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Danube travel fair offers window on Slovak tourism woes

One of the American tour operators visiting the Danube fair (Dunajská burza) in Bratislava last week asked representatives of travel agencies offering cruises down the Danube river about the quality of additional trips on offer, such as bicycle rides along the Danube. "How many bicycle service stations do you have on these routes, and how many gears would you advise our clients to have to be able to bike these routes without difficulties," she asked peremptorily.
Representatives from Slovak travel agencies could only stare back, realising how difficult the task of fulfilling such demands from partner operators abroad would be. "In Slovakia, we could only dream about the services which they are asking for," said Michal Ševeík, general director of the tourism section at the Ministry of Economy.


Slovak stands at the travel fair were almost empty in comparison with those of regional neighbours.
photo: Peter Barecz

One of the American tour operators visiting the Danube fair (Dunajská burza) in Bratislava last week asked representatives of travel agencies offering cruises down the Danube river about the quality of additional trips on offer, such as bicycle rides along the Danube. "How many bicycle service stations do you have on these routes, and how many gears would you advise our clients to have to be able to bike these routes without difficulties," she asked peremptorily.

Representatives from Slovak travel agencies could only stare back, realising how difficult the task of fulfilling such demands from partner operators abroad would be. "In Slovakia, we could only dream about the services which they are asking for," said Michal Ševeík, general director of the tourism section at the Ministry of Economy.

For three days from October 16 to 18, Slovakia had a chance to promote its culture, history and countryside and draw the interest of foreign travel agencies present at the fair, something that might give vital support to a sluggish tourism industry and increase its share in the country's GDP.

But the large number of people at the fair masked a cruel reality for the Slovak tourism sector. Insiders say that unless the government gives more money to support a stagnating industry, Slovakia will remain a long way from matching neighbours Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, which have all seen revenues from tourism increase dramatically in recent years.

This year's fair, which takes place bi-annually in one of seven countries near the Danube - Germany, Austria, Croatia, Yugoslavia, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia - attracted 55 exhibitors (12 from Slovakia) and 50 buyers (foreign travel agents who form partnerships with local agencies for specific holiday packages) from the USA, Israel, India and other countries across the world.

But while most of the buyers were full of praise for the event as an opportunity to pick up handy hints on tourism up and down the Danube, Slovak tourist agency reps felt they were merely playing second fiddle to countries who spent more money on tourism, saying that events like the Danube fair only allowed old business partners to meet again and discuss further cooperation.

"We know most of the buyers and tour operators who are here this week - only a few new buyers have come. But it is a good opportunity for us to compare offers from regional travel agencies and discuss contracts," said one tour operator from the BDT travel agency based in Bratislava.

Indeed, the stalls of German and Austrian travel agencies seemed to be far busier than those of Slovak travel agencies.

According to Ivana Magátová, head of the Slovak Tourist Board, an agency founded by the government in 1995 to promote Slovakia, the reason for the slump in Slovak tourism is simple - resort centres on the Danube River in Austria and Germany are much more developed than those in Slovakia. "That's why it is advantageous to offer collective trips together with our colleagues from Germany, Austria, Hungary and other Danube countries," Magátová said. "Apart from that, we are short of the money we need for tourism promotion in Slovakia. So, by organising collective trips together with travel agencies from other Danube region countries, we get some foreign tourists here and save money too."

In 1998 and 1999, the Slovak Tourist Board received only about 38 million crowns [$739,000] for its activities. A similar agency in the Czech Republic received 300 milion crowns [$5.85 million], in Hungary 600 million crowns [$11.70 million] and in Poland 680 million crowns [13.25 million].

However, the very process of trying to promote tourism in Slovakia is becoming a bigger financial burden every year on an already stretched budget. According to the Economy Ministry's Ševeík, the organising of fairs like the Dunajská burza or any other promotional activity designed to support tourism in the country has become more expensive over the last two years. "Real figures say that we put less and less money into the support of tourism, which is reflected in the declining number of tourists coming to Slovakia," he said.

Foreign exchange revenues from tourism reached 9.1 billion crowns in the first half of this year, 4.3% less than last year. The share of tourism as part of GDP was 2.1% in the first half of 2000 - a 0.4% drop on 1999. The total number of accomodated foreign tourists according to Economy Ministry figures stood at 382,000 people in 1999, while this year's estimate is 443,000.

Ševeík blamed his government for an inefficient use of finances and said that 100 million crowns from revenues from the privatisation of fixed line telecoms monopoly Slovak Telecom (ST), originally earmarked for development of the tourist industry, had never materialised. "Instead the money will go to the education and health care sectors. There is no prospect of [us receiving it] it at all," he said.

The problem is also one of image abroad. While fairs such as Dunajská burza can be used to boost Slovakia's perception among foreigners, events within the country can often conspire to make the job of selling tourists on Slovakia a tough one.

"For example, only a few months ago, Slovak President [Rudolf] Schuster said that we were not able to take care of tourists because our health care system wasn't any good," said Ševeík. "I know that some German travel agencies advised their clients not to go to Slovakia because if they were injured they wouldn't receive proper treatment. This is not supportive to Slovak tourism at all."

But while figures show that each year brings a small rise in foreign tourists, foreign buyers at the fair emphasised the importance for the industry of something like Dunajská burza. "As far as promotion goes, the country will get what it pays for," said Simon Allen, managing director of the British travel agency Greencastle Travel.

He added, though, that Slovakia had the potential to attract tourists, far more so than it had 10 years ago when he first came to Dunajská burza, and sounded an optimistic note for tourism in Slovakia. "I was here then - the same building, same event. I think that the people I have met here now are more helpful, cooperative and businesslike than they were 10 years ago. This time, I will include a trip around Slovakia in my catalogue," he said.

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