With its inviting turquoise waters, white sandy banks, picturesque mountainous landscapes and resort towns, Hungary’s Lake Balaton has plenty for tourists to write home about.
However, a labor shortage exacerbated by low salaries and Hungary’s anti-immigration policies is making life difficult for the lake’s tourism industry.
Already popular under communism, visitors still flock in increasing numbers to central Europe’s largest lake to soak up its warm summer climate and enjoy the beaches, bars and eateries, as well as locally produced wines.
However, that is proving a headache for restaurant and hotel owners, who struggle to find workers, as unemployment in Hungary is historically low at 3.6 percent, while nationalist firebrand Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is strongly against immigration.
“It’s impossible to find a gardener, or a waitress, or a cook,” said Balazs Banlaki, the owner of Kali-Kapocs, a restaurant nestled in the hills of Mindszentkalla on the northern shore of the lake, about 80km southwest of the capital, Budapest.
Banlaki usually needs about 10 employees to run his restaurant, which he only opens during the summer months, but he has to do more and more himself.
“Before each new season, we repaint the restaurant, but even for that kind of work, it’s me who takes up the brush now,” he told reporters.
With a national average salary of less than 530 euros (US$616) per month and half a million people having left the country to work in western Europe over the past decade, Hungary lacks workers.
Despite having one of the lowest fertility rates in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and a population of less than 10 million, its government has not heeded appeals from businesses to open its borders to qualified workers.
Banlaki recalled how last year he could only offer drinks, coffee and sandwiches, because he could not find a cook. After raising salaries, he is glad to have at least a handful of workers this year.
“But even when we find someone, there is a high chance that he or she will quit again quickly. With festivals, holiday plans with friends and other occasions, young people don’t stay,” he said.
“I don’t dare to criticize our workers for fear they will just leave,” he added.
On the other side of the lake — known also for its big beach parties and discotheques — the high-end Plazs Siofok beach complex that can hold close to 10,000 people faces similar challenges.
“We advertise [job openings] everywhere and all the time... The lack of qualified workers is a constant problem,” manager Erzsebet Mazula said.
Due to its trendy image — with numerous restaurants, an outdoor gym, beach bars and a concert stage that has drawn Hungary’s best disc jockeys and singers — Plazs Siofok can attract student workers, Mazula said.
“They are certainly not professionals, but we train them before the season starts. Being involved and friendly and smiling is more important than knowing how to make complicated cocktails,” she told reporters. “But even with this system, you can see there are not enough waiters and waitresses to serve our clients.”
At Siofok, 39-year-old mother-of-two Petra Lisztes said her family spends several weeks at the lake every year and she has noticed that many of the small food and drinks stands had remained shut this time and that service in restaurants was slower.
The problem extends far beyond Lake Balaton.
Seen as a relatively cheap holiday destination, the number of tourists to Hungary has climbed 7 percent this year, after already reaching a record 29.5 million overnight hotel stays last year, Hungarian Central Statistical Office data showed.
To compensate for a lack of workers, several Budapest hotels have started to simplify reception services inspired by airline companies’ online check-in systems.
However, the problem is hard to solve for jobs that require expertise, such as cooks, head waiters and waitresses or managers.
Seeking to offer a solution, the government is trying to convince pensioners to return to work by exempting them from having to pay social contributions and capping taxes at 15 percent.
Since last year, Budapest has permitted workers from neighboring non-EU countries Ukraine and Serbia to work in Hungary for up to 90 days without a work permit.
However, the measures have failed to solve the shortage.
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