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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 April, 2004, 10:55 GMT 11:55 UK
Go East!
By Paula Dear
BBC News Online

Go east
Amid all the discussion of people from the newly expanded Europe making their way to the UK from this weekend, one small thing seems to have been overlooked. The road from East to West goes in both directions.

For every person who fears the consequences of an enlarged EU there's someone else who's spotted an opportunity.

Whether the whole thing opens up our minds to a new holiday spot, a cheap stag or hen night option, a lucrative investment opportunity, or a higher standard of living, it seems plenty of Brits are gearing up to go East.

In the case of the 10 new members, restrictions have relaxed and travelling is set to become easier and cheaper.

Add to this the fact that buying property abroad is no longer viewed as a privilege reserved for the super-rich, and you have to wonder if our new EU partners know what they're in for.

For 30-year-old entrepreneur Kurt Wilson, his stag night in Vilnius, Lithuania, turned out to be more life-changing than he'd expected.

Tallinn, Estonia
Estonia's capital Tallinn "spoiled" by beer swillers

Two years after falling in love with it, he owns a new 44,000 riverside apartment and has just closed the deal on setting up a branch of his internet company Advansys in the city.

"We are a small company and often had to bring in contractors. In Lithuania we can hire very talented people for a quarter of the salaries contractors in the UK demand."

And the people in Lithuania generally have a stronger work ethic, says Kurt, who has advertised for two locals to work in the Vilnius office.

"The majority are highly educated and very keen to prove themselves. And almost all the young people speak English."

He and his wife have "not ruled out" making a new life there, he says.

Kurt Wilson in Vilnius
Some think I'm mad - it's not a country people know a lot about, but to me it's an educated gamble
Kurt Wilson
"When I first went there it was not at all what I expected. People often think it sounds grey and horrible but it's beautiful.

"Some people think I'm mad. It's not a country people know a lot about, but to me it's an educated gamble."

And he's not alone in "gambling" his investment in the new EU.

US citizen Robert Beck, who runs a Budapest agency dealing in Hungarian properties, can hardly keep up with the rate of enquiries he's had in the last year.

"We are seeing a real increase in people coming in as investors, but not so much to have a home or holiday place here. I love it here, but this is not Marbella."

"The EU is the deciding factor for investors. People may still have reservations but this makes it feel like a safe bet."

With city centre apartments going for around 75,000 it could be a bet worth placing, he says.

Cheap flights

Business has been equally healthy for 25-year-old Tom Leach, who made the move from the Midlands to sell properties to foreigners in Krakow, Poland, last year.

Cyprus beach
Holiday homes in Cyprus are already proving popular
He became besotted with the city after inter-railing in Eastern Europe, and moved to Krakow the very day the Polish people voted yes to joining the EU.

"That being in the pipeline was a big factor. But the cheap airlines coming was probably an even bigger one," he says.

"I have been quite surprised at the level of interest from the UK and Ireland. At least 50% are looking only to invest, but around 10-15% are relocating here."

Meanwhile others are sussing out the new EU for new business ventures.

The British Chamber of Commerce in Latvia has hosted 13 "trade mission" groups of interested business people from the UK this year alone.

There are still some misconceptions - people will ask if the hotels have hot water
Phil Teubler, Baltic Holidays

"We have always had businesses coming here, but we would only see two or three trade missions each year. EU membership has absolutely made a difference," says executive director Juris Benkis, who was born in Leeds to Latvian parents.

One country that's not anticipating much of a demographic alteration is Malta.

"We are expecting a small influx of pensioners," said a British High Commission spokesman, adding that despite the high standard of living they could see "no reason" why people would come to work on the island.

But it's not just the shrewd investor types that the enlargement states should be expecting to see.

'Scary sounding places'

Much publicity has been given to Easyjet's launch of new routes from London to Ljubljana in Slovenia, and Budapest, and EU-based airlines are clamouring to expand tourist routes and cut prices.

While falling prices have fuelled fears about the enlargement of the already growing stag and hen night trade in some cities, at least people will open their eyes to the beauty of the region, said Baltic Holidays owner Phil Teubler.

The specialist company - which sends UK visitors to Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia - has already seen a huge rise in interest in the area.

Clubbers out for a good time
Cheap booze, good times?
While it sent just 350 people out to Lithuania in 2001, more than 2,000 travellers used their services last year.

"There are still some misconceptions. People will ask if the hotels have hot water," he said.

"These countries will be no different on 2 May, but it will change people's perceptions of what may seem to them like scary sounding places."

While Phil would like to see the lifestyle preserved in the region, he acknowledges there's a Catch-22 with the growth in travel opportunities.

One UK newspaper is even running a weekend travel feature for stags on "where to get wrecked in the new Europe".

"Estonia's capital Tallinn has been spoiled by stag nights, so we made it our policy not to send them there," says Phil.

"If they book with us to go to Vilnius we tell them to behave, put them in different hotels, and point them to places where they'll be least trouble."

Some of your comments: I've been on holiday every year for the last five years to Eastern Europe, both to Poland and the Czech Republic. Its not just the relative cheapness, there also great places to visist - from the night life, to the local attractions and the friendly people.
Adam Pridmore, UK

The hospitality I have received throughout Romania, in particular Transylvania, would put most Brits to shame. The history and culture throughout Eastern Europe is quite fascinating and it is sad to think that some people are now only visiting these countries to take advantage of the relatively cheap alcohol.
Matthew Gardiner, England

I came back to my native Malta after 13 years away, once the political situation here had settled. "No reason" for foreigners to come and live here? Interesting point of view. I would have thought that our generally high standard of living, low crime, excellent social and cultural life, and an outdoor lifestyle made possible because of the great weather would attract a few people...
Vanessa, Malta

Couldn't agree more. I'm Dutch, my wife is Lithuanian, we (still) live in the UK, but are in the process of buying a second property in Vilnius. The place is booming and the quality of life? Whereas the annual income in LT maybe only a tenth of that in the UK, the quality of life is a factor ten higher. I'm still in work here, but if my contract runs out in a few months time, I will be happy to leave Phoney Tony's Big Brother run-by-the-red-tops state forever.
Robert Prins, UK

This is wonderful news. Maybe once more infomation like this gets around, and esspeically once people start visiting these countries they will stop beliving that so many of their citizens are desperate to abandon their beautiful cites, cheaper housing and jobs to become a scape goat in a council flat over here.
Katy Daffarn, UK

It's a shame that Europe will be more homongenized with people moving freely around. Regional differences will be erased and travelling will no longer be so exciting. It will be like the situation here in the US where you find the same fast food restaurant everywhere, and make life so predictable and boring.
L. Nguyen, US




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