Wednesday, 23 February 2022 05:22

Bratislava looks to congress tourism to revive city after pandemic

After the pandemic, the revival of culture and hospitality in the Slovak capital will be harder than previously expected. But that has not stopped Bratislava from looking to the future with an aim to boost hospitality by becoming a centre for congress tourism.

According to the Bratislava city hall, the pandemic clearly showed how important it is to systematically support culture and community life not just in the city centre but also in the suburbs and other parts of the city.

“Our goal is to get the culture to as many citizens as possible and at the same time create an energetic and colourful city for its visitors,” says the draft of the Bratislava 2030 plan, a document that serves as a vision for various areas of city development.

However, the culture sector was hit hard by the pandemic and is currently in its worst state in years.

Theatres, cinemas, musical halls and other cultural institutions were only open 25$ of the time without any restrictions during the last two years. For 40% of the time, they were closed completely. The earnings of Slovak National Theater (SND), for example, dropped from more than €9 million in 2019 to less than €2 million in 2021.

According to the Director of SND, Matej Drlička, theatres, orchestras and festivals around Slovakia face the same problem, which can have devastating effects for many.

Bratislava representatives believe that spreading the cultural sector around the city is a crucial part of high living standards.

However, hospitality sector representatives point out that bars, restaurants, and hotels are all in the same position and have suffered years of government neglect.

According to the Alliance of Slovak Gastronomy, the pandemic’s third wave at the end of last year has been the worst one so far. However, the government did not back businesses in any way.

Help was not enough

Asked by EURACTIV Slovakia how city authorities view the sector’s future, Dagmar Schmucková from Bratislava city hall replied: “The hospitality sector, unfortunately, still has to live in the present due to the unfavourable situation.”

To help them weather the storm, Bratislava offered restaurants, bars and cafés a discount of 50% from their rents. Then, higher vaccination rates allowed businesses to remain open for longer and with a bigger capacity during the winter months.

But for many, this was not enough, and they closed their doors for good. Some owners of the closed businesses want to try again, while some left the sector for good.

“For the hospitality sector, guests are the cornerstone of survival. Many businesses will be recovering years from this pandemic. We must not forget dozens of restaurants and bars that have closed for goods, as well as the departure of skilled chefs and waiters to other sectors,” said Magdaléna Koreny, spokeswoman of the Help for Gastro initiative.

Filling the blank space on the map

However, Schmucková confirmed that the city has already lost many businesses, and others will follow. Unfortunately, the revival of the sector after the end of the restrictive measures will not be as quick as previously expected.

“The gastronomy sector is, for example, affected not only by the restrictions but also by the fact that many people are still working from home,” Schmucková added.

This is the problem for hotels with regards to the so-called congress tourism. Bratislava expects the revival of congresses, conferences, and in-person business meetings only after the Omicron wave is entirely gone and the government lifts all restrictions.

Congress tourism in Bratislava should be boosted in the following years with the National Culture and Congress Centre, which will be built just outside the city centre.

The project is supported by the Ministry of Transport which is also responsible for tourism. “Such a centre would put Slovