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EDITORIAL

Slovakia: Beautiful country, brutal salesmanship

Thank the government, past and present, for one of the primary reasons expats love this country: nobody knows about it.
It can be - and has been - argued that Slovakia is perhaps the most beautiful country in Europe. After all, over 40% of the country is forested, it boasts Europe's largest ice cave (Dobšina), one of the continent's largest castle ruins (Spišský hrad), borders one of Europe's mightiest rivers (the Danube), has the world's tallest wooden altar (in Levoča), sports volcanic formations found in only six other locations on earth, and is home to a handful of the most astonishing of mountain ranges, punctuated by the abrupt High Tatras.
That Slovakia is stunning is not in question. That Slovakia has no idea how to sell itself is another matter all together.

Thank the government, past and present, for one of the primary reasons expats love this country: nobody knows about it.

It can be - and has been - argued that Slovakia is perhaps the most beautiful country in Europe. After all, over 40% of the country is forested, it boasts Europe's largest ice cave (Dobšina), one of the continent's largest castle ruins (Spišský hrad), borders one of Europe's mightiest rivers (the Danube), has the world's tallest wooden altar (in Levoča), sports volcanic formations found in only six other locations on earth, and is home to a handful of the most astonishing of mountain ranges, punctuated by the abrupt High Tatras.

That Slovakia is stunning is not in question. That Slovakia has no idea how to sell itself is another matter all together.

Don't get us wrong, we at The Slovak Spectator - a staff consisting of one Romanian, four western expats and 12 Slovaks - would like nothing more than for the country to remain far off the casual tourist's radar. Let them go to Vienna, Prague, and Budapest. Many would prefer for Slovakia to retain its relative remoteness and small town charm, unburdened by the cumbersome crowds found elsewhere.

But Slovakia has repeatedly expressed its intent in attracting the tourist dollar, "the easiest dollar that can be made," officials said after the government of Mikuláš Dzurinda first took power in late 1998. On one hand, the country's economic leaders have bent over backwards in attempts to attract foreign direct investment (FDI), efforts which were rewarded with the country's highest yearly total to date of some two billion dollars in 2000.

Yet tourism remains at a remarkably low level, especially considering what Slovakia has on offer. Several travellers have told a similar story of their first visit to Slovakia, on transit to Budapest from Prague. On the approaching train, the story often goes, it is decided that the tourist will stop off in the Slovak capital for a few hours or days. Then the train pulls into the dismal station, which offers next to zero assistance to foreign travellers, and plans are altered - the remaining three odd hours on a train to Budapest suddenly seem an attractive alternative. How many tourists with their western currencies have passed on the fetching Bratislava Old Town (and the rest of the country), scared off by the city's potentially frightening exterior and the dearth of services found in other cities aimed at helping those who don't speak the language?

Considering this lack of tourism savvy, it's no wonder that the (attempting to be a) new domestic airline, Sky Europe, is having trouble lifting off in Slovakia. Pleased with the idea of direct, cheap routes connecting Bratislava to Paris, Rome and London, the economic powers that be have showered the Austrian owners with encouraging words of deals that will 'surely' be reached. Yet nothing has been officially agreed upon, leaving the flights - originally expected to begin this summer - delayed until autumn at the earliest, and leaving Slovakia - a country hoping to join NATO next year and the European Union within the next few years - with no regular routes to European countries.

The Slovak Spectator would have liked to ask the Economy Ministry's Head of Tourism questions concerning the country's apparent apathy in attracting the tourism dollar; but, alas, we were informed that the post was not being held by a permanent staffer, and that indeed nobody at the Ministry was "competent" to answer such questions at the time. We were not overwhelmingly surprised.

Slovakia is unquestionably a beautiful country, one that would be quite easy to sell. So here's our message for the government: If you really do want to increase tourism, staff your major tourist attractions with polite employees versed in foreign tongues, provide more foreign language guides to the country, stop charging westerners higher prices for everything from a hotel room to a tour of a cave, make it easier to enter the country in the first place by lending a hand to start-up airlines, make your bus schedules are comprehensible, and be sure that your train schedules are updated and correct. In short, at least pretend that you want foreigners' money, as you've said you do in the past.

And our message for the rest of those currently living in Slovakia: Enjoy the solitude now, for it can't last long. This country is simply too breath-taking. The folks at Unesco, who have designated five of the country's sites for the World Heritage List, would agree, as would anyone who has ever spent more than a week in Slovakia, as would those brave few who actually got off the train and found their own way unassisted into the Old Town. For all the incompetence of this country's leaders, word of a place like this is bound to get out sooner or later.

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