THE ECONOMY Ministry recently implied that overly strict natural conservation in some territories of Slovakia makes the activities of some investors in tourism more difficult than that it should be and hinders development in these areas. The issue has raised strong concerns among people and institutions involved in conservation.
The ministry has worked out an analysis of the impact of conservation legislation on the development of the business environment and tourism, which the government approved on July 14. The aim is to find ways to remove some of the limitations created by the current level of natural protection to improve the business environment.
According to the ministry, an inter-ministerial commission should be established to judge the current system of protected areas. "The current network of protected territories covers 23.3 percent of the Slovak Republic. So far, it has not been assessed from the point of view of real needs to protect individual biotopes and species," reads the Economy Ministry analysis.
According to current categorisation in Slovakia, there are 9 national parks, 14 protected territories, 385 natural preservations, 228 national natural preservations, 239 natural sights, 60 national natural sights and 189 protected areas. Additionally, 4,499 caves and 151 natural waterfalls also belong to Slovak protected natural spots.
In each of the protected categories there are several grades of protection, ranging from 1 to 5. The grades determine the range of allowed activities; a level 5 is a territory with the strictest rules.
According to ministry, limitations on the development of the mountain tourism business directly harms neighbouring towns and cities, their services, and the creation of job opportunities. Modernisation and new construction projects are mainly affected, said the Economy Ministry.
"The grades of protection are a Slovak specialty in the EU countries. With regard to the fact that it has been a long time since they were established by law and Slovak economic conditions have changed since then, there is a need to re-evaluate the protected territories and grades of protection," Gabriel Kuliffay, the director of the tourism department at the Economy Ministry, told The Slovak Spectator.
The effort to re-assess the area of protected territories also stems from the mistakes of the past when large areas were claimed as protected without consulting the owners and with a lack of professional information on protection of nature and the countryside, he added.
Environmental organisations in Slovakia disagree deeply with the economy ministry's analysis. They consider the current state of Slovakia's protected areas exceptional in many aspects among the states of the European Union, and they say this is thanks to the current system of conservation. The first national park in Slovakia was established in 1949. The whole network of protected areas rose mainly in the 1970s.
"We have entered the association of European nations and countries. We have brought something with us that we consider valuable and that could enrich Europe.
"Apart from certain economic values - wider market environment, cheap labour - our wild lands are also unique among the majority of EU countries," Peter Straka who cooperated in the preparation of the national ecological network of Slovakia, told the daily SME.
Environmentalists' main objection to the ministry's report is that it lacks professionalism and real analytical data. It mainly focuses on skiing tourism and totally ignores other forms such as summer visits to the mountains, cyclo-tourism, and agro-tourism.
An untouched natural environment and countryside have a much greater potential from the point of view of Slovak tourism than ski resorts can possible offer, reads the common objection of 7 NGOs to the analysis.
As regards local and global trends in tourism, the NGOs do not consider a public investment in the skiing industry, which they see as sometimes damaging to the environment, as profitable or justified.
"It is true that you can never satisfy everyone with the legislation. However, I think that current environmental legislation enables us to carry out business activities. I, myself, have a travel agency and it is possible.
"Of course, if someone wants to build new ski lifts and cableways it can be a problem. You always have to find a compromise between business intentions and natural protection," Jano Roháč from the environmental association Jantárová cesta told The Slovak Spectator.
He added that most environmental legislation has already been harmonised with EU rules, and there is no problem with tourism there.
However, the Association of Slovak Towns and Cities, believed to be the most hurt by the strict environmental legislation, is calling for a compromise too.
"It would take a madman to want to damage the natural sights in his region. The feeling of responsibility for our natural heritage has to be strong. But sometimes the bureaucracy and administrative barriers are so lengthy and time-consuming when you want to build or modernise something. It often totally discourages investors," said Viera Krakovská, association vice-chairman and mayor of the town of Brusno near the Low Tatras national park.
The environmental organisations say they are not against analyses evaluating the impacts of natural protection on tourism. They emphasise the necessity of professional attitudes and discussion on the part of all involved organisations.
"For sure, this needs to be evaluated. This is also normal abroad, although judging the principles of conservation is not that common. But the analysis of the Economy Ministry is just unprofessional. To put it less politely, it is a shame that it was approved by the ministry and submitted to the government," Roháč added.
As for the Environment Ministry, which has the greatest authority in the field of natural conservation, it is confused by the approach taken to the analysis. Environment Minister László Miklós told the daily Hospodárske noviny that the ministry had not been invited to cooperate with the Economy Ministry on the analysis, to which it has expressed serious objections.
"The material is very unprofessional and biased. We reject it. We did not participate in preparing it," said Miklós to the daily before the government approved the analysis.
In his opinion weak services and high prices mainly deter visitors to the resorts in Slovakia. Concerning the re-evaluation of the protection grades in Slovak resorts, the minister prefers to increase the quality of existing tourism facilities rather than extend them.
The Economy Ministry has said that it only reacted to the actual situation. The issue became significant recently when Slovakia was supposed to draw up a national list of proposed sites of Community interest for the EU project NATURA 2000 and many land owners and businessmen asked for more information and transparency in the process.
"As an economic body we are responsible for creating conditions in Slovakia for tourism and business and it is not possible to carry out this role when the number of limitations and exceptions is still growing. A significant slowdown or even halt of the process of modernisation of technical equipment and the quality of services and job opportunities are the biggest negatives of this state," said Kuliffay.
It seems like the argument runs in circles, but all the counterparts are aware of the need to participate in solving the problem. However, this will require a professional approach and thorough analysis.