Another summer of tourism draws to a close

AS EXPECTED, the summer tourism season in Slovakia has turned out a bit weaker than in previous years. The global financial crisis is primarily seen as most responsible for this outcome, from which Slovakia could not escape. But for tourists from other countries in the region that have not yet adopted the euro, the crisis plus the adoption of the euro made Slovakia a more expensive holiday destination when their currencies weakened. On the other hand, rising unemployment and other effects of the crisis lessened the appetite of Slovaks to travel abroad for holidays and many of them began to rediscover the beauties of their homeland.

The High Tatras is a popular destination for local as well as foreign tourists. The High Tatras is a popular destination for local as well as foreign tourists. (Source: TASR)

AS EXPECTED, the summer tourism season in Slovakia has turned out a bit weaker than in previous years. The global financial crisis is primarily seen as most responsible for this outcome, from which Slovakia could not escape. But for tourists from other countries in the region that have not yet adopted the euro, the crisis plus the adoption of the euro made Slovakia a more expensive holiday destination when their currencies weakened. On the other hand, rising unemployment and other effects of the crisis lessened the appetite of Slovaks to travel abroad for holidays and many of them began to rediscover the beauties of their homeland.

“Due to the economic crisis Slovakia has reported a drop in foreign tourists, especially from the neighbouring Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary,” Eva Sisková, from the communication department of the Slovak Tourist Board (SACR) told The Slovak Spectator. “One positive aspect of the crisis was that tourism service providers reported an increased interest among local tourists in spending their holidays in Slovakia during this year’s summer season.”

The main difference in comparison with the previous year was a significant change in the composition of visitors to Slovakia, as the traditionally strong sectors of Polish and Hungarian tourists were much lower, according to Sisková. This gap was partly filled by more tourists from Slovakia and western Europe and, for the latter, Slovakia’s adoption of the euro at the beginning of 2009 was a stabilising factor.

“Adoption of the euro made comparison of prices simpler,” Pavol Kašuba, the secretary general of the Association of Hotels and Restaurants of Slovakia, told The Slovak Spectator. “They also did not need to exchange money.”

Those engaged in the tourism industry also see some positive factors stemming from the economic downturn, despite the negative impacts.

“Every crisis situation brings pressure to improve,” Tomáš Hasala, the president of the Slovak Association of Travel Agencies (SACKA) told The Slovak Spectator. “The crisis has brought a chance to face the truth and, after juxtaposing ourselves with developed countries to identify our weak points – which we must cope with as soon as possible, as well as identifying our strong points on which we can further build in the future, I am an optimist.”

According to Kašuba, the crisis has engendered more cooperation among businesses and other tourism entities because “it is clear that these problems affect all of us and it does not matter whether we are travel agencies, cable car operators, hotels, or spas. In this respect the crisis has glued us together and now we have started to communicate better and look for common solutions”.

Tourism experts see a lack of comprehensiveness in services as well as service quality not always corresponding to prices as the biggest challenges facing the tourism industry in Slovakia. But they also say more competition will mean better and less-expensive products and services.

“We have to realise that with adoption of the euro and our prices nearing levels in developed western countries we cannot look to the past, but must juxtapose ourselves against countries with which we compete,” said Hasala. “One of them is neighbouring Austria, which belongs among the world powers in tourism. Only when our level reaches that high will a real breakthrough come.”

But Hasala said that during the last five years Slovakia has made huge leaps forward in tourism infrastructure and in the variety and quality of services and, as well, in such simple things as quality care for guests. He added that a large range of interesting tourism investments have only been temporarily halted by the crisis.

According to Kašuba, tourist resorts must broaden their service offerings so that visitors have something to do when it is raining and that resorts should not just be satisfied when the weather is suitable for hiking, bathing or skiing. Moreover, he would like to see SACR more active in promoting Slovakia as a tourist destination.

“We should promote Slovakia in its traditional markets,” he said, adding that more promotion in either America or China will not bring a significant number of tourists to Slovakia. “It is necessary to focus on the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary which are the markets from which we draw the most visitors. Other prospective countries are Germany and Italy and Europe as a whole.”

Summer season in Bratislava

Summer season in the Slovak capital was similar to previous years but, along with most other traditional city-break destinations in Europe, a drop in arrivals and nights spent can be expected for 2009. But the exact numbers will not be known until the end of October, Milan Vajda, the spokesperson for Bratislava City Council, told The Slovak Spectator.

“Visually, the city was full but that was often caused by so-called one-stop visitors, arriving in Bratislava via river cruises on the Danube,” said Vajda. “We will see whether the expected increase in visitors from some new markets, for example Spain, Australia and Russia, will be confirmed.”

Euro adoption has made Bratislava even more expensive for several groups of potential visitors. And during the current economic crisis, possible visitors are monitoring prices very carefully, according to Vajda.

“According to benchmark statistical data, which we deliver to the Tourmis database, Bratislava ranks among the more expensive cities,” said Vajda. “Prices of our consumer goods, services, and accommodation are comparable with the most-known urban destinations. We are cheaper only in tickets for city and art events.”

Tourists visiting Bratislava traditionally admire the historical centre, the Korzo [the pedestrian zone on Hviezdoslavovo Square and its nearby area] and its wide range of restaurants and cafes, with their improving quality and variety. Cruises on the Danube River are also very popular as well as the Small Carpathian Wine Route which offers wine tastings. For souvenirs they like ceramics known under the name “majolika”, said Vajda.

