sample its highlights during a recent conference.
In addition to Bucharest, visitor numbers also increased sharply in several other CEE capitals, with Sofia (1,186,413 arrivals in 2016) and Warsaw (1,720,197) tied in second place in the region.
Budapest, Moscow and Prague saw CAGRs of 8.6%, 8.2% and 7% respectively. A couple of Siberian cities — Novosibirsk and Yekaterinberg — saw an even faster CAGR of 18.2% and 14.3% respectively, outstripping all the CEE cities monitored but with visitor numbers still low in absolute terms.
By contrast, the number of international overnight arrivals in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv slumped by 3.9% during the same period. This was clearly caused by the March 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea and the armed conflict in Eastern Ukraine that started the same year; Kyiv saw visitor numbers peak at 1,716,599 in 2013 before collapsing by almost one million to just 787,734 the following year.
In terms of expenditure, Warsaw saw the sharpest growth of 10.9% in 2009-2016, followed by Minsk (up 9.6%).
Istanbul, which received 9,158,899 visitors in 2016 the highest in the region, unsurprisingly also had the highest tourist spend — $5.8bn — during the year. Prague was a remote second with $2.9bn, followed by Moscow and Budapest, both just over $1bn.
Despite the rapid increase in visitor numbers in both Bucharest and Sofia, the two cities saw spending increases of just 1.9% and 3.7% respectively, to $359mn and $500mn, reflecting the lower costs in most Southeast European countries.
Globally, Bangkok topped the list of cities in terms of visitor numbers in 2016, with 19.41mn arrivals, followed by London, Paris, Dubai and Singapore.
The largest amount of money — $28.5bn — was spent in Dubai, with New York, London, Singapore and Bangkok also making up the top 5.