When the new government took office at the end of last October, it pledged to increase tourism. But to date, no additional state money has been pumped into the sector, leaving Slovakia with a mixed bag of tourism statistics - increased tourism revenue but a decrease in foreigner visits.
Between January and April 1999, the number of foreigners arriving in Slovakia was down 10.9% from last year to approximately 7.5 million people, according to the Slovak Statistical Office. However, revenues generated through tourism increased by 41%.
Tourism representatives called the money influx deceptive, saying it was a result of inflated prices and an abnormally long winter ski season.
Indeed, the overall trend seems to be one of decline - while tourist numbers have been falling, state budget money for tourism development has dropped as well. Michal Ševčík, general director of the Economy Ministry's Tourism Section, said that support for the state-funded Programme for Tourism Development had tumbled from 60 million Slovak crowns in 1998 to 40 million crowns this year.
Private tour operators called the government's tourism policy inadequate. "It is very nice to say that you will support the industry," said Eleonóra Muňková, the General Director's assistant at Satur travel agency, which has the most clients in the country. "But they haven't done anything so far."
Speaking for his government office, Ševčík agreed the government is neither providing the tourism sector with adequate funding nor advertising the country as an attractive tourist destination.
"Slovakia does not have official state travel agencies in various cities around the world to advertise Slovakia as other countries do," he said. "People in other countries therefore get no information about Slovakia."
But Ševčík added that the decrease in visitors did not alarm the government since it considers bottom-line revenues a more important indicator than the total number of visits.
Why are numbers down?
According to the Economy Ministry's Bulletin of Tourism released in March, only 32.8%of all visitors come from non-neighbouring countries (21.4% from Germany and 11.4% from "others"). The Slovak government counts a visitor as a holder of a foreign passport who crosses the border, whether or not he stays overnight.
Those in tourism interviewed said that many factors attribute to the lower number of visitors, but they also agreed that the main factor was government ineptitude. Martin Sereday, the Executive Manager for the Tatra Regional Tourist Board, said that he had expected more from the newly-elected officials but that he'd so far received nothing more than an encouraging pat on the back, leaving the nation's number one tourist destination to fend for itself.
"Besides verbal and moral support, there has been no help at all," he said.
Satur's Muňková outlined what her firm saw as the most critical areas the government needs to address. First and foremost on her list was the lack of tourism infrastructure in Slovakia today.
"There are not enough hotels, and they stopped building highways, which is very important for transport," she said. "Look at the airlines - now that Tatra Air and Slovak Airlines aren't operating, we have limited possibilities. And there are still insufficient laws regarding tourism," she said, citing in particular the fact that travel agencies do not need to be licensed.
Muňková also cited a "lack of development of touristic locations", which she described as a lack of tours, guides and locations geared around the tourist. Finally, she said the government needed to direct more money into the sector.
Ševčík said that his department was also frustrated by the government's unwillingness to aid tourism. "We've offered projects to them, but they were all rejected because they would cost money," he said. "Unfortunately, we have not succeeded in convincing the gentlemen sitting in the government [to allocate more funds]."
A host of other problems plague the sector, Sereday said. High Tatra prices that are surprisingly steep are also keeping foreigners away. Last year, a three-star hotel in the High Tatras cost a foreigner $47, compared to $49 in the Austrian Alps. This year, Sereday said, prices in the region have risen as hotels which undertake necessary renovations must immediately increase prices because they have trouble getting loans and are not government subsidized.
"Everything concerning the prices has to do with the economic situation," he said.
Another reason why Americans have stayed away from Slovakia, Muňková said, is due to the Kosovo crisis. Although Hungary separates Slovakia from the war-torn area of Yugoslavia, people are still nervous. Representatives of Piešťany Spas also reported a decrease in American tourists due to the conflict.
Travel agent Muňková said that she doesn't think the low numbers will increase anytime soon because vacationers generally make travel reservations at least a half year in advance.
But despite the predominance of negative feelings in the current tourism market, Sereday said that private operators were starting to create a more tourist-friendly destination without the help of the government. "Right now there is no cash," he said. "But more people are learning English, much more than eight years ago, and the practice of offering discriminatory prices against foreigners at hotels is slowly disappearing. [This part of the] situation is improving dramatically."
2. Aug 1999 at 0:00 | Chris Togneri