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Despite New Air Routes, Macedonian Travel Remains Down-to-Earth

March 26, 2004

With the announcement that Bulgaria’s Hemus Air is planning to start flying to Skopje from June 17, a major breakthrough has been made in improving Macedonia’s regional travel connections. But another strike at Macedonian Railways yesterday, called to protest the government’s plan to lay off 868 workers, shows just how easily Macedonian travel can be brought crashing back down to earth.

Foreign businessmen and officials have decried the length of time it takes to traverse relatively short distances by land. From Skopje to Sofia, it takes around 4 hours by car, but around 6 hours by bus. In the summer, when the border crossing is flooded with buses, it can take much longer. As for Greece, the 230 km trip to Thessaloniki takes just over 3 hours by car. Yet while the former connection will soon be possible by air, the latter will not.

Without a car, the only real way to get to Thessaloniki from Skopje is via rail- meaning a dreary ride on smoky, dilapidated trains, lasting around 5 hours each way. Yet train travel is somewhat unpredictable, due to the chronic strikes from Macedonian Railway workers.

The government’s alleged plan to cut almost 900 workers (it’s hard to imagine there were ever so many to begin with) resulted in a sudden strike in the beginning of March, which brought not only national but international trains to a halt, leaving weary passengers stranded for days at the borders of Greece and Serbia. With no existing bus line to Greece (except for summer charters that also are forced to wait hours at the border) Macedonia remains the laughingstock of Balkan international travel.

At present, a return train ticket from Skopje to Thessaloniki costs 1,370 denars (22.5 euros). Yet one can shave around 7 euros from this price by purchasing a return ticket from Skopje to Gevgelija, and then buying a ticket to Thessaloniki from the Greek ticket station at their side of the border (6.60 euros one way).

Under no circumstances should one buy a ticket on the train in the border area, however; depending on the mood of the conductor the “international surcharge” can be up to 15 euros.

The reason why no Greek bus line exists is partly economic, and partly because of the Macedonians’ general difficulty with obtaining Greek visas. It’s not that qualifying for them is such a problem, but rather the process, expense and rising costs of life in Greece preclude the average person from going there on a regular basis. No market means no bus.

Contrast this with the very frequent bus services to Serbia, Bulgaria and Turkey, places where no visas are necessary for Macedonian citizens. One can get to Belgrade, at all hours of the day, for roughly 30 euros return. And only 60 euros will buy a return ticket all the way to Istanbul. Comparing this with the usual 225-250 euro price to get there by air with Turkish Airlines, one can readily see why Macedonian shuttle traders and tourists are content to brave the 12 hours on the bus.

The price for bus travel to countries requiring visas for Macedonian citizens is somewhat higher, however. Continuing another 6 hours from Belgrade (itself around 6 hours from Skopje) one reaches Budapest, Hungary- but for 50 euros one way. Traveling to Ljubljana, Slovenia by bus costs 40 euros one way, and takes around 14 hours.

Yet going from Skopje to Slovenia by train is both slightly more expensive and infinitely longer (over 20 hours). One can thus sympathize with Greece-bound train travelers from Ljubljana who, already exhausted from this arduous journey, wind up being stranded indefinitely on the Macedonian border during railway strikes, as they were yesterday and today.

That said, other ground transport does exist in the occasional mini-bus services some travel agencies supply to Thessaloniki. Yet these are also unpredictable, and tend to go regularly only in the summer months, when people are heading to Halkidiki for vacation.

At other times, it can be tough to find enough people (4) to make the trip feasible. With a full minibus, one will pay 25-30 euros for a return ticket. Certainly, a lone individual can rent out an entire minibus and pay 100 euros at any time, but that is not terribly cost-effective.

Another drawback with this option is that in the off-season, passengers must usually pledge to return on the same day as they depart. Whereas in the summer one can usually make a reservation to go on say, a Wednesday and come back on a Saturday, during the off-season, when companies have no guarantee of getting a full load on the return leg, the one-day trip is usually mandatory. So when the railway authorities say, “my way or the highway!” one has no choice but to sigh and go with them.

Yet now that Macedonians have the option of flying to Sofia, will an air route to Thessaloniki soon follow? After all, the former is not too much farther than the latter (and arguably, also not as attractive a destination).

First of all, however, we will have to see if the Bulgarian air service proves successful. As one nonchalant Macedonian said, “if it costs 200 euros, or even 100 to go to Sofia by plane, I will continue to take the bus. It is just too expensive.” Perhaps only businessmen, politicians and the independently wealthy will be able to afford it. Plus, Bulgaria’s EU accession requirements mean that the country will be forced to start a visa regime for Macedonian citizens at some point in the next few years- cutting into the customer base yet again.

Hemus Air and the airports involved must therefore hope that they have enough customers to make the air route sustainable. If they know what’s good for them, they will offer summertime charter flights from Skopje directly to the Black Sea coast, as this is the number one Macedonian summer vacation spot. And many would no doubt be glad to forego the truly onerous 12-15 hour bus ride. In summer months the airline would probably have at least 2 full flights a week.

Only in the case of a successful Bulgarian air experiment can anyone contemplate a similar Thessaloniki run. Yet with no signs of Greece dropping its visa regime in the near future, and with Aegean Air set to stop its Skopje summer service to concentrate on the Olympic tourists, it’s not likely that anyone will take up this idea anytime soon.

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