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A Touristic Paradise Only at First Glance

Traveling through Central Europe reveals that parts of the region still have a ways to go. by Martin Ehl 27 August 2013

It's already difficult to find many places in Central Europe where a luminous smog doesn't spoil the experience of the almost-blinding glow of a full moon, where the silence is deafening, and where a cell phone doesn't show any signal bars. At one such place (I'll disclose only that it was somewhere in the White Carpathian Mountains, which straddle the Czech-Slovak border), I spent part of the summer holidays and visited several other areas that met at least some of those criteria.


This holiday experience somehow subconsciously led me to a comparison of the places and services that the four Central European countries can offer tourists. So, for instance, the western Slovak city of Myjava in the foothills of the White Carpathians boasts a beautifully renovated, open-air swimming pool, where two things are evident: It's apparently not possible to spend European funds to repair the surrounding buildings that house changing rooms and showers, and no European fund can teach the provision of good service in the snack bar or force the staff to smile pleasantly.


When I once mentioned in one of the supplements to my newspaper, Hospodarske noviny, that restaurant services in Slovakia generally aren't very good, I received a barrage of critical emails. After this year's experience I must, unfortunately, repeat my earlier conclusion. And not just about the Myjava swimming area, but also about the much larger Trencín, if we stay on the subject of western Slovakia. Yes, Mirove namesti (Peace Square) in the city center looks beautiful, but you can't eat there if you don't want to stuff yourself with cups of coffee and cake from the local sweetshops. When a hungry tourist finally finds a promising-looking pizzeria with a garden on a side street, he’ll wait a long time to be served. An uncleared table should have served as a warning sign, I admit. The merrily chattering trio of waitresses at the bar were finally set in motion only after an emphatic shout from the foreigner from far-off Bohemia.


According to the nonprofit World Travel and Tourism Council, tourism and related services accounted for 5.8 percent of Slovakia’s GDP and 5.7 percent of its jobs in 2012. In the four Visegrad countries, Hungary has the highest share of GDP from tourism, with 10.8 percent (accompanied by a forecast that it will decline). Poland has the lowest share, with 5 percent, while in the Czech Republic the figure is 8.7 percent, leading, surprisingly enough, to the largest share of employment from the industry, with 10.9 percent. Apparent over-employment, however, I noticed more in Slovakia, where, as in Poland and Hungary, the share of those employed in tourism roughly corresponds to the share of GDP.


But tourists usually don't make their decisions according to hard numbers, but based on impressions. So if I had to choose whether to visit the Trencín castle or the nearby one in Beckov, after visiting both, I would definitely vote for the small village instead of the regional seat, where there wasn't any information about where to park or even how to get to the castle. But the vast Beckov ruins, shrouded in legends, are a definite source of income for a village with a rich history, so the refurbished square with parking spaces, a pastry and other shops, restaurants, and sign posts welcomes tourists with open arms, through which they enjoy getting transferred back to the second half of the 15th century, the time of Beckov's greatest glory. In its ruins is not only educational information but also a cafe at the site of the former hall of knights, regular weekend programs, and tour guides in period dress, who interweave data with legends and historical facts.


And there are more of these similar contrasts. Cachtice castle, famous for its bloodthirsty Elizabeth Bathory, is temporarily closed, but a visitor has to search far and wide before finding that out. But at least during the hunt, you might come across the nearby village of Podolie, where a private investor (!) is building a park with models of Slovak castles, chateaus, and famous churches – most of them built to look as they did at the height of their glory.


A Slovak newspaper has also noted an interesting contrast between the Slovak and Hungarian approaches to tourists. Shared between the two countries, the Baradla-Domica cave system has two entrances. The Slovak side has only a parking lot, where visitors have to pay. On the Hungarian side are a thriving marketplace with stalls and refreshments, a children's playground, and an exhibition. Parking is, of course, free there. A similarly active approach to tourist services can be found in Poland. But while the Hungarians know how high the bar is set by demanding Western tourists, the Poles, after the influx of foreign tourists for last year's European soccer championships, are rather just learning.


Many times I have come across places where the locals seem to think that natural beauty by itself overshadows other flaws. But that's not how tourism works. For instance, the Poles are now finding that they have to work hard to preserve the "Euro effect.”


Tourism is a labor-intensive industry, which can really help countries with traditionally high unemployment rates, such as Slovakia or Poland. But a tourist looks for quality, even as simple as a smiling waitress in a restaurant at the newly glimmering pool of Myjava.

Martin Ehl
 is the foreign editor of the Czech daily Hospodarske noviny, where this column originally appeared. He tweets at @MartinCZV4EU.
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