ALTHOUGH tourism dropped worldwide last year, Slovaks still love to travel and the number of those who did so abroad through travel agencies continued to grow steadily. But Slovaks usually choose affordable holidays far from places that an experienced tourist would call exotic.
The war in Iraq, terrorist attacks, SARS, and the persisting world economic recession were the main reasons why 1.2 percent fewer people decided to travel abroad in 2003 than in 2002, the World Tourism Organisation (WTO) announced.
But the Slovak Association of Travel Agencies (SACK) reported that Slovaks were not discouraged from travelling last year; they ventured out in numbers equal to those of the last five years.
"Holidays involving air transport showed the most dynamic growth year-on-year - at 15 percent. Holidays in which the transportation is not arranged, when you have to travel on your own, came next: increasing 7 to 10 percent. Bus transportation holidays are stagnating," Pavol Komora, vice-president of the SACK, told The Slovak Spectator.
"This is mainly related to prices. Air transport is dependent on the dollar exchange rate. The US dollar has depreciated against the Slovak crown, so flying is relatively cheaper," he added.
The most favoured destination of Slovaks was once again not a surprise: For several years in a row, it has been Croatia. However, the number of people who travelled there was slightly lower in 2003 than in the previous year.
A stable number of Slovak clients travel every year to Greece. Tourists were slightly less interested in spending holidays in Italy or Spain. "Holidays in Egypt and Bulgaria posted the most significant hike last year," Komora said.
The SACK expects that Egypt will prove the fastest growing Slovak destination. However, its total number of Slovak visitors should not exceed Croatia, Bulgaria, Greece, or Italy.
The agency says the sudden interest in Egypt - previously considered a luxurious holiday - is caused by the favourable exchange rate of the US dollar and the Slovak crown and the huge growth in tourist opportunities in Egypt.
"Many new tourist facilities have appeared in Egypt in recent years. This creates pressure for price cuts. Lower prices helped Egypt maintain approximately the same number of visitors from its traditional [tourist] countries. Additionally, in Slovakia the trend led to increased competition between airlines and travel agencies," said Komora.
Bulgaria attracts Slovak tourists primarily because of its relatively low prices for food, local transportation, etc, which make it affordable to more income groups.
Although Slovaks still stick to their traditional holiday by the Mediterranean Sea, they have begun discovering exotic places like Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Again, this is due to the fact that prices for these holidays have decreased, mainly thanks to new charter flights from Bratislava to "warm" countries.
The main criterion for a Slovak when choosing a holiday remains the price. However, Komora added that clients are more mature and do not automatically leap at lower prices; they thoroughly consider offers from several travel agencies.
Price is also why Slovak tourists like choosing holidays at the last moment. Because these deals bring little profit to travel agencies, the SACK expects that, in one or two years, they will be forced to cut back their offer of holiday packages. The range of possibilities might decrease and, along with it, the number of holidays with advantageous last-minute prices.
As regards average salaries, a holiday abroad costs a Slovak family relatively more than someone from the European Union. "While a German pays for such a holiday with about half of his [monthly] salary, a Slovak might even pay four times his [monthly] salary," said Robert Kohlmann, the president of the SACK.
Slovak clients thus might have the impression that they have purchased a luxurious holiday, so their expectations are automatically very high.
Additionally, Slovaks are less experienced in travelling. Whereas a holiday at the seaside is typical of the average citizen in Germany or Austria, this is not the case in Slovakia. Slovaks can be even more demanding tourists than Germans, and it can be difficult to fulfil their wishes.
Slovak tourists still do not seem ready for adventure. The SACK says classic resort holidays still prevail. There are adventurous holidays on the market, but they take up a small of portion of overall tourism statistics.
"In the future, however, we can predict that adventurous holidays will become more attractive. It is connected to the potential increase in the living standard of the whole population. Now, adventure is still considered a luxury. Additionally, in developed countries, an adventure is usually a second holiday; the first is often the more relaxed resort holiday," Kohlmann said.
Slovak tourists now certainly have a wider range of holiday possibilities than they once did.
"There are few clients who look for offers from foreign travel agencies. Instead, there are more foreign tourists that buy their holidays from Slovak travel agencies - especially the Czechs and Austrians. They are interested in exotic destinations because they are cheaper [there] than on their domestic market," Komora said.