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NEW DATA ON VISITORS DRAWS IRE, PUZZLEMENT

Tourists: Fewer but richer?

Tourists are spending more in Slovakia, but arriving in smaller numbers, according to data released at the end of June by the central bank.
The bank's figures, which compared the first four months of 2001 to the same period last year, showed that total revenues from tourism climbed 15.3% in January to April 2001 over 2000, to 6.45 billion Slovak crowns (a rise of 3.8% in US dollars to $135.4 million). However, 8% fewer tourists arrived in Slovakia during this time, bringing arrivals down to 6.95 million people.
Various reasons have been advanced for the mixed results, including changing tourism patterns (a rise in shoppers versus sightseers, and in Westerners against tourists from former communist states), as well as insufficient investment into developing the industry.


Slovakia's main state tourist promotion agency has blamed underfunding for dwindling foreign visits.
photo: Ján Svrček

Tourists are spending more in Slovakia, but arriving in smaller numbers, according to data released at the end of June by the central bank.

The bank's figures, which compared the first four months of 2001 to the same period last year, showed that total revenues from tourism climbed 15.3% in January to April 2001 over 2000, to 6.45 billion Slovak crowns (a rise of 3.8% in US dollars to $135.4 million). However, 8% fewer tourists arrived in Slovakia during this time, bringing arrivals down to 6.95 million people.

Various reasons have been advanced for the mixed results, including changing tourism patterns (a rise in shoppers versus sightseers, and in Westerners against tourists from former communist states), as well as insufficient investment into developing the industry.

However, the state-run Slovak Tourist Agency (SACR), which promotes tourism in Slovakia, immediately seized on the figures as evidence of the government's failure to support its activities to promote tourism - a failure it said had led to the fall in visitor numbers.

SACR Director Ivana Magátová explained that tax revenues from tourist expenditures, such as foreign currency exchange, hotel accommodation and other services, went straight to the state budget, rather than fuelling the budgets of state tourist bodies. The result, she said, was not only under-funding, but also lack of motivation, as tourist boards never saw the financial fruits of their promotional work.

"We don't even get one percent [of tax revenues generated from tourism] back from the state budget," she said.

Other state bodies involved in tourism see the problem not as so much in poor promotion as in a general failure to improve services to western standards.

Statistics from the Economy Ministry's tourism section show that western visitors especially complain about the low level of tourist services in Slovakia. Both the ministry and the Slovak Tourist Agency say that without extra funds they cannot improve conditions for tourists and woo more visitors to the country.

"If there is a need to improve conditions for tourists, we have to invest into that," Magátová said. "Higher income [from tourism] doesn't [necessarily] help support tourism," added Zuzana Dúžeková, general director of the Economy Ministry's tourism section.

The Economy Ministry's tourism section has proposed a Law on Tourist Associations and Their Financing that it hopes would allocate more money from tourism directly back into the industry and not straight into the state budget. It hopes the law will be discussed by the government before the end of this year.

Drop in numbers

The Economy Ministry has said that two possible explanations lie behind the increase in revenues, but declining numbers of tourists. For starters, foreigners are increasingly coming to Slovakia to do their shopping, and thus end up spending more money in the country than they would as tourists or backpackers. Secondly, while overall numbers are down as tourists from some neighbouring countries stay away, bigger-spending visitors from richer western countries such as Austria and Germany are up slightly, greatly swelling foreign exchange earnings.

The central bank's figures do not give a detailed breakdown of tourist spending or visits by country of origin. However, detailed figures from the end of last year comparing 2000 to 1999 showed that visitors from the Czech Republic, Poland and Germany still made up the bulk of tourists (60%), although Czech visits had grown by only 0.9% while Germans were up 12.4%. Austrian visitor numbers jumped 12.7%, while 23.8% more Americans visited Slovakia in 2000 than 1999.

On the other hand, the application of a visa requirement for Ukraine citizens on June 28, 2000 meant that 23.7% fewer Ukraine nationals visited Slovakia in 2000 than in 1999. What is more, a visa requirement for Russian nationals as of January 1, 2001, has led to a reported sharp fall in visitors from that nation as well. Since the central bank figures compared tourist numbers from before and after the enactment of the Ukraine and Russian visas, many have argued that the fall in tourist numbers was artificially induced, rather than a reflection of poor services.

Whatever the reason behind the fall in visitors, the trend towards wealthier tourists has been noted. "I think the tourists who are coming here are becoming more solvent and spending more money," said the Slovak Tourist Agency's Magátová.

Hoteliers in Slovakia's most visited location, the Tatras mountain range, also reported more money being spent in resorts over 2000, although they noted falls in the length of tourist stays, dropping from an average 4.5 nights in 1999 to 4.2 nights last year.

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