Sziget May Benefit From Turbulence

Sziget is so dependent on foreign visitors that it looked disastrous when Hungary’s national airline tanked. But it may work out to the festival’s advantage.

András Berta, Sziget’s international relations manager, says other budget airlines are filling the gap and there will soon be “more and cheaper plane tickets” for foreign visitors.

Airlines Easyjet and Wizz are already upping their slots by about 10 percent, while Ryanair – which stopped flying to Hungary two years ago – has announced it will start operating 31 routes from Budapest in April.

That’s all happened since national airline Malév crashed Feb. 14 with debts of about $271 million. Two weeks earlier, most of its 22 planes were grounded after others had been impounded overseas for unpaid debts.

Malév didn’t even own the planes, having the whole flight on lease from the International Lease Finance Corporation.
There was no chance of help from the government, which is itself seeking help from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund to handle its own heavy debt load.

The European Commission ordered the airline a month earlier to repay the millions of dollars it received from the government, because it was state aid that broke European law.

The government’s need to claw in some money has resulted in a national average monthly wage of about euro 1,000 ($1,345), VAT at 27 percent and most Hungarians without enough disposable income to afford a ticket to Sziget.

In January, when it won the Best European Festival award, which is decided by a pan-European vote, Sziget programme director Fruzsina Szep and international booker Dan Panaitescu said it was like a vote of confidence from its regular visitors and hoped the publicity would help attract more of them.

It was also reward for the festival’s 20-year effort to establish an event that could hold up its head on a global level.
Last year, 60 percent of the Sziget tickets were bought by people living outside of Hungary, but an astonishing 90 percent of the 40,000 full weekly tickets were sold to people from other countries – mainly The Netherlands, France, Italy, the UK and Germany.

The seven days of Sziget attracted 385,000 visitors of 80 nationalities.

Most capital cities would be pleased to support a festival that can bring in that many visitors, but in 2011 a cash-strapped Budapest put the squeeze on the event by trying to hike the site rental to euro 9 million – more than 90 percent of the festival’s annual budget.

Part of the compromise involved festival-goers being offered a cut-price “city service package” including free use of public transport and discounts on tickets for Budapest’s zoos, theme parks and its famous Turkish spa baths, among other things.

It proved very popular, but the festival was underwriting it, which contributed to Sziget making a loss despite pulling as many as 70,000 people on its busier days.

The group managed to stay in the black only because its other festivals, such as Volt and Balaton Sound, had a good year.

This year’s Sziget is Aug. 6-13 and the headliners include The Stone Roses and Placebo.