THE CONFLICT in Iraq will have a definite effect on Slovakia's tourism industry this coming season, say industry experts. However, it is not yet clear whether the war will mean an increase or decrease in the number of foreign visitors to the country in the coming months.
Despite the falling costs of air travel, experts assume that security concerns and recent transatlantic diplomatic rancour will mean fewer trips across the ocean for both North Americans and Europeans. At the same time, however, they are expecting an increase in intra-European travel.
"If the crisis is long, it could lead to a drop in tourists coming to Slovakia, especially from overseas countries such as the US, Canada, Arabic countries, and Israel," said Beáta Lukáčová from the state-run Slovak Tourist Board.
"On the other hand, people may change the destinations of their summer vacations from crisis zones to countries such as Slovakia," she said.
"A decrease in US tourists is expected throughout Europe, which partly results from the Iraqi crisis, as well as from psychological factors. Some Americans are starting to boycott European products, because their governments have a different idea of how the Iraqi issue should be dealt with," said Lukáčová.
Additionally, some US citizens may fear the welcome they would receive in Europe, where public opposition to war is strong.
"When the war started we were a little worried about travelling [to Slovakia] and thought about cancelling our holiday. But our friends persuaded us to go and we are really glad we did. It's fine; there was really nothing to worry about," said Alice Jones, 63, from New Jersey in the US, who recently spent two weeks in the region.
In 2002, US tourists made up only 1.8 per cent of the total number of tourists visiting Slovakia, and that number went down from around 28,000 in 2001 to just over 25,000 the following year.
But concerns over travel are present around the globe.
"Many now favour domestic travel over a trip abroad, even when it's to countries unaffected by war," said Tomáš Ondrčka, representative of the Piešťany Health Spa business department.
"We have information that tourists from Scandinavian countries are cancelling their reservations in central European travel resorts, because of fears resulting from the overall political situation in the world, regardless of the fact that war is neither in Slovakia, nor in Scandinavia, but thousands of kilometres away," he added.
However, some experts agree with Lukáčová's observation that the global climate of fear may give Slovakia a comparative advantage.
"Tourism to Slovakia will not be negatively affected, although in general, people are tending to travel less," said Pavol Konštiak, president of the Slovak Trade Association, an organisation set up by businesses focusing on trade and travel.
"May's referendum [on Slovakia's entry into the EU] and the fact that in a year we will be members of the European Union will help the travel industry in Slovakia. As an EU member, Slovakia will be really attractive for foreign tourists," said Juraj Kotian, analyst with the Slovenská sporiteľňa bank.
Experts point out that certain Slovak destinations will be hit harder than others, particularly those that are used to welcoming a significant number of Middle Eastern tourists.
"People from the Middle East make up 12 per cent of the earnings of our spa," said Jana Obertová, public relations officer of the Piešťany spa, Slovakia's largest. She added that most of those visitors come from Israel, followed by Kuwait, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
"Every crisis and conflict in the world has an impact on travel and the economy. That's not only true in the countries of conflict. Clients from [Middle Eastern] countries came in smaller numbers during the winter. But the summer season, when people from that region come to relax in our mild climate, is crucial. That's when we'll really see what impact the war has had," said Obertová.
Throughout the Iraqi crisis, experts have been carefully watching the price of oil, a decisive factor in the cost of travel. However, they see no indication that the price will significantly increase.
"I don't think that oil prices should be particularly high this summer. Oil prices have reacted to [news from Iraq] and started decreasing. It is my opinion that the price of fuel in the future should not be very different from today. The cost factor will therefore not have a negative impact on travel," said Kotian.
Not only that, but the price of air travel on a global scale is set to fall, due to problems in that sector.
"Some airlines have already declared bankruptcy, because they counted on having fully booked flights but they do not have them. So the price of air travel should go down," said Konštiak.
Some experts believe that Slovakia could even use the crisis to boost tourism.
"Slovakia has a good opportunity to strengthen its image as a safe country and thus draw further travellers from abroad," Kotian said.
14. Apr 2003 at 0:00 | Lukáš Fila