WHILE Slovakia is closing one chapter after another in its march towards EU entry, some of the country's businesses still apply a discriminatory double-tier pricing policy and charge foreigners higher fees than natives.
The practice of dual pricing at hotels, travel agencies, museums, opera houses and car parks has long been a negative feature of the tourist landscape in Slovakia, often coming as an unpleasant surprise to foreigners who are not accustomed to this practice.
Although Slovakia, over the last four years, has managed to cut down on the number of businesses that ask a modest sum from locals and a higher fee for foreigners, a number of businesses, including those that are state-owned, still apply the discriminatory rule.
For example, a single room at Hotel Tatra in Trenčín costs Sk1,765 ($42) for Slovaks and Sk3,490 ($85) for foreigners. A one-way bus ticket from Bratislava to Vienna costs Slovaks Sk150 ($3.70) and foreigners 10.90 euro. A one-way train ticket for the same route costs a Slovak Sk319 ($7.70) and foreigners Sk550 ($13.40). The entrance fee for the famous Trenčin castle is twice as much for a foreigner than for a Slovak, who is charged only Sk40 (less than $1).
Managers who apply a dual pricing scheme say they offer lower prices to Slovaks in order to stimulate their business and generate more revenues. Other industry professionals, however, say the system has the opposite effect.
"This is not right. Foreigners are sensitive about this. Price is important for them too, and they view this system as discriminatory. Next time they may well avoid Slovakia. This certainly doesn't help Slovakia to get more revenues from tourism," said Vlasta Janegová from the tourism division of the Economy Ministry.
The EU economic chapters, which have to be closed by each candidate country before it can gain membership, require nondiscriminatory pricing. Theoretically, double pricing should disappear after Slovakia becomes an EU member in 2004.
Meanwhile, the existing laws governing pricing and the laws designed to protect the consumer suggest that everybody must be charged the same price and that the seller mustn't discriminate against the buyer.
However, the system of discounts permitted by the legislation allows many businesses to circumvent the rules and offer double prices.
For example, staff in the Hotel Tatra in Trenčín say they offer just one rate, even though they ask potential clients whether they are foreigners or not before quoting a price.
"When customers come to our hotel, they find one price. Depending on the season and how many rooms are booked we can sometimes offer them discounts. It doesn't mean that we are discriminating and offering double prices," said Adriana Vargová, the Hotel Tatra's marketing manager.
"Now hotels are [applying dual pricing systems] in a more sophisticated way than four years ago, when they just put two different prices up at the reception. When they offer Slovaks a discounted price now, it's difficult for the state inspectors to prove that they have broken the law," said Michal Ševčík from the tourism division of the Economy Ministry.
The Slovak Commerce Inspectorate (SCI), which is one of the institutions authorized to control and sanction businesses for the quoting of two prices for the same service has investigated seven allegations of double pricing for accommodation this year, five of which have been proven. The accusations have come mostly from people who have been quoted the higher of two prices.
Further SCI checks conducted by the inspectorate on its own initiative this year revealed that 21 other accommodation facilities were charging different prices for the same services, and one travel agency was selling tours in Slovakia for different prices to foreigners and Slovaks.
While private business are doing their best to avoid the law and offer discounted prices to Slovaks to generate higher turnover, some cash-strapped state institutions say they have to break the law to keep afloat.
Katarína Babičová, director of the Trenčín museum, which manages the castle, said that the sale of tickets was the only way she could generate enough money to run the castle.
"I am aware of the fact that I am breaking the law and I discriminate against foreign visitors to the castle when I charge them Sk80 instead of Sk40, which is what I charge Slovaks. However, if the castle had enough donations from the state then we wouldn't need to charge foreigners more than Slovak nationals," Babičová said.
"At the same time, I think that Sk80 is not too much for the foreigner [to pay] when you compare it with entrance fees to similar castles in western Europe, but I know that after Slovakia joins the EU we will have to start charging the same price," Babičová added.