DESPITE the large number of natural beauties and cheap services the country offers, Slovakia is still far from being flooded with tourists spending holiday money and boosting the economy.
The problem, say experts, is that Slovakia remains a relatively unknown destination abroad. Insufficient state money for tourism promotion means that foreigners ignore Slovakia for better known destinations in neighbouring countries.
"Tourism is underestimated by the government in Slovakia. No one perceives it as an industry, as opposed to most other countries where tourism is second in importance behind the car industry. Slovakia has a gift from God - a lot of attractions, which it cannot use," said Ivana Magátova, head of the state-run Slovak Tourism Agency (SACR).
SACR, which is in charge of promoting Slovakia as a tourist destination, says it needs at least Sk80 million ($1.7 million) per year to adequately promote tourism in the country, but has yet to approach this budget since its founding in 1995.
This year SACR received Sk50 million ($1.1 million), Sk12 million more than in 2001 but still six times less than the tourism promotion budget in the Czech Republic and 20 times less than in Hungary.
"The promotion of tourism needs much more money. We count our promotion materials in pieces, while the Hungarians count in tons," Magátová said.
To make its promotion more effective, SACR will use a portion of its increased budget to open representative offices in Vienna, Moscow, Paris and Warsaw before the end of September, as well as Amsterdam, Budapest and Munich before the end of the year. SACR's only current promotion office is in Prague.
"We want to get closer to our clients, and through constant promotion increase the number of tourists coming to Slovakia from countries where our offices will be," said Zuzana Dúžekova, head of the tourism section at the Economy Ministry.
The Czech Republic has already launched 13 similar offices and sees annual revenues from tourism of around $3.5 billion.
Slovak tourism revenues, meanwhile, increased from $420 million in 2000 to $650 million in 2001, mainly because the statistics included Slovak citizens changing their savings into euros. According to the Statistical Office, the number of tourists crossing Slovak borders actually fell from 28.8 million in 2000 to 27.8 million in 2001, part of a steady decline from 1996.
Most tourists - over 327,000 last year - come to Slovakia from the neighbouring Czech Republic, followed by Poland and the former East Germany. The country is routinely bypassed by more flush travelers from EU countries and the US in favour of cities like Prague and Budapest.
Moreover, 80 per cent of tourists come to Slovakia because of previous experience in the country, while only a tiny portion visit based on information received abroad.
However, Tourism Agency head Pavol Weiss said that the SACR's promotion of Slovakia is only the top of the pyramid, and that initiatives also had to come from businessmen themselves.
"This is another problem we have. In Slovakia a businessman thinks that when he builds a nice hotel and stands in front of its entrance he will see crowds of tourists looking for accommodation. It's not so. He has to promote himself too," Weiss said.
Magátová agreed that businesses must also play a part in developing tourism. "There was a flower exhibition in the Netherlands and the Slovak government opened a stall to promote Slovak tourism businesses, but few of them came.
"On the other hand, the Czech government did not give any money, but Czech businessmen collected it themselves and came to promote Czech tourism. This epitomises the general difference between our countries on this issue," Magátová said.
While the number of lodging facilities in Slovakia has increased from 1,928 in 2000 to 2,275 in 2001, the number of foreigners who were accommodated in these premises increased more slowly, from about 1 million to 1.2 million.
Although these figures argue that Slovakia has enough lodging reserves to accommodate a considerable growth in the number of foreign tourists to Slovakia, the quality of services available, something foreigners have repeatedly complained of in industry polls, is a major problem to be overcome.
"There is no quality standard in Slovakia, and even when a suitable accommodation is built, often many businessmen have problems maintaining the quality. The limited variety of services offered to clients is also quite a significant problem," Weiss said.