THIS ISSUE you may notice that we have changed our lineup of content. Business is at the front, in somewhat cramped quarters, our coverage of elections and general news moves to the back, and culture - revamped as a summer travel/survival tips/expat community guide - is at your right in the Summer in Slovakia 2002 slot at the core of the paper.
While the layout of a thin 12-page broadsheet may not require any pomp to announce, it was motivated by a more grave topic that normally begs editorial space - the apparent inability of the Slovak state apparatus to volunteer tourist information on the country in a language intelligible to foreigners.
We won't try your patience with figures any more than to note that this country spends about one twentieth the sum of its southern neighbour, Hungary, on promoting its attractions as a tourist destination. We would, however, like to alert the authorities to the foolishness of neglecting cooperation with The Slovak Spectator as a platform for such promotion.
In July we will be presenting our seventh annual travel magazine, Spectacular Slovakia 2002, which was begun as a modest project in 1995 to bridge the information void foreign tourists in Slovakia must hurdle.
Seven years later, that void remains.
With its snowcapped mountains, timeless villages and ubiquitous castle ruins, Slovakia should not be a hard sell. All tourism officials would have to do, one would think, is to tell foreigners what's here, and provide a few basic services.
But try visiting even the main bus station in Bratislava. Stare up at that huge yellow schedule of arrivals and departures, and try to figure out when your bus to Ždiar leaves. Good luck.
We at The Slovak Spectator have thought long and hard about this problem. We have tried to put our English-language guides to the country in people's hands for free, asking that the state pay only the cost of transporting either the newspaper or Spectacular Slovakia to distribution points. We love the country, and we want to see our manual to enjoying it in people's hands. We'll pay to create it and print it, the state will pay the postage.
Fat chance. When we arranged to have free issues of the Spectator placed on international Eurolines bus routes, they cut off the agreement after a few weeks, saying that drivers had been too put out by the task of throwing away spare copies. This year we have been able to forge a few deals with private kiosk stands at the station, making it a banner year for distribution, but still little help if you don't know where to look.
The state railways wants us to pay to have them make copies of the travel guide available (for free). Even a sign at the station advertising that the guide is available would cost more that we could pay. The Foreign Ministry and the president's office take a few hundred copies for their own purposes, but certainly not for orienting foreigners who arrive here without a clue as to the country they have visited.
It's not that Slovaks don't want to promote their country. City information centres around Slovakia are serviced by helpful employees sincerely concerned that visitors enjoy their experiences. In Prešov, for instance, clerks will arrange all the logistics of your trip up the St. Mikuláš Cathedral tower, calling the key-keeper, giving out free brochures - even drawing a map to the cathedral which is less than 50 metres away.
And in Žilina, you don't even have to ask for accommodation. If anyone at the Info Centre there finds out you are lacking, they'll arrange everything as you sit reading brochures. What's your price range? Do you want an attached bathroom? Would you prefer a tub or shower? Moreover, they do this even if you want to stay in a different city.
This eagerness to please certainly exists at the grassroots level. Even in tiny villages you will find friendly people fluent in several languages (and if they can't help you find a room for the night, don't be surprised if they bring you home).
The only problem with these places is that they are underfunded. In Svidnik, for example, they can't sell their English-language guide because, well, it's the last one. They don't have the money to buy more.
Faced with the unwillingness of the government to at least help make our guide available, we have changed the style of this year's Spectacular Slovakia. In years past it was written as a typical travel guide, giving readers sites-tours of the city in question.
But this approach now seems pointless. After all, tourists find it almost impossible to buy this magazine. So why gear it towards travellers? Instead, we decided that given its limited distribution channels, the magazine's readership was largely made up of expats who live here and have an interest in Slovakia, as well as Slovaks who speak English and love to see bewildered westerners gush over the country's limitless wonders. People, essentially, who already know about us and stop in for a copy at our office, if they don't already receive it free with their subscription.
We have what we think is a pretty fair offer for the government: We'll give you the magazine free, you pay the distribution costs. If you want more than the 20,000 copies we run, you also pay for the extra print run. But we want to help you promote the country, at a cost that will not upset taxpayers, and may help bring in tourist dollars.
We're still waiting for an answer.
Foreign visitors to Slovakia peaked at 33.1 million in 1996, falling to 30.8 million in 1999 and steadily thereafter. Foreign exchange income from the tourist industry also dropped from a ceiling of $672 million in 1996 to $460 million in 1999. For Slovakia's struggling economy, this is grim news. For struggling tourists, we're doing our best to make them see the light, and to help them discover an enchanting and engaging country that few foreigners have even heard of.