SLOVAKIA has been putting on makeup, primping itself to become more appealing to the rest of the world. Bratislava's grey buildings have undergone lengthy and costly beauty treatments and the city is soul-searching, finding ways to become more tourist friendly.
A taxi ride is one of the first experiences that any visitor to a foreign country undergoes. Given this fact, the recent report that Slovak and Czech taxi drivers generally cheat foreign tourists is quite worrisome.
According to the Slovak and Czech Trade Inspection, almost half of the taxi drivers it audited tried to swindle their clients into paying more.
Prague taxi services had formal shortcomings. Drivers did not like giving out receipts, for example. In Slovakia, drivers made direct attempts to deceive the client.
Taxi drivers tend to inflate prices when a tourist requests a short ride. When the distance is short, the cabdriver simply feels it is not worth starting the car. To make the ride worth his while, he simply asks for a higher fee up front.
Double pricing, however - a situation where the cab driver charges a foreigner twice as much as a local - has not been proved. Suspicions are strong, however, and not only in the taxi business.
The results from a restaurant check was similarly disappointing.
According to the daily SME, 60 percent of the restaurants it checked deliberately tried to cheat foreign tourists.
Many Slovaks hoped that the country's entry into the European Union would put a definite end to foreign fares and double pricing. Such a policy is unfair and it discriminates against foreigners.
In fact, Slovakia has adopted a law on double pricing. However, a massive inspection in 2004 showed that many hotels and tourist facilities were still tempted to charge different prices for Slovaks and foreigners.
Double pricing can repel foreign tourists from visiting the country as they rightly feel offended by these practices.
Shortly after the fall of Communism, prices were so low in the former Czechoslovakia that tourists seemed to tolerate double pricing, seeing it as an inevitable process of development. They put up with it because they viewed it as temporary. Fully complying with Western standards is now long overdue.
There are travel guides that openly warn that certain countries will try to fool, rob or otherwise take advantage of the average tourist. Practical advice such as, "Expect to be charged more than the locals", is far from positive advertisement.
Many say that if Slovakia does not step on the tourist train, it would be a big mistake, especially since it has been working so hard on turning its economy around to attract foreign investment.
Officials argue that as far as tourism services goes, there has been immense progress. The truth is that foreign tourists or investors who come to the country, especially if they are first-time visitors, do not check the measure of the progress. They are not concerned with what the situation was five or 10 years ago. They care about the quality and level of services today.
Certainly, it has been a long road that this small, Central European state has walked to earn its flattering accolades: investor paradise, Tatra Tiger and the Slovak miracle.
Over the past decade, the perception of Slovakia has changed immensely. Some of the negative stereotypes have lost ground, while some of the positive ones were not doubt exaggerated.
Tourists to Slovakia no longer worry about political instability or human rights violations. Investors do not fear empty political guarantees. But Slovakia can no longer justify its inability to fine tune the quality of services by claiming, "We are in transition."
Any transition period that lasts too long is generally interpreted as stagnation.
The tourist season is starting and most tourists will not select their destination based on macroeconomic numbers. Rather, they will place emphasis on access to information and the quality of services. And as they decide where to travel for vacation, they will pay close attention to little titbits of information, such as Slovak taxi drivers swindling foreign tourists and Slovak restaurants charging double.
By Beata Balogová
30. May 2005 at 0:00