Ski tourism is constantly expanding in Slovakia, but is this a good thing? Concluding the four-part series on new trends in tourism, Joanna Eckersley looks at how skiing may not be the best industry for high-altitude areas.
Skiing means business in the Slovak Republic – with huge potential for growth as almost 62% of the country is either mountains or mountainous areas. The two main areas, the High and Low Tatras, have been increasingly developed over recent years. In the High Tatras skiing is a tradition, with the first races taking place over 100 years ago.
It is a huge money-making enterprise. According to the European Consumer Centres’ Network there are over 100 resorts in Slovakia, which is nearly half the number Italy boasts. Foreign interest in the region has been flourishing in the last few years, with several major British newspapers covering ski travel to the country. Most importantly it brings in money to Slovakia’s economy; giant investor Tatry Mountain Resorts reported that they traded the most stock in the Bratislava Stock Exchange last year.
In their new tourism strategy the Ministry of Transport, Construction and Regional Development claim the wealth of mountainous areas here make “good conditions for development of winter tourism in Slovakia”. They describe this as “one of the few competitive advantages of Slovakia compared to the neighbouring countries”. Huge investment is pumped into the industry through EU structural funds each year. This is put into building new ski slopes, which is welcomed by the ski industry, and by the towns they plan to build in; tourists bring money into regions, and ski resorts guarantee guests.
But there is another side to this. What the industry doesn’t want people to know is that the business is not guaranteed to last long-term. New evidence suggests that environmental changes could put a sell-by-date on skiing in Slovakia.
Ján Roháč works for EkoPolis, one of the biggest environmental foundations within Slovakia. He said when new slopes are built: “The environmental impact is very high in terms of biodiversity, ecosystems and water systems. Even this year many ski resorts will not have enough water because the last big rain was maybe last August. So it is clear that some of them are facing a very poor season and it is clear that this is not sustainable”.
Year on year there is a decrease in snowfall, according to Roháč. Ski resorts have been responding to the shortfall by buying in snow cannons. There are an estimated 3,100 of these large fan-like machines blowing artificial snow onto partially covered slopes throughout Europe. Requiring diesel, electricity and water to run, they create a vicious cycle; the snow shortage may be due to environmental problems, their energy use only adds to these problems. According to the World Wildlife Fund snow cannons consume nearly as much water as a city the size of Hamburg in just one year.
Michael Meyer is a board member for Ecological Tourism in Europe, an NGO who support ecologically sustainable tourism initiatives throughout the continent. He said few of Slovakia’s slopes are at a high enough altitude to guarantee snow. He explained: “In Slovakia there may be harsh winters with low temperatures but they don’t have snow at the level of 500 or 800 metres, so they have to work with artificial snow. These cannons are consuming the water reserves which are actually the local population’s drinking water”.
The WWF found last year that alpine ski regions in Slovakia at 1,150-1,500 meters above sea level may be uneconomic by 2030. On the SkiIndex website, which provides details of slopes worldwide, only three slopes are above this level. This would mean the majority of resorts closing down in just under 20 years.
This research suggests that in the long-term the ski business is not a sustainable, but there are already problems now. The remote town of Liptovská Teplička in the north of the High Tatras was named village of the year in 2007 by the Ministry of the Environment. A ski slope was opened by the municipality in 1997, offering business opportunities and employment to the village’s 2000 residents. But the community couldn’t afford to continue running the centre, and in 2004 it was sold to Tatry Mountain Resorts.
The sale was carried off smoothly, and the resort continued with business as usual for seven years. But last year, without warning or reason, the company closed the slope. The Mayor’s assistant Július Ďurica said he was dismayed and confused by Tatry Mountain Resorts’ decision. He said: “If this situation lasts more seasons, then it will have implications for tourism in the village. Certainly there would be a lower number of visitors, a decline in sales in shops, restaurants and accommodation”.
Ján Roháč believes that the reason Liptovská Teplička’s slope closed down is that the market is flooded. There are too many resorts on offer in the region; this was the smallest and least dramatic Tatry Mountain Resorts owned, so they consolidated their assets and closed it down.
The ski industry, he argues, doesn’t provide the security, sustainability or competitive edge which other forms of tourism could. EkoPolis want to capitalise on the heritage of the country’s high areas, which Roháč argues will benefit generations to come. It will take many years for the slopes in Liptovská Teplička to return to their natural form. He sees the village as an example of why untouched land needs to be protected.
Unfortunately for the villagers of Liptovská Teplička, they relied solely on skiing to generate tourism. Michael Meyer said: “People tend actually to give up the daily lives they had before when massive developments come into their towns; this happened in Liptovská Teplička. I believe Slovakia would do the right thing if they maintain what they have”.
Ján Roháč wants Slovaks to see the Tatras mountains as more than somewhere to develop; he believes people should preserve the natural and cultural heritage already there. Michael Meyer argues that, unlike in his native Germany, there is still a lot to protect and promote: “People don’t know it but everything’s still there. Slovakia has real forests, real dishes, real dance and songs – all of it”. He said the danger in big investments is that “there is a huge risk in cultural issues shifting or loss in tradition”.
While both environmentalists are strongly against the heavy investment in ski slopes, they do not invest time in lobbying the government. Roháč said that: “While tourism may be a motive for local authorities to protect heritage because local people see the income, money, cultural exchange and so on that tourists bring, state government don’t see this”. Since they don’t see it, they don’t protect it. In the end it is the government who make the decisions which effect huge swathes of land, for example in allocating Structural Funds. He believes the best way to protect the heritage of Slovakia is to make a business opportunity out of it, and he works with EkoPolis Foundation and Ecological Tourism in Europe to do just that. He and Micheal Meyer are currently working on a project called Amber Trail, which promotes eco-tourism through three countries – Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia – in the region between Budapest and Krakow.
Michael Meyer said: “We are looking at alternative income-generating measures; very little ones like holidaying, handicraft development and tour-guiding. These are highly diverse, and actually a lot of people from the village can benefit from this kind of tourism. It is the individual’s responsibility to have his or her own little business, so we are focusing more on helping small or medium enterprises rather than large entities. It is better than always worrying whether the snow is falling or not and being highly dependent on one manager for employment in the business”.
In the economically depressed Polish town of Lanckorona the project worked with the local government and residents to resurrect the forgotten heritage of the town. The town has been reconstructed as an ‘Eco-Museum’ with 18 sights tourists can pass by. Workshops in traditional crafts are held weekly, and as part of the process the traditional dress of a local village person and the recipe for a traditional local drink, Izdebski Jarzebiak, were discovered and reintroduced to the villagers and visiting tourists. This kind of tourism might not interest everyone, but for local people, heritage and habitats it is far less intrusive.
Ján Roháč is pleased with the success of projects like the Eco-Town of Lanckorona, and plans to repeat this success in Slovakia. He said: “We try to activate people and convince them that it is worth trying to protect and develop the environment and landscape where they live. We are not only doing typical activities in nature protection and protection of species; we try to develop new approaches based on foreign experience and expertise”. He said that while they have only started out on a long road, they “are very glad that this Amber Trail product is real and visitors are coming”.
By Joanna Eckersley