By GRAHAM HICKS
Before leaving on a September-long extended holiday in Poland – both as tourist and as a volunteer English teacher – I had no idea what shape the Central European country would be in.
Three decades after the fall of communism, Poland has had 27 years of steady economic growth, an average 6% annual growth in family incomes. Yet our primordial impressions of Poland are still from Iron Curtain days: Of grime, grimness, hopelessness, poverty, garbage piled up in the streets, brown-outs and black-outs.
Nothing could be further from the truth!
Today, Poland is Europe’s biggest and best secret. As the ninth biggest country (by size) in Europe, with about the same population as Canada (38 million), it has fully emerged from its shell-shocked recent history – the devastation of the Nazi occupation of the Second World War, with its mass killing of 11 million civilians including three million Polish Jews, followed by 40 vicious, suppressive years of communist governments.
The recent great narrative of Poland was its leading of Eastern Europe out of communism thanks to the heroic Solidarity trade movement of the 1980s, supported by the beloved Polish Pope, John Paul II.
Today, Poland is a very modern country. Its major cities – Warsaw, Krakow, Gdansk – boast modern public transit, are very clean, have good living standards for their citizens, very few homeless and a fashionable young business elite walking their historic downtowns.
And – psst – it’s a tourist mecca. Its historic downtowns and towering history are just as impressive as its better-known neighbours – Germany, France, United Kingdom, Italy – but at half the cost. A three-course meal in a good restaurant can be had for $10 Cdn – and tips are not expected. A half-litre bottle of beer from a convenience store is $1 Cdn, in a bistro, $2.
At least for a few more years, Poland will be a mecca for both tourism and business investment. It’s in the last stages of being an “emerging” national economy, officially named a “developed” country (by whoever measures these things) in the last couple of years.
Polish wages are still 30% to 40% less than in the developed countries to its west. But while not paid as much as in France, Great Britain or Germany, Polish professionals benefit from a lower cost of living. A well-located one-bedroom condo in Warsaw can be had for $150,000 Cdn. In London the same condo would cost $1.5 million Cdn.
Miraculously, the Polish have hung on to, and expanded, most sectors of their economy. It was the only country in the European Union whose economy grew during the worldwide recession of 2008-09 – credited to a diversified, almost insular, all-around internal economy.
There’s actual industry – steel mills, heavy and light manufacturing – through most of the country, plus the same high-tech that every other country in the advanced world is promoting. The service sector is buoyant. Advanced agriculture thrives. The plains of Poland are fertile. Tourism is growing by leaps and bounds.
The Polish economy is in a very rare state of equilibrium. Because labour costs are lower than in Western Europe, industry has not fled to Asia or Turkey. But as a modern country, it has the educational capacity to train technologists, combining automation with less expensive skilled labour.
Until recently, Poland was exporting skilled workers to the United Kingdom. They were good workers, fluent in English, willing to work for less. Now the “brain drain” has stopped. Wages and opportunities and the future look positive in Poland … and the threat of Brexit makes working in Great Britain less certain.
The worry in Poland is an acceleration of social spending by the current government, financed by ever-higher taxation and deficit spending. Many Poles – seeing what their parents and grandparents went through – are worried that government over-spending could impact the future economic health of the country.
Why does this sound familiar in Canada?