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EDITORIAL

Boosting tourism: Another season passes by

With the approach of summer, The Slovak Spectator is preparing the sixth edition of its annual travel guide, Spectacular Slovakia. Rarely has the disinterest of people who live from tourism in promoting their wares been so spectacularly evident.
A restaurant owner in northern Slovakia's Ružomberok told us May 15 he didn't want his eatery to be included in the guide unless we journeyed to his town and wrote a full - and flattering - review. This, mind you, despite the fact that such restaurant listings are free and give foreigners only the data the restaurant provides.
The Eurolines bus company, which has routes to London, Paris and Vienna, whence most foreigners arrive in Slovakia, does not want to carry free Slovak Spectator material because, it says, its bus drivers are fed up with cleaning away the few newspapers and guides people may leave on buses after their trip.

With the approach of summer, The Slovak Spectator is preparing the sixth edition of its annual travel guide, Spectacular Slovakia. Rarely has the disinterest of people who live from tourism in promoting their wares been so spectacularly evident.

A restaurant owner in northern Slovakia's Ružomberok told us May 15 he didn't want his eatery to be included in the guide unless we journeyed to his town and wrote a full - and flattering - review. This, mind you, despite the fact that such restaurant listings are free and give foreigners only the data the restaurant provides.

The Eurolines bus company, which has routes to London, Paris and Vienna, whence most foreigners arrive in Slovakia, does not want to carry free Slovak Spectator material because, it says, its bus drivers are fed up with cleaning away the few newspapers and guides people may leave on buses after their trip.

The national railways firm, ŽSR, cannot do any deal with us on advertising our English-language tourist information at their main stations because its ad space is owned by a separate ad firm. The same goes for the main bus company, SAD.

This column is not whinging that potential distributors are unwilling to carry our wares, it's lamenting that those who have the power to make Slovakia more tourist-friendly by putting an English-language guide to the country in their hands are unwilling to lift a finger.

Arrivals of foreign visitors to Slovakia peaked at 33.1 million in 1996 and have since settled to 30.8 million in 1999, the last year for which data are available. Foreign exchange income from the tourist industry has also dropped from a nominal ceiling of $672 million in 1996 to $460 million in 1999.

Clearly, the industry can use all the help it can get, mostly in the area of promotion. After all, it's not that tourists don't like Slovakia once they spend time here - rates of dissatisfaction measured by the Slovak Tourism Institute have dropped across the board since 1996, in areas such as cleanliness and hygiene, the linguistic abilities of tourist industry employees, and accommodation services.

No, the problem is that on arrival at Bratislava's main bus and train stations, there is nothing to indicate that Slovakia is aware than non-Slovaks might be visiting the country. No signs indicating where foreign-language guides might be bought, no welcome, nobody anxious to sell a bed for the night. No nothing, except the workaday scurry of local residents about their business.

Compare this to Jamaica, where grass-skirted maidens serenade a welcome to tourists as they step off the plane. In Slovakia, the absence of a welcome wagon is matched only by the dearth of incoming flights.

Or Costa Rica, where bold, jabbering taxi drivers will pack you in a cab and whisk you off to a hotel before you can get a word out of your mouth.

You don't even have to look to tourist-based economies to find examples of a tourist-friendly hustle - just travel three hours by train to Budapest, where you will be swarmed by hoteliers and hosteliers competing for your coin.

While Slovakia remains a well-kept secret, its foreign residents may enjoy the fact that they can still get a seat in summer outdoor cafés, or that their beer-garden lunches aren't disturbed by streams of camera-wielding newcomers.

But for a country desperate for foreign capital, the steady decline in visitors and tourist income is proof that promotion, and the business sense that underlies it, has made few advances since the barbed wire was cleared from borders in 1989.

Former US Ambassador to Slovakia Carl Spielvogel was fond of saying "Slovakia is a good product". He was right, in the sense that a cheap holiday in gorgeous natural and historic surroundings and amidst a tolerant European culture is the stuff of tour operators' dreams.

But while tourism remains a backwater of the Economy Ministry, while state-owned transport firms neglect to advise tourists of their schedules, and while many Slovak hotels still charge foreigners far more for accomodation than they do Slovaks, selling the country's countless attractions will remain just that - a dream.

Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda makes frequent use of the Slovak metaphor "the fish stinks from the head", meaning that the problem originates at the highest levels. He should know - his promise to go running with The Slovak Spectator in his hometown of Spišská Nová Ves, as a promotional aspect of Spectacular Slovakia, was made contingent on our not treating him any longer like a "small boy".

Nor was opera star Martin Babjak willing to be interviewed for the Banská Bystrica chapter, again as a way of introducing some of Slovakia's leading lights to foreign tourists. "I'm so well known that when I do something like this I have to really want to do it," he responded. "But I like what you're doing."

That's just it. Everyone vaguely likes the idea of tourism, but no one is willing to get off their rump and help it along. While this ridiculous situation endures, tourists will continue to do what a Scottish couple did in 1999 - get off the bus in Bratislava, stare in silence at the terminal, and then buy a ticket back to Vienna.

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