British Ambassador Judith MacGregor believes that the greatest barrier Slovakia faces in attracting more foreign visitors is a lack of marketing. If the world knew more about Slovakia's natural surroundings, history and pleasant citizens, she told a tourism industry conference in Poprad on September 18, it would beat a path to the country's doorstep.
The same claim has been made before by foreign diplomats in Slovakia, such as former US Ambassador Carl Spielvogel, who in 2000 proposed a pro bono alliance between Slovak advertising and media companies to "sell" the country abroad.
These formulas raise one question: If the "cure" for Slovakia's international obscurity is so obvious, why hasn't it worked?
If we accept that people really do base their decisions about whether to visit a country on its marketing, it follows that good promotion will raise tourism numbers, while bad PR will keep visitors away. And herein may lie Slovakia's problem: It's not that the country doesn't market itself sufficiently, it's that it doesn't do enough to counteract its reputation for bizarre or backward behaviour.
Not many other countries can have endured as much bad international PR as Slovakia, and most of it has been produced by foreigners. Ambassador MacGregor might be interested to know that one of the earliest mockeries of Slovaks in popular literature is to be found in one of her own country's most famous novels, Dracula.
"The strangest figures we saw were the Slovaks, who were more barbarian than the rest," wrote Dracula author Bram Stoker in 1897. "On the stage they would be set down at once as some old Oriental band of brigands. They are, however, I am told, very harmless and rather wanting in natural self-assertion."
Later in the novel, Stoker has a group of women find a body "whose throat had been torn open as if by a wild animal".
Sure enough, they know just who to blame. "This is the work of a Slovak", they cry, apparently forgetting that Slovaks are harmless.
Bram Stoker may well have been in the pay of Budapest, but it's more likely that he hadn't a clue what he was writing about, and ascribed whatever quality he felt like to the Slovaks as long as it served his lurid narrative (we get an inkling of this from the scene in which Slovaks are portrayed as working for the local gypsies: "the Slovaks were given some money by the Szgany, and spit on it for luck").
The catalogue of derogatory international references to Slovaks is not a thick one, but it contains some stinging indictments, such as then-US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's charge in 1997 that Slovakia had become "a black hole in the heart of Europe".
Such comments are not evidence of an international conspiracy against Slovakia, nor are they sponsored by Hungary. They do, however, highlight one of the dangers of being a small country far away from the "civilized world" of New York or London - people are more apt to slight you if they think they can get away with it.
One of the easiest ways of getting away with belittling Slovakia is to do it in a foreign language. Slovak readers of this column would be staggered by the amount of exaggerated, biased and downright wrong information that is published about their country in the foreign media (or maybe they wouldn't, if they've seen the movie Hostel). This has begun to change recently with stories celebrating Slovakia's "Central European tiger" economy, but even these are still littered with references to communism, corruption and kidnapping.
"Aj zlá reklama je reklama" (even a bad advert is still an advert) is a common saying in Slovak, but it would be interesting to know how many other languages contain the same aphorism (English doesn't, for example). While it may express a weary acceptance of how the world works rather than approval of it, the time has surely come for the country to put more energy into fighting bad advertising. Monitoring foreign media and challenging biased reporting would be a start; cultivating media contacts and helping to shape "the good news" about Slovakia would be a logical next step.
Unfortunately, in treating the media as the enemy and failing to reassure the world about its cooperation with the far-right Slovak National Party, the Fico cabinet is inviting new descriptions of Slovaks (or at least of their government) as "more barbarian than the rest". Bad advertising may indeed still qualify as advertising, but if it doesn't help to sell the country's true assets, it should be silenced in favour of honest, intelligent and transparent communication.
By Tom Nicholson
25. Sep 2006 at 0:00