SZIGLIGET – Fishermen in small, wooden boats drift among the reeds and placid waters of Lake Balaton, the largest lake in Central Europe and one of Hungary's natural treasures.
Like many of the villages dotted along the shoreline of what is popularly known as the “Hungarian sea,” the quaint village of Szigliget has against the odds maintained and nurtured its traditional character for centuries.
Its towering fortress, whitewashed peasant homes and small vineyards on gentle slopes have remained virtually unchanged despite two world wars, 45 years of Communism, and Hungary's transition to a market economy.
New and formidable threats are looming, however. Real estate speculation, clearance of the countryside to improve access for tourists and climate change are combining to cast a shadow over this whole area.
Many of the lake’s settlements have already fallen prey to speculative property development. The mayor of Szigliget, Daniel Balassa, says a recent surge of construction makes him fear his village’s idyllic atmosphere could soon make it the next target.
“We don’t need huge buildings here, or for the whole shoreline to be built upon. We have a beach and a marina, we don’t need anything else,” Balassa told The Associated Press beside a reed bed on the lakeshore.
The lake is nearly 50 miles (80 kilometers) long and has 120 miles (200 kilometers) of shoreline. With its silty bottom and shallow waters — the average depth is only about 10 feet (3 meters) — the lake is home to a delicate ecology that provides a seasonal destination for a variety of migratory birds.
But Hungary’s government views the lake as a potential goldmine for domestic and international tourism.
In 2016, it designated the region as a priority tourism development area, and earmarked 365 billion forints ($1.27 billion) of Hungarian and European Union funds for railroad improvements, roads, marinas and the renovation and construction of hotels and guesthouses.
According to the Hungarian Tourism Agency, 232 such projects have been undertaken in 56 settlements in recent years.
“There is huge destruction of the environment. Trees are being cut and good quality reeds are disappearing, threatening the whole ecosystem,” Angela Badzso, co-chair of citizens’ action group Unity for the Balaton, told the AP.
The reeds serve to maintain a healthy balance in the water and ensure a vibrant habitat.
“As the reeds are disappearing, they are less able to filter Lake Balaton’s water. This is one of the reasons why algae growth is higher and fish die,” Badzso says.
Zoltan Kun, a conservationist and environmental protection expert, said that while Balaton’s water quality has significantly improved since the 1990s, the decreased reed coverage threatens to throw the complex ecosystem into imbalance.
“The unfortunate truth in Hungary ... is that we measure the success of development in the square meters of concrete, rather than the number of certain birds or square meters of reeds around the lake,” Kun said.
After Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his ruling Fidesz party took power in 2010, the government dissolved the country’s environmental protection ministry. Kun says that significantly reduced the state’s ability to look after its natural resources.
The conservation regulations that do exist are often selectively enforced, Kun said, or involve meager fines only after damage has already been done.
Istvan Boka, chairman of the Lake Balaton Development Council and a governing party lawmaker, contends that existing environmental regulations are enough to prevent the destruction of untouched portions of the lake.
Recent developments, he says, “have all taken place on shoreline that is already developed.”
During Hungary’s socialist era, Lake Balaton was a popular getaway for many workers who could enjoy vacations subsidized by their labor unions. Citizens of both East and West Germany could also visit the lake, making it a common meeting place for families with members living on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
Since then, it has remained an affordable destination for Hungarians of nearly all economic backgrounds, though much of the infrastructure built during the socialist period has become dilapidated and requires renewal.
But now luxury accommodation is on the rise and plans are afoot to increase sailboat traffic on the lake, directed at wealthier tourists.
Balassa, the local mayor, said that while the magic of the lake and its villages makes a growth in tourism and development to some degree unavoidable, it should be conducted on a “human scale” that respects the area's natural and cultural integrity.
“Not every new project is necessarily a terrible thing. You just have to find common ground that is satisfactory for everyone,” Balassa said.