Tourists will soon be arriving in Slovakia for their summer vacations, and the Slovak tourist industry is preparing to receive them - with double-tier pricing, indifferent service and a sense of disorder.
This is a pity, because the government is obviously hoping to attract some heavy foreign investment into the tourism industry in 1999. The cabinet's March scheme to attract foreign investment gives the biggest tax breaks to foreign firms which invest in tourism or in areas which have high unemployment , but some serious re-thinking remains to be done before the Slovak tourist industry becomes an inviting investment prospect.
If this view sounds rather harsh, consider the following points.
Tourists who visit the Slovak capital Bratislava and want to explore the country are greeted with shrugs at the Bratislava Information Service (BIS). The BIS is the capital's main tourist information centre, but has no published information about other Slovak destinations.
There is, of course, an agency which is charged with promoting Slovak tourism in general - the Slovak Tourist Board - but no one at the BIS refers tourists to the Board, which in fact has hidden its Bratislava office in a bedroom in the Holiday Inn on Bajkalská Street.
Those who venture into the interior of the country without the aid of Tourist Board information are no better served by the regional tourist infrastructure. Most Slovak bus stations, for example, are ill-lit places where accurate information is hard to come by, and which virtually shut down after 6 p.m. and on weekends. Even the newly refurbished Bratislava bus terminal is deserted in the evenings, while the glass barriers that separate tourists from desk clerks during the daytime are so cunningly designed that barely a word of information can be heard.
And once arrived at their destinations, many tourists are disgusted to find themselves shelling out for rooms at inflated prices. Over 50% of Slovak hotels still charge foreigners a higher price than Slovaks for accommodation. While this ratio is a little better than last year, the improvement has been accomplished mostly by cutting out the cheaper price for Slovaks, making travel within their own country unaffordable for many Slovak residents.
What's behind this extraordinary situation?
The Slovak Spectator has been putting together its fourth annual travel guide, Spectacular Slovakia, for over five months now - five months of travelling around Slovakia, staying in hotels, eating in restaurants and requesting information from private and state-run facilities.
What stands out the most, above the lack of government coordination, the discriminatory pricing and the tourist-unfriendly services, is the sense that few tourism industry operators understand the nature of the business. Most hotel managers or restaurant operators, for example, seem unable to grasp the fact that they are operating businesses which must provide efficient and friendly service to make money. If they leave tourists with the feeling of having been fleeced, misinformed or left to fend for themselves at remote bus stations with evening coming on, they will have that many fewer visitors returning next year for another taste of this beautiful country and its stunning landscapes.
What is needed, above all, is a concept of how Slovak tourism should develop. It is essential that the state decide whether it wants the country to become another Tunisia, which has turned tourism into a slick operation for emptying the wallets of western European visitors, or whether it should strive to keep Slovakia a cheap but easily accessible destination for anyone with a taste for something different. This government vision must then be clearly explained to private operators, as well as to the foreign investors that Slovakia wishes to attract to its haphazard tourism sector.
With so much afoot in Slovakia this May - presidential elections, social welfare reform, a Visegrad 4 conference, a new language law - few will be paying much attention to the tourism industry. But come the summer, and the annual glimpse it affords of the immense potential for tourism sector development in Slovakia, more than a few government strategists may be wondering why the streets feel so empty.