Story by Amy Steinmann
Once described as Central Europe’s hidden gem, Krakow’s charm and uniqueness are no longer secret, as evidenced by the 13.5 million tourists who visited in 2018. The capital of Poland until 1596, Krakow is a city on the upswing, where 13th-century castles and ancient architecture juxtapose a burgeoning innovation ecosystem and an emerging startup hub. Regarded as the intellectual heart of the country, Krakow boasts 23 institutions of higher education, with a combined yearly enrollment of 200,000 students—one-quarter of the city’s residents. The city showcases a vibrant mix of students and academics, entrepreneurs and techies, as well as artists and musicians who all call Krakow home and contribute to its distinct character.
Residents grow tired of the old stereotypes associated with Poland, rightfully claiming that the country is more than just pierogi, pottery and vodka. Poland is one of the fastest-growing economies in the European Union (EU), with record low unemployment and strong wage growth. As it celebrates 30 years since breaking the chains of communist rule, today’s Poland reflects its embrace of democracy and the free market. Since its accession to NATO in 1999 and to the EU in 2004, Poland has achieved integration into European and Euro-Atlantic security, political and economic institutions and has become one of the closest U.S. allies in Europe. President Trump’s second trip abroad was to Poland, a testimony to the importance of this bilateral relationship.
Consulate General Krakow represents U.S. interests in southern Poland and advances Department of State and Mission priorities in the six provinces under its jurisdiction. The consulate general focuses its efforts on promoting trade, building people-to-people relationships and processing around 40,000 nonimmigrant visas (NIV) annually. It is a relatively small operation, with only nine direct-hire Americans, but what the consulate general lacks in staffing, it makes up for in spirit. Many of the 60 or so local staff have been employed at the Mission for decades and their dedication and passion are evident in the work they do. A handful of the local staff even remembers when the consulate general first opened, in its previous location, 45 years ago.
People-to-people engagement lies at the heart of the consulate general’s mission. American officers pride themselves on their ability to meet face-to-face with Poles from all professional sectors, political affiliations and demographic groups. The consulate’s American Center attracts youth audiences who come for English conversation clubs, university students searching for library resources or school groups who come to learn about American culture from Foreign Service officers. Public diplomacy outreach spans the spectrum of initiatives and programming, from musical concerts featuring U.S. rock groups and hosting expert speakers to exchange programs and partnerships with higher education institutions in Krakow.
There is a solid foundation to build upon. In 2019, Mission Poland is celebrating the centennial of U.S.-Polish diplomatic relations and 60 years of the Fulbright program in Poland, a relationship that has grown closer throughout the past 30 years. “The U.S.-Polish partnership continues to reach new levels,” said Consul General B. Bix Aliu. “We cooperate in nearly every field of human endeavor from security to entrepreneurship to education.
And much of that activity takes place here in southern Poland.”
The economic and commercial bonds that exist between the United States and Poland are a key component of the strong bilateral relationship. American companies were among the first to invest in Poland in 1989 and have played an important role in Poland’s economic transformation since then.
With thousand-year-old castles and one of the largest medieval squares in Europe, Krakow’s old-world charms belie its world-class tech sector, fueling one of the fastest growing economies in Europe. Poland has seen uninterrupted economic growth since 1992 and is the GDP-growth leader (per capita) among all former Soviet-bloc countries. Much of that growth has been fueled by an investor-friendly environment that has drawn more than $43 billion in U.S. foreign direct investments. Krakow, in particular, has attracted U.S. companies such as Motorola Inc., Cisco Systems Inc. and dozens more, with special economic zones, a potential hiring pool of more than 200,000 college students and the appeal of being in one of Europe’s most beautiful cities.
U.S. companies are continually drawn to Krakow’s advantageous central European location, well-developed transportation infrastructure that facilitates access to the rest of the EU and a highly skilled but comparatively low-cost labor force. So many companies have relocated to Krakow, that unemployment is now less than 2.8 percent. As a result, in a country that has seen significant emigration for many decades, Krakow is now seeing a significant surge in immigration, as thousands of foreigners move here to fill job vacancies.
Students have flocked to Krakow since at least 1364, when King Casimir the Great founded Jagiellonian University. The university is one of the oldest surviving universities in the world. Jagiellonian, as well as a dozen other universities in Krakow, is home to world-class research centers that have spawned more than 200 startups in the city and fuel Krakow’s growing innovation sector.
