Smart, high-tech clinics line the streets in many small towns near Hungary's border with Austria. Tooth-shaped signs everywhere point "tooth tourists" to a dentist where cut-price treatment - mainly for implants and prostheses, like bridgework - is combined with shopping, touring or relaxing at Hungary's famous spas.

There are well over 1,000 dentists in the area, and the service industry has flourished too. The tastefully restored medieval city of Sopron claims to be the world's dental capital, with one dentist per 80 inhabitants.

While few locals can afford the prices charged to foreigners, more dental tourists are flocking to the area, wooed by internet advertising, travel agency offers and word of mouth. "We mostly get our (foreign) patients through the internet, and we're getting much more interest now from Germany," said Dr Frank Kannman, a German who set up his dental practice in Mosonmagyarovar four years ago. He said Germans and Austrians on average spend seven to 10 days in the area and can save 40-60 percent on the cost of dental treatment.

War of words with Austrian and German fellow dentists

The growth in Hungary's dental tourism has triggered a war of words with fellow dentists in Austria and Germany, worried by business losses to cheaper rivals across their eastern frontiers offering what they call poorer quality treatment.

"There has been a sharp conflict with Austrian dentists in recent years," said Dr Istvan Szillagyi, who runs his dental clinic in Sopron's Pannonia Hotel. "They are jealous of Hungary taking their business. But, after Hungary joins the European Union (in May), this will be less significant, because we will all be part of the EU's single market, so this war would be over."

Szillagyi rejects criticism of the quality of Hungarian dentistry. "We use leading U.S. and European technology, the top equipment and the best materials to ensure a high quality service," he said.

While many Austrian and German dentists believe EU entry and tighter quality standards will, over time, level out the playing field, most Hungarians see lower costs giving them a competitive edge.

"Hungarians buy their equipment for just the same price as others in Europe," said Szillagyi. "What will remain is the cost of labour and other general costs. We're confident we should be able to remain competitive because of the lower costs." reu