Slovakia struggles with e-travel

FOR ARMCHAIR travellers and tourists planning holidays, the Internet has become an indispensable tool for preparing a trip - from researching country information to booking tickets, accommodation and other services.
Internet users looking at Slovakia, however, may find themselves in a confusing loop of web links with little hope of lining up that perfect view of the Tatras, let alone actually getting to the mountains.
While a growing number of hotels offer online booking possibilities, finding them requires patience, and travel agents say Slovakia's lack of a central reservation system is holding back tourist development on the Internet.


FUNCTIONING online booking systems are rare in Slovakia.
photo: Internet

FOR ARMCHAIR travellers and tourists planning holidays, the Internet has become an indispensable tool for preparing a trip - from researching country information to booking tickets, accommodation and other services.

Internet users looking at Slovakia, however, may find themselves in a confusing loop of web links with little hope of lining up that perfect view of the Tatras, let alone actually getting to the mountains.

While a growing number of hotels offer online booking possibilities, finding them requires patience, and travel agents say Slovakia's lack of a central reservation system is holding back tourist development on the Internet.

"One of the main [tourism] development possibilities is a central information and reservation system for the travel industry in Slovakia." said Július Cmorej, president of the Slovak Association of Travel Agencies (SACK).

"Unfortunately, not a lot of progress has been made [in this area].

"I would say that in Slovakia [very few] travel agencies have or use electronic reservation systems. Many more travel agencies use them in the Czech Republic and Hungary, and in EU countries, all but the smallest travel agencies work with these systems," said Cmorej.

Cmorej emphasized that having easily accessible online resources for tourists was becoming more and more important, as Slovakia's international profile will rise with EU entry in January 2004.

"[In the EU,] sales are made online through reservation systems, while in Slovakia only a few agencies are using these systems, and then only within their own networks. This means that other agencies can't sell [third-party] products online, only by telephone or fax," he said.

The lack of commonly available resources on tourism in Slovakia is evident to anyone using the Internet to research a holiday.

For example, a user who types "Czech Republic, book a trip" into the Google search engine will find CzechSite, a US-based page offering online hotel and car booking services for the Czech capital, as well as maps, suggested tours and other useful information.

In contrast, the search "Slovakia, book a trip" returns a page advertising gay and lesbian cruises, the Travel Channel cable station and a Norwegian site promoting the country's pheasant- and boar-hunting opportunities.

Possibilities do exist to book accommodation through sites like travelguide.sk or tourist-site.com, but users need to work to find them, and they have to know something about Slovakia before they can locate a hotel.

Working with Slovakia's existing booking systems, said Cmorej, "is very confusing right now, and [information] is not together in a single outlet.

"The client may have difficulty orienting himself if he is not familiar with Slovakia," he said.

Sylvia Renačová from the Slovak Tourism Agency, a state-run programme in charge of promoting the country as a travel destination, said the body would continue to promote Slovak attractions on its web site but was not looking for commercial activities.

"By law, we are not able to promote individual companies. That kind of promotion has to be done by the firms themselves. We can only offer links to associations.

"We provide information on individual regions and attractions, but we do not sell products," said Renačová.

Despite the sluggish development of Slovakia's online booking environment, some companies are operating efficient online tourism services. They say the Internet is becoming increasingly important in how they do business.

Martin Šimiček, IT manager for Slovakia-based SkyEurope's online reservation system - currently Slovakia's largest - said online sales have grown to 25 per cent of total sales as the low-fare carrier continues to expand. SkyEurope now serves eight destinations in five countries in central Europe, including three Slovak cities.

He believes other travel companies are missing out on business opportunities because of their lack of online booking capabilities.

"We want to put shortcuts on our page to other web sites that can offer bookings for rental cars or hotels, but for now, [the infrastructure] is not there. We need auto rental shops in Slovakia to have their own reservation systems. Right now there is no online booking [for rental cars]," said Šimiček.

However, said Šimiček, with Slovakia's advancing technological infrastructure and steadily rising computer use, the online commerce sector looks set to expand.

"We're only at the beginning of this, and I would say that we are like pioneers. We'll see - maybe some other companies will start to use these electronic systems [before too long]."

"Its only a question of time before this market grows," Šimiček said.

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