MORE foreigners on holiday could help Slovakia increase its tourism earnings. However, the state still has not been successful in attracting people from other countries to come pay a visit.
Last year Slovakia earned $863 million (€715 million) from foreign tourists, and active tourism made up only about 3 percent of the whole gross domestic product.
According to the Slovak Economy Ministry, Poland's foreign exchange incomes from tourism are more than seven times higher. The Czech Republic earns four times as much and Hungary a little less than four times more. "The same comparison would be valid in previous years too," Gabriel Kuliffay, director of the tourism department of the Economy Ministry, told The Slovak Spectator.
Kuliffay thinks that Slovakia is not fully meeting its tourist potential.
"This might be caused by the quality and spectrum of services, management, low state promotion, absent regional marketing, and also unmotivated personnel," he said.
Slovak entrepreneurs in the industry often say that state aid in developing services is not sufficient. However, insiders suggest that entrepreneurs should also try harder and take more initiative in increasing the quality of services and the hospitality of their personnel.
"The ideal state would be if the initiative was bilateral. Our current supporting programmes are directed at improving the quality and extent of services offered by medium- and small-sized businesses as it is in the European Union countries and neighbouring countries," added Kuliffay, although he did not specify the concrete measures.
In Hungary the government launched the Széchényi Plan in 2001 to develop tourism. The state provides support to entrepreneurs through non-repayable subsidies, interest rate subsidies, and direct loans with low interest rates.
Austria enjoys direct legislation pertaining to tourism. There is an act and related directives that support medium- and small-sized entrepreneurship and thus maintain and improve the level of tourist services.
To help boost the industry, Slovakia intends to run a campaign to make Slovaks spend their holidays at home. According to the Economy Ministry, the state plans a similar campaign aimed at drawing foreign tourists. As for the money, the ministry relies especially on the structural funds of the EU.
It is this funding that is keeping the campaigns from starting, as Slovakia can only use the funds after its accession to the EU on May 1.
The neighbouring Czech Republic launched such a campaign in the beginning of April. The country decided to finance it from the budget of the Czech Regional Development Ministry. Only a small part of the Sk20 million (€499,000) that Slovakia intends to invest in the promotion is supposed to be from the state coffers.
Additionally, before Slovakia begins to use EU funds it should build its information system, wrote the Hospodárske noviny daily. Alexander Škurla, spokesman of the Economy Ministry, told the daily that the campaign would follow the wider introduction of information technologies.
The Slovak Tourism Agency, which will be responsible for the campaign, wanted to promote Slovakia through foreign TV channels like CNN, BBC, Eurosport, TV5, and RTL.
Róbert Kohlmann, the president of the Slovak Association of Travel Agencies, told Hospodárske noviny that it should not be a problem for the Slovak campaign to start later than those of the Czech Republic and Hungary.
He added that the press of the EU countries is now introducing the future members, and it would be a pity not to take an advantage of the extra attention.
The majority of last year's foreign visitors to Slovakia came from the Czech Republic and Poland. Similar to Slovaks, these tourists are very sensitive to prices, which means that possible price volatility and last year's price hikes might push the number of visitors from these countries even lower this year.
According to the Economy Ministry, Germans, Hungarians, Austrians, Italians, the French, and people from Great Britain, the US, and Holland are also finding their way to Slovakia.
"Places most visited by foreign tourists in 2003 were Bratislava [the capital], the Danube river area [in southern Slovakia], Orava river area, High Tatras, Váh river area, Low Tatras, Kysuca river area, and [the central region of] Liptov," said Kuliffay.