The annual International Travel fair hit Bratislava on January 20 and 21.
Local travel agencies say that tourism numbers at the turn of the millenium have fallen a long way from their peak in the mid-1990's (see chart, this page), and blame the government for failing to pay sufficient attention to tourism in Slovakia. Government officials, however, point to a small increase in both tourism revenues and visitors in 1999 as cause for celebration, and say that with tourism-friendly legislation in the works, the industry has a bright future.
Michal Ševčík, director of the Economy Ministry's Tourism Section, agreed that Slovakia had found it more difficult in the late 1990's to attract visitors, but claimed victory in the increased numbers heading into 2000. Ševčík added that new legislation, expected to be passed in the first half of 2000, would give the industry a further boost.
The proposed legislation takes a two-fold approach. The first involves the promotion of tourism to Slovakia in other European countries and further afield. The second strategy is to subsidize small and medium-sized firms to support the development of local tourist infrastructure such as hotels and recreational facilities. Here, the state would guarantee loans taken by these firms from commercial banks, and would provide grants for up to 70% of the interest owed. Both of these programmes, Ševčík said, would be financed through the Economy Ministry.
But Július Cmorej, vice-president of the Slovak Association of Travel Agencies (SACK), a 150-member industry lobby group, said that Slovak tourism's current problems could not be fixed by legislation alone.
"There are many problems with tourism in Slovakia," Cmorej said on January 18. "In the early and mid 1990's, Slovakia was among the countries that were considered new for tourists - people wanted to see this unknown country after the fall of communism. But in 1996, the novelty of Slovakia lessened, and we needed to start competing for tourists. This we have not done."
Cmorej thought Slovakia needed to look no further than its neighbors such as Austria, Switzerland and Hungary for a model of how tourism should be properly supported. In these countries, he said, the government tourism agency is given the same clout as state ministries such as those of economy and finance.
While he conceded that creating such an agency would add more beauracracy to the industry, Cmorej said it would give tourism a vitally important voice in the cabinet, which would create spin-offs benefiting the entire economy. "When there is a problem in the travel industry, it not only concerns this particular industry but also culture, finance and many other aspects of the economy," he said.
What Slovakia has instead of a nationwide government tourism organisation is the Slovak Tourism Agency (SACR), an independently-run but state-funded group that represents the country at intenational fairs and exhibitions and communicates with regional and international travel organisations. The agency also puts out a promotional magazine, Panoráma Slovenska, and has produced a CD ROM promoting tourism in the country.
SACR Deputy Director Ivana Magátová said the conditions for tourism in Slovakia were getting worse through extremely low funding. In 1999, she said, her agency received only 39 million Slovak crowns ($928,000) from the state budget, compared to the roughly 600 million crowns received by a comparable Hungarian agency from the Budapest government - a per capita funding difference of roughly 8:1 in Hungary's favour.
"Absolutely nothing is improving here," said Magátová. "During the winter, numbers generally increase, especially this year with the amount of snow we have received. But by no means can we be happy with the situation because the numbers are still low. If we invested more in promoting Slovakia than we do now, we would have a lot more tourists."
The key to improving the situation, Magátová believed, lay in an incentive program in which a percentage of the money brought in by tourism each year would be used to assist local travel agencies. This money would be supplemented by other programmes such as tax holidays for new travel agencies or improved loan policies for tourism-affiliated companies. Proper training was also an essential part of the solution, she said, as many locals in direct contact with tourists don't realize the importance of a smile and good customer service.
Suzane Dancka, director of the London-based Czech and Slovak Tourist Centre, took a less dismal view of Slovak tourism. The London centre has been involved in Slovak tourism for three years and operates as the official Slovak tourist board in Great Britian as well as a private agency for travel to the Slovak and Czech Republics.
Dancka said that based on the amount of inquiries she regularly received regarding Slovakia, she has been quite pleased lately with the way things are heading. "We are seeing a higher demand for material on the Slovak Republic," she said. "It started slow, but recently we have seen it starting to pick up."
Despite her impression that Slovakia was increasing in popluarity as a travel destination, Dancka felt the Slovak government could do more to boost tourism.
"I think the government has the feeling that Slovakia is such a beautiful country that they don't need to promote themselves at all," she said. "The Slovak tourist authorities in the government are trying, but their finances are extremely limited."