TRAFFIC jams at the Polish border are a common sight on market days, as Slovak 'shopping tourists' go bargain hunting.
photo: Sme: Oliver Ondráš
While border officials say numbers are gradually decreasing, many Slovak shoppers, particularly from the country's north and east, continue to visit nearby markets in Poland, taking advantage of often significantly lower prices.
"The shopping visits started years ago," said Mária Vojtaššáková, head of the border crossing in Tatranská Javorina, the most frequently used checkpoint for Slovak shopping tourists.
"The number of visitors to Poland has been high since I started working here, and I have been here for around 30 years," she added.
In recent years, the town of Nowy Targ on the Polish side of the High Tatra mountain range has become very popular among Slovak shoppers, and many sellers at the Thursday and Saturday markets accept Slovak currency.
"Everybody goes to Poland - my friends, my family, my colleagues from work. Things are cheaper there," said Stanislav Kroták from the northern Slovak town of Kežmarok, around 80 kilometres from Nowy Targ.
"[Clothes] that would cost Sk1,500 ($36) in Slovakia can be bought for Sk900 ($22) there, and there is no difference in quality," he added.
"Shopping tourism is quite a strong phenomenon here in Slovakia," said Anastázia Lešková, head of the trade and services section at the Slovak Economy Ministry.
"Usually, poorer families travel to do their shopping. There is one main motivation in this activities - to purchase the most things at the lowest prices," she said.
While shopping in Poland may save Slovaks cash, border officials say such trips can turn into long and inconvenient shopping days.
Shopping tourists often get up as early as 3:00 or 4:00 so they can reach the Polish markets at a reasonable time. When they get to the border, there can be long queues.
"We used to have eight-kilometre-long lines [of cars], especially on Saturdays," said Vojtaššáková.
"It is a disadvantage of our border crossing that it is very narrow and small, so not many people can fit in," she added.
According to estimates from the Tatranská Javorina border crossing office, the number of Slovak visitors to Poland has been recently ranging from 1,400 to 2,200 per day when the Polish markets are open, although official statistics are not kept.
The amount of money Slovaks spend in Polish markets is not known, but Slovaks are permitted to import goods worth up to 175 euro without paying duties.
"The [amount of money Slovaks spend in Poland] does not appear in statistics. There are only estimates, which can be made by customs officers according to the number of visitors on any given day," said Lešková, adding that out-of-country shopping is part of Slovakia's shadow economy.
The tradition may also be a drain on the country's problematic balance of trade, which reached a deficit of Sk47.7 billion ($1.13 billion) over the first eight months of 2002, up by Sk700 million ($16.9 million) year-on-year.
However, say Economy Ministry officials, regulating such small-scale cross-border trade is beyond their power.
"There is a law on selling at marketplaces in this country, and we regulate it. However, we cannot affect cross-border activities - we are responsible for the internal market only," said Lešková.
"The Ministry of Economy does not have the authority to regulate this so-called tourist shopping," she said.
Observers say that the number of tourist shoppers is already declining and that the tradition will gradually disappear even without state regulation.
"The number of visitors was significantly higher five years ago than it is now," said Vojtaššáková.
"The main reason, I would say, is that many supermarkets are being opened in our country, and people have started looking [for things] in Slovak shops as well. And there are plenty of discount shops that are also competitive in price.
"It looks like this tradition will diminish, because prices are becoming equal. We already see it here; some of the goods that used to be bought [in Poland] are not bought there anymore," she added.
Some shoppers in the border region say increased selection and better economic circumstances in Slovakia make a shopping trip to Poland no longer worth the hassle.
"I haven't been to Poland for a long time. I used to go there to save money, but it is not worth it now. They have the same things [at similar prices] that we have here," said Marianna Tuščáková from the northern Slovakia town of Levoča.