At the end of November last year, a large part of Slovakia's biggest and best known National Park was damaged by a strong wind storm. The park attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year and now Slovaks fear they might lose this important tourist trade. We went to the High Tatras to investigate the impact of the natural disaster on the economy of the region.
In December last year the High Tatra Mountains opened the winter tourism season. That was only a week after a huge storm swept away a great part of the National Park's forest.
Entertainment and a good atmosphere but also fear accompanied the opening of the season. The typical scenery of the Tatras is gone at least for the next 100 years. So will the mountains still remain attractive for mountain lovers and winter skiers? I asked visitors at Strbske Pleso what they thought:
"I don't think that this catastrophe will stop the flow of tourists"
"Actually I live here, so I will be here every weekend and every holiday"
"I think that there will be many more curious people who will come here to see how the High Tatras look like"
Around 5000 people live from tourism in the High Tatras. They feared that they would lose their jobs after the storm. However, after the first part of the winter season, statistics indicate that the situation in the Tatras is the same as last winter, says Peter Chudy, executive director of the association for tourism in the High Tatra region:
"Most of the capacities in the hotels and pensions were occupied by more than 90%."
Usually approximately 250 000 guests visit the High Tatras during winter. More than half of them are Slovaks, then Czechs and Poles. Surprisingly this year the National Park has also new guests. Peter Chudy continues:
"Interesting for us is the increasing number of young people from countries of the European Union, who are interested for example in the new EU countries and come here not only because of skiing, but also to see the situation and the life here."
During last winter season there was a decline in the number of tourists in the region of almost 40 percent. Igor Huscava, hotelier from the popular resort Stary Smokovec, comments on this:
"I think that regardless of this catastrophe, the Tatras are no longer attractive in the winter season. They can't compare to the Alps. That is why I think that summer tourism should be concentrated on much more. We will have to start and focus on Slovak tourists. And for this reason we'll also have to do something with the high prices."
Shortly after the storm politicians took the opportunity to suggest extending the area used for tourism and services. So far they have had a hard time reaching an agreement with the environmentalists. However, on one thing both parties agree. As Economy Minister Pavol Rusko says:
"The Tatras will need to focus more on their specialization and on providing tourists with a complex offer of services, so that visitors will want to come to Slovakia again and again. The quality of services has to adjust more to European standards. This area has been shamefully neglected."
In the end the quality of services in a region depends on individuals, says Peter Chudy from the association for tourism in the High Tatras region.
"To choose and prepare especially the young people here for providing services of a higher niveau is one of the main goals of the whole High Tatras for the future."
On the day of the opening of the winter season, lifts up at the Strbske Pleso were for free. More tourists turned up on the first day than had been expected and, because only one ski-lift was open, skiers had to stand in line for 20- 30 minutes. It's a paradox, but this time the Tatras did have enough visitors, but the service wasn't really ready for them.
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