After the Velvet Revolution, attracting tourists was once thought to be one of the prinicple solutions to solving Slovakia's economic problems. With the Iron Curtain removed, some believed that streams of eager tourists would flock to Slovakia, and toss their money away. In the following years, reality set in.
First, it quickly became apparent that foreigners would not come unless they were aware of a country and what it has to offer. Secondly, it was not realistically understood that it takes time to establish a reputation as a Mecca for tourists. In comparison, the Czech Republic, with its magnet of "golden" Prague, attracted many more visitors than Slovakia.
In addition, it became clear that Slovakia's tourist industry did not have the administrative infrastructure to handle a huge surge of foreign visitors and offer them the kind of facilities they were accustomed to, at a reasonable price. There was an assumption that capital would somehow miraculously surface and build up a new tourist infrastructure in the new market economy. Planning did just not exist in any systematic form. Now Slovakia has to rethink its tourism policy.
Following the Velvet Revolution of 1989, an initial surge of Western visitors came to Slovakia. Some from the United States and Canada came seeking their ethnic roots. Only the most intent bothered to venture to Slovakia while the country was still Communist. With the Iron Curtain lifted, tourists no longer had to go through the hassle of filling out wads of paper, paying some outlandish fee for a visa, specifying exactly when they would be in the country, and then waiting several months for the actual document. They could now enter and exit the country with nothing more than a passport.
Travel agencies in the United States, which had traditionally catered for those visiting Slovakia, revved up their advertising and organized a series of tours each summer following 1989. Then last year tourism started tapering off. In the first part of 1999, the number of foreigners coming to Slovakia declined by 10.9 percent from the previous year. However, revenues increased 41 percent, but that could be explained by the longer skiing season and the decline in the Slovak crown against its 1998 value.
The gradual decline in foreign visitors can be attributed to a number of reasons. As with any trend, there was an initial surge of interest that lasted several years. Just as word of mouth brought many friends and relatives to the "New World" at the turn of the century, the opening of the Central and East European borders encouraged a spurt in travel to see one's ancestral homeland. Nearly two million Americans claim Slovak as their nationality and this amounted to a huge potential pool of tourists. Slovak-American fraternal papers featured stories by visitors who glowed about their experiences and the warm hospitality showed by long lost relatives. Reasonably priced airfares and trip packages offered incentives to finally see the "Old Country."
Granted, a certain minority would return back to Slovakia several times, but many were content to visit once or twice, meet their relatives, see something different, and then go on vacations elsewhere in the future. The aging population of those with a stronger nationality awareness also figured in the decline of tourist numbers. Many second-generation Slovak-Americans spoke a smattering of dialect and could get by in a country where few speak English. For a number with Slovak parents, Slovak was the first language they learned as a child. Many wished to reconnect with their ancestral roots, and for the first time in their lives, they had the time and the savings to do so.
Given the geographic distance many visitors had to travel, it was hardly surprising to see a gradual tailspin in visiting by the end of the 1990s. The NATO-Serb war over Kosovo provided one more excuse to put off a planned trip to the region. With, at best, a vague sense of geographical knowledge, many potential visitors from the US simply postponed plans to visit Slovakia "to avoid the bombing."
Like in many other countries in the former Eastern Bloc, Slovakia's tourist mentality has changed since the fall of Communism. East Germans, Hungarians, and others who used to flock to the High Tatra Mountains now tend to go to the Alps on vacation. Slovaks themselves also tend to go west if given the choice, since they were unable to do so for so long. In addition, high unemployment has left its mark in Slovakia. Since crossing the 19 percent threshold, the country's unemployment rate ranks among the highest in Europe.
For most Westerners, Slovakia will always remain a secondary attraction. People first wish to see the great Central European capitals like Prague, Warsaw and Budapest. If they stop in Bratislava, it is merely a brief stopover. Few venture further off the beaten path into the countryside of Slovakia, even though some of the most scenic attractions lie in the Eastern areas such as Spiš. The lack of a major superhighway system across the country, which should be remedied in a few years, slows down traffic through the gorgeous hills and valleys. Thus at present, Slovakia is distancing itself further from most major attractions in Europe.
Private tour agencies have stated that the lack of government policy also accounts for the troubles of tourism. There is no official state tourist agency which promotes travel to Slovakia throughout the world. In 1995 the Ministry of Economy set up the Slovak Tourist Board to disperse information, but it has just one website and a very small budget. Next year, it is hoping to create a tourist information system which will allow travelers to access information from all major tourist sites and from information centers.
Last year, Martin Sereday, the Executive Manager of the country's largest travel bureau, the Tatra Regional Tourist Board, faults the government for the tourism malaise. Apart from encouraging words, officials have done little to encourage foreigners to visit Slovakia. With fiscal budgetary restraints, the government rejected all proposals for simple reasons of economy (Slovak Spectator, 19 July to 25 July 1999).
As a result, remodeling has to be funded with cash, which in turn has raised prices. Last winter it cost nearly the same for a hotel in the Tatra Mountains as it did at an Austrian ski resort. There is no monetary incentive to spend more money and time on transport when Slovak prices do not undercut their Western competitors. When I was looking for accommodation in Eastern Austria or nearby Bratislava, I surprisingly found the prices to be relatively similar. And tourists get a bit indignant when they find out they have to pay over twice as much as natives of Slovakia for lodging or transport. As Slovakia enters EU, such practices will have to cease.
Another problem in Slovakia is customer service. To put it bluntly, it is lacking in many places across Slovakia. Most places where public transport is available do not display signs and/or provide help in other languages. This simply makes getting around more difficult than other places in Europe.
A satisfied tourist not only often returns, but is also an inexpensive source of advertisement for the country. People do not like feeling ripped off or looked at with askance when they make a special request. The police especially prey on cars with foreign license plates in the hope of bagging a "pokuta" (fine), who receives it one never knows, since it is paid in cash on the spot.
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Tourism remains a largely untapped source of potential revenue for Slovakia. As former Minister of Economy L'udovít Černák said in an interview with the newspaper Práca in 1998, "a dollar created in tourism is the cheapest dollar." The recent government initiative to cut half the amount foreign entrepreneurs have to invest in order to obtain tax breaks will hopefully help spur more economic development in the tourist industry. However, Slovakia still has a long way to go before it will be considered a tourist Mecca. For now Slovakia remains a relatively undiscovered destination which can be most refreshing for those who prefer to divert from the more commonly beaten tourist paths. However, Slovakia still needs to get the word out about itself.
Michael J Kopanic Jr, 29 May 2000