Does it seem that the one-size-fits-all solution to poverty and underdevelopment, anywhere, is tourism? Agro-, heritage, extreme – anything but “mass” – tourism is touted as the ideal way to inject money into local communities at the grassroots, small business level, attracting visitors, journalists and, eventually, the National Geographic Channel.

There is much to be said for this approach. After all, tourism has been instrumental in raising living standards in many parts of Europe, from Switzerland in the 19th century to Greece in the mid-20th and the Czech Republic, etc, etc., in the late 20th century.

Can the same happen in some of Europe’s most deprived rural communities? One Hungarian village is trying it out. The residents of Bódvalenke are mostly Roma, and they are hoping to capitalize on the idea of the emotional, sensitive Gypsy soul to attract visitors to this northeastern corner of Hungary, near the Slovak border. A scheme has been going since 2009 to cover the walls of the village houses with colorful frescoes, some quite beautiful.

Probably it doesn’t matter much that the frescoes are not the work of Bódvalenke residents themselves. Rather, prominent Romani artists were invited to do most of the painting, notably the Serbian Zoran Tairovic.

In honor of this weekend’s Hungarian Grand Prix, someone added a speeding Formula 1 car to one of the frescoes. The effect is a bit crude, as can be seen in this YouTube video, but maybe this will bring some new visitors to the village. According to this article, the idea to transform Bódvalenke into an “art village” came to activist Eszter Pásztor several years ago after she witnessed a march by the virulently xenophobic Hungarian Guard.

Projects like the one in Bódvalenke deserve much praise for trying to bring poor rural areas into the economic mainstream. The proximity of a major tourist attraction, the Aggtelek caves, should also help steer tourists toward the village. While it is true that some of the motifs in the frescoes edge toward kitsch – brides in white, horses, angelic beings and other familiar imagery from Romani “naïve” art – it may also be true that a dash of kitsch is an essential ingredient in any grassroots tourism scheme that hopes to make money.

Ky Krauthamer

Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor at Transitions Online. Email: ky.krauthamer@tol.org

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