AMERICAN tourists setting their sites on a vacation this year in the newly democratic countries of East and Central Europe may find their holidays hampered somewhat by an iron curtain of unpreparedness in the local tourist industry. Western Europeans have for years made Hungary and Czechoslovakia popular vacation spots. Even before last year's revolutions, restaurants, hotels, and other tourist services had a hard time coping in those countries.
The anticipated invasion of Westerners wanting to experience the ``new Europe'' will strain things even further.
Last September, for example, there were no vacant hotel rooms in Budapest. Signs to that effect were posted at train stations, causing long lines of tired travelers to crowd government tourist offices hoping to find private rooms to rent.
There was a similar situation in Prague, with the added inconvenience that private lodging was not an alternative: A law is only now under discussion that would allow private pensions (boardinghouses) and room rentals. ``We were fully booked [during the tourist season] even before the changes,'' says Karel Stepan, rooms division manager of the Intercontinental Hotel in Prague.
``Last August, we had so many tourists from Italy, in particular, that we were looking around in towns 50 kilometers [31 miles] from Prague to find accommodation for them,'' he says.
``This January to March, our occupancy was 10 percent higher than last year, but for the season it can only be the same [as last year],'' he says. ``We only have so many rooms. We were already fully booked for May at the beginning of April - and we're an expensive hotel at $170 a double.''
Marian Skedgell, a consulting editor from Roxbury, Conn., traveled to Prague, Budapest, and Vienna in April as part of a small tour group - and found difficulties. ``Back in January, we booked for one hotel, then two weeks before the trip we were told that there was no room and we would be put in another,'' she says. ``When we arrived in Prague, we found that there was no room in this second hotel, and so we ended up in yet another.''
Members of the group had difficulty getting reservations in restaurants they wanted - and Ms. Skedgell herself was a victim of the rising street crime reported recently in Prague, Warsaw, and other cities.
``I was pickpocketed,'' she says. ``They took my wallet - but fortunately there wasn't much in it.''
Street crime in Eastern Europe is still much less than in major United States cities, and rarely involves physical violence. But, says a US embassy staffer in Prague, ``We've recently had a big increase in tourists reporting stolen wallets, passports, bags, and such.''
NEW hotels are being built, but industry sources estimate it will be years before the supply of rooms can cope with the new and growing demand from both tourists and Western businessmen.
The countries of Eastern Europe offer tourists scenery, culture, historic towns, and now the exciting sense of participating in one of the most important periods of change in the 20th century.
Nonetheless, in addition to lack of accommodations, Western tourists going to Eastern Europe for the first time should be aware of other specific problems lingering from Communist days.
If traveling independently, tourists should contact the embassies of the countries they plan to visit beforehand. Tourists should ask if visas are still needed, or under what conditions they can now be obtained at borders, and whether tourists must change a minimum amount of money per each day's stay. Even if visas are obtainable at the border, getting them ahead saves time and hassles.
Once in the country, change small amounts of money; local currencies can't be converted back, and it's illegal to take them in or out of the country.
Prices of all goods and services except hotel rooms are generally much cheaper than anywhere in the West. Except in the most deluxe, Western-oriented establishments, however, standards of service, quality, and hygiene can be much lower, particularly outside major cities. It's a good idea to carry with you a small bar of soap, tissues, and disposable washcloths.
Outside major tourist centers, prices are cheaper and hotels may have more vacancies, but on the road hotels, restaurants, snack bars, and gasoline stations can be few and far between.
Menus, street signs, and other information are often written only in the local language or German: English is making inroads among the younger generation, but the number of people who speak it is still small.
All East European countries are suffering from economic difficulties, and - varying from country to country - many commonplace items, ranging from batteries to fresh fruit and vegetables to decaffeinated coffee to sugar substitutes, can be difficult or impossible to find. Each country, however, has a system of special stores that take only ``hard'' Western currency for imported goods unavailable elsewhere.
Telephone service can be exasperatingly primitive, making local calls difficult and international calls or fax communication virtually impossible (not to mention expensive.) The situation is worse outside the capital cities, but in places like Poland and Romania it can be hard even in the capitals.