In 2018, Krakow startup Codewise, which creates AI-powered marketing software, was recognized as one of the fastest-growing companies in Europe by the Financial Times. With such a robust student community and many development hubs for major international firms, experts believe Krakow will be an innovation leader in Central Europe for years to come. The U.S.-Polish trade relationship has never been stronger as more affluent Poles continue to buy larger amounts of U.S. goods. Overall trade in goods hit a new record for the eighth consecutive year, rising 15 percent between 2017 and 2018 alone. U.S. exports in goods to Poland increased by 19 percent in 2018 and are now at record levels. Poland is the leading trade partner for the United States in East Central Europe. The consulate general advances closer economic ties through trade and investment promotion activities by building its relationship with the American Chamber of Commerce Krakow and through activities lead by the public affairs section in the realm of entrepreneurship and innovation.
From atop the 1,000-foot Kosciuszko Mound near central Krakow, you can see dozens of cranes, building offices and homes for Krakow’s growing economy. The mound, which was completed in 1820 to honor Polish military hero Tadeusz Kosciuszko, perhaps best symbolizes the enduring security cooperation between Poland and the United States. Kosciuszko fought for U.S. independence alongside George Washington in the U.S. Revolutionary War before returning to Poland to fight for his country’s independence. Today, thousands of U.S. troops are serving in Poland to defend NATO’s eastern flank and counter Russian aggression. Krakow is home to Poland’s Special Forces Command, which coordinates with the U.S. and other NATO Special Forces to maximize interoperability and readiness.
An already steadfast U.S.-Polish military alliance was expanded in 2017 with the arrival of the 4,000-strong, U.S. Armored Brigade Combat Team in Poland. The influx of American troops effectively created a “little America” in the Polish-German border city of Zagan. The intent of this back-to-back rotational deployment is to enhance regional security by reinforcing the European Allies’ eastern flank. American and Polish units conduct multinational training and security cooperation activities in Poland and across the region, improving interoperability, building trust and contributing to regional stability.Kazimierz, the historic Jewish district of Krakow, was the center of Jewish life for more than 500 years, and before World War II, the city was home to 70,000 Jews. Having the largest Jewish population in Europe made Poland a prime target for Nazi actions against European Jews. Hitler’s regime built its deadliest concentration camps here. The UNESCO World Heritage-listed Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, located about 40 miles from Krakow, is a former Nazi concentration camp where more than a million European Jews, Poles and other prisoners were killed. Today the museum draws millions of visitors from all over the world, to pay tribute to those who perished during the Holocaust and remind visitors of humanity’s greatest tragedy. The consulate routinely brings congressional delegations and other U.S. government officials to Auschwitz-Birkenau, including Vice President Mike Pence this past February. While today only 2,000 Jews live in Krakow, the community is active and growing. After Poland broke free from communism, Jewish life in Poland experienced a revival. Numerous synagogues and cemeteries have been renovated, and new institutions have been established with the goal of promoting Jewish culture and educating new generations about the Holocaust. Each summer, Krakow hosts the Jewish Culture Festival, the largest event of its kind in Europe. It celebrates contemporary Jewish culture, filling Kazimierz’s streets and numerous cafes with music, while educating visitors about Krakow’s rich pre-war Jewish heritage. The consulate general supports U.S. artists who participate in the festival and cooperates with organizations that promote dialogue, education and tolerance surrounding the Holocaust and Poland’s centuries-long Jewish heritage. Krakow is Poland’s most popular tourist destination and is increasingly popular with U.S. citizen travelers. This city, carved out along the Vistula River during the Middle Ages, hosts a trove of attractions and historical points of interests. The elegant Renaissance-era Sukiennice, also known as the Krakow Cloth Hall, can be found in the medieval market square of Stare Miasto, or Old Town. The main square is lined with restaurants and cafes and serves as a starting point for popular horse-drawn carriage tours. The influx of tourists and the growing presence of American businesses in Krakow keep the consular section’s American Citizen Services unit busy. However, the greater demand for consular services comes from Poles applying for NIVs to visit the U.S. The NIV unit sees approximately 300 applicants per day, with increasing demand every year.
It is easy to see why tourism is on the rise in Krakow. Visitors flock here to step back in time and marvel at the ancient buildings and castles in a city steeped in history. However, Krakow’s residents prefer that visitors move beyond antiquated stereotypes. Today’s Poland is teeming with growth, innovation and modern culture. And while pierogis will always have a place in the historic city, its selection as 2019’s Gastronomic Capital will enrich not only Krakow’s culinary profile, but its reputation as one of Europe’s most transformed cities.
Amy Steinmann is a public affairs officer at Consulate General Krakow.