SLOVAKIA'S High Tatra mountains remain one of Europe's best-kept secrets.
photo: Ján Svrček
Despite a wealth of natural and historical attractions, Slovakia has chronically lagged behind its neighbours in the area of tourism, mostly due to lack of government support and insufficient promotion abroad, travel experts say. This has led to the country remaining below most travellers' radar screens.
"I wasn't aware of the country before I came here myself in February," the newly established European Commission ambassador to Slovakia, Eric van den Linden, told The Slovak Spectator.
However, observers expect the slowly growing tourism sector to show significant improvement once the country takes advantage of benefits that EU entry will bring. For example, it should begin to enjoy a higher profile.
"The moment Slovakia becomes a member of the EU, the country will be more well known. There is a lack of knowledge about the country [abroad at the moment].
"If you ask people in current member states where Slovakia is, not many know," said van den Linden, adding that the country is still often confused with the former Yugoslav state of Slovenia or with former Czechoslovakia.
Besides enjoying greater recognition as an EU member state, Slovakia should be able to receive more EU finances for the development of the tourism sector.
"Membership brings Slovakia access to regional structural and cohesive funds. From 2004 to 2006, the country should benefit from a total of 1.7 billion euro, or 600 million euro per year," said van den Linden.
"If that is used in an effective way, then it may also attract foreign investors, create jobs, increase the level of income and the wellbeing of the population," he added.
Slovak travel professionals say that money is sorely needed, and they are hopeful Slovakia can follow in the footsteps of other countries once it has access to EU funds.
"We may see a similar thing happen here as happened in Ireland when it gained access to EU financial resources, which are now very substantial for the development of tourism," said Július Cmorej, head of Slovak Association of Travel Agencies (SACK).
"Unfortunately, the Slovak government is not able to provide the financial resources that the travel industry needs for its development," he continued.
One problem, say leaders of the travel sector, is that tourism has traditionally been overlooked as a growth industry. A lack of government support and promotion has resulted in travellers passing Slovakia by in favour of neighbouring countries with higher profiles.
PICTURE-PERFECT squares are empty all over the country.
photo: Ján Svrček
SACR, which is in charge of promoting Slovakia as a tourist destination, said it received Sk50 million ($1.14 million) from the state budget in 2002, Sk12 million ($272,727) more than in the previous year. The proportion of the state budget dedicated to tourism in Slovakia is one-sixth of that in the Czech Republic and 20 times smaller than the portion of the state budget Hungary devotes to the sector.
"The promotion of tourism needs much more money. We count our promotional materials in pieces, while the Hungarians count theirs in tonnes," Magátová said.
"EU financial aid in the area of tourism would be a very wise investment, the return on which would be very fast - practically instant," said Martin Sereday, former head of the Agency for Development of Tourism in the Tatras region.
The agency, designed to promote some of Slovakia's most popular tourist destinations, was created as a joint-venture project between the British Know-How Fund and the Slovak government, but it was forced to close because of a lack of state support.
"The Economy Ministry was not even able to sustain the existence of this agency, even though it was providing services to the travel industry spreading from [the northwestern Slovak] Orava region to [the eastern] Šariš region," he said.
Besides financial resources, experts say better coordination and management within the sector is needed to address problems and increase the attractiveness of Slovakia for tourists.
"The authorities could do more and better in terms of selling the image of Slovakia abroad. I find it striking how beautiful [the country] is on one hand and how very few tourists see it," said van den Linden.
"I think you should have the input of the regions - from those who work in the regional territorial units and the municipalities. They are close to citizens, industry and trade representatives. Who [in Bratislava] knows what problems are there?" he added.
Representatives of the travel industry and some government officials stress that if its tourism sector were thriving, Slovakia would attract further investment.
"The saddest fact is that such an important area as the travel industry is not coordinated by a central body but by an appendix of some ministry," said Sereday.
"As a result [of tourist promotion] Slovakia could become a very desirable destination," he said.
Magdaléna Grelnetová from the travel industry division of the Economy Ministry agreed.
"The travel industry should be a significant tool to help attract foreign investors. If the travel industry works properly, other related activities will work as well," she said.
4. Nov 2002 at 0:00 | Miroslav Karpaty