“I think that Bratislava lacks a bigger attraction with wider-regional importance; for example, a theme park with a well-selected theme which would be able to extend the average number of nights spent in the region,” said Vajda.

For Slovaks from outside Bratislava, the capital city means a top-level shopping destination and a bigger portion of their expenditures ends up in the cash registers of merchants and only a small portion in the hands of cultural facilities, said Vajda. Bratislava is attractive to Slovaks from across the country because of its rich events calendar, international art and sporting events.

“However, only a fraction of Slovaks can afford to pay for accommodation in some of our commercial accommodation facilities and most of them return home and do not sleep here and they do not get counted in the tourist income statistics,” said Vajda.

According to Vajda, it is hard to say whether the crisis has brought some positive aspects for tourism in Bratislava.

“I’m not a defender of the growing opinion that the crisis will clean up the market and that only those who are strongest and providing the highest quality will survive,” said Vajda. “This may be true in stable democratic economies, but Slovakia’s economy has not reached that point yet. The crisis has significantly hurt many people making a living from incoming tourism.”

Nevertheless, Vajda expects at least certain changes in the accommodation market in Bratislava.

“It has become visible that completion of some projects may make the segment of four- and five-star hotels saturated,” said Vajda. “Some older hotels may lose one of their stars and finally it will be shown that there is rather space in Bratislava for accommodation facilities of a family character, up to three stars, but of international standards.”

The High Tatras

Since the summer season in the High Tatras will last until the end of September it is too early for a general evaluation, but indicators are positive.

“Compared with last year’s summer, which turned out very positively, we have registered only a minimal drop of up to 5 percent in the number of accommodated tourists during the first three months of the summer season, June, July and August,” Peter Chudý, the director of the High Tatras Tourist Trade Association (ZCR) told The Slovak Spectator. “After the huge fall in accommodated tourists during the winter season, down over 30 percent, this is fulfilment of our plans for this summer.”

ZCR’s objective was to keep the summer drop in accommodated visitors below 10 percent. However, Chudý said lower accommodation prices have reduced the profitability of individual facilities as well as other businesses that provide services to tourists.

“This decline is as big as 30 percent compared with last year,” said Chudý.

The economic crisis has brought better cooperation among tourism businesses in the region resulting, for example, in a tourist summer card. Hotels, cable cars, the Aquacity water park and others joined together to offer a package of services with prices about 30 percent lower than if they were bought individually. The economic downturn also forced down prices of accommodation, meals, tickets for cable cars and prices of other tourist attractions to a lower level, with decreases in the range of 10 to 30 percent.

“A novelty this year was lower prices after a certain hour, for example, for cable cars after 14:00,” said Chudý.

Slovakia’s adoption of the euro was expected to have a major impact on tourism in the High Tatras as visitors from Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Ukraine, the most frequent visitors to Slovakia, were afraid that the arrival of the new currency would significantly increase prices.

“These concerns were not fulfilled but under the influence of the global economic crisis the national currencies of these countries weakened, actually making winter stays and services more expensive for them,” said Chudý. “But already in the summer the positive features of the euro started to be visible. The number of German and Austrian tourists did not decrease when compared with the summer 2008. Even the number of bus trips by German seniors, who perceive Slovakia as the country with the most acceptable prices within the eurozone, has increased moderately.”

Slovaks have also started to rediscover the High Tatras as there is a visible upward trend over the last three years, according to Chudý. Currently, the ratio of Slovak to foreign tourists with overnight accommodation is about 56:44. High Tatra businesses would welcome some additional, supportive measures, such as holiday vouchers or a reduction of the value added tax on accommodation and restaurant services.

Will Russians return this winter?

Hotel operators and providers of other tourist services may have learned a lesson from last winter’s season when they responded too late to lower demand with price cuts.

“I think that many operators have realised this and now they will be more careful and will promote more reasonable prices,” said Kašuba. “Besides this, preparations for the winter season are advancing in a standard way even though the crisis has slowed down introduction of some new services.”

SACR expects that with a moderate revival of tourist interest from Russian-speaking countries as well as from the Visegrad Group countries (Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia) and with timely reactions by businesses and other players in the tourism industry, this winter season may bring positive figures.

Since the winter season represents about 30 percent of all tourism receipts for businesses in the High Tatras, they have already started to offer packages of services which include, along with accommodation, food, ski passes and airline flights.

“Efforts to get back the Tatras’ Russian-speaking as well as Polish clientele, who recorded a 40 percent drop in accommodations last winter, are behind these initiatives,” Chudý said.

According to Chudý, air transport to the Tatras via Poprad-Tatry airport will not have a decisive impact on the arrival of foreign guests. The bankruptcy of SkyEurope Airlines will somewhat affect the performance of this airport, but Chudý says several categories of visitors to the High Tatras, including British tourists, arrive via the airport in Krakow, Poland. He added that the airport in Poprad is intensively negotiating with potential carriers to replace the flights lost by SkyEurope’s bankruptcy.

Bratislava City Council is expecting a more or less regular winter season, hopefully a little less affected by the global recession than it was during spring and summer.

“We have some strong products, for example, our traditional Christmas market, events held under the label of Advent in Bratislava, our New Year celebrations and of course the ball season,” said Vajda.

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