Responsible tourism in Slovakia

Many of the issues with tourism in Slovakia centre around protecting its wondrous natural environment. Whilst tourist boards make the country look ‘all natural’, behind the scenes there’s actually a lot of manufacturing and mining in Slovakia. Mining towns have exploited the resource-rich soil for centuries – eastern Slovakia is the only place in Europe to mine opals – and now heavy industry is widespread across the country, from coal mining, to steel production and aluminium plants. Brown coal – the coal that is considered most harmful to health – is the only energy source outside of renewables that Slovakia can generate, and it does so in highly-polluted places like the Nováky facility in the west of the country. Slovakia also produces more cars per person than any other country, largely thanks to big companies like Volkswagon and Kia who have factories here. All of this comes with pollution problems and sadly, air pollution in Slovakia is among the worst in Europe. Happily, though, Slovakia balances its burgeoning businesses with nine large national parks – one of which (Tatra) has some of the cleanest air in Europe. Even its capital, Bratislava, isn’t without a protective cloak of forest, thanks to the Bratislava Forest Park.

Downhill skiing on the up

New budget airlines routes have made Slovakia into a viable skiing destination for more and more Europeans. In 2014, Wizz Air started operating new flights from Luton to Poprad and the nearby resorts, like Jasná, and Štrbské Pleso, quickly became popular pads for powder hounds. As word travels about the good, and relatively cheap, skiing in Slovakia, the surrounding wildlife gets threatened. The average skier doesn’t stop to think about how much intrusive infrastructure downhill skiing brings into a region: those ski runs that you can see from miles away have destroyed natural habitat. Forests were cleared from the mountains to make way for skiing as early as the 1950s, with ancient woodland wiped out on Hrebienok and on the slopes of the famous Lomnický štít. Štrbské Pleso is planning to expand into protected National Park to cope with growing demand from tourists. This controversial decision will involve logging in Tatra National Park, Mlynická Dolina and Furkotská Dolina – two valleys within nature resorts.

What you can do:
Swap downhill skiing for ski touring, which is far less destructive to natural habitats. Stick to high-altitude destinations that don’t rely on snow cannons to create artificial snow, a huge waste of energy and water.

Recovering from storms

In 2004, a shocking windstorm caused devastation to the heavily wooded slopes of the Tatras Mountains. There were two fatalities, and several villages were cut off. In the immediate aftermath a forest fire raged through the area, too. The damage was far-ranging, and long lasting – not least because the Tatras region is so symbolically important to Slovakia. Some 12,000 hectares, or three million cubic metres, of trees were wiped out, which amounted to 2/3 of the forest on the Tatras slopes. Pictures showed hundreds of thousands of spruce trees, effectively snapped in half by the storms, creating a field of ripped stakes and fallen branches. In the aftermath the world took a magnifying glass to the region, and people criticised the extent of the construction that had been happening, unnoticed, under the trees in the National Park. Well over a decade later, and the destruction is still visible on the mountainside, and will take a long time to recover. However, the shock of the event resonated deeply in Slovakia and might have helped shape environmental policy.

What you can do:
Slovakia has been late to put much thought into environmental policy – but now the fight begins in earnest. In 2017, a movement called Lesy Sme My (‘We are the forest’) united many Slovakians in a campaign against the destruction of forests in national parks.

Responsible tourism tips

Take public transport around Slovakia. It’s often the best way to get around, cheap, and quite fun too. Plus you’ll have a lower carbon footprint than if you hire a car. Slovakia is the world’s eighth newest country and lots of its biggest events are still in living memory. Slovakia – Hungary relations have never been great, and remain strained. In general, it’s best to tread lightly when it comes to modern history. You’re not the only one who gets Slovenia and Slovakia confused. It’s a real problem: they are near neighbours, have very similar flags, and their names sound even more similar in Slovak. But any jokes about the two nations wore thin a long time ago. Always check prices for drinks before ordering in the capital. Bratislava has become an alternative Stag Party destination (though not with the same body count as Prague) and occasionally you’ll hear reports of tourists getting scammed into paying over the odds at less reputable establishments. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) can give you more information. If you need to contact the emergency services in Slovakia, call 112. Mountain rescue is not government funded so can be expensive. Make sure you take out the proper travel insurance for your trip – to avoid paying for a panoramic chopper flight that you couldn’t enjoy because you were on a stretcher. Slovakia is home to some big wildlife: wolves, lynx and bears are the heavyweights. Whilst there hasn’t been a fatal bear attack in Slovakia for over a century, don’t leave out food on the trails and don’t go wandering about off the paths.
Written by Eloise Barker
Photo credits: [Page banner: kovop58] [Downhill skiing on the up:] [Recovering from storms: Hyro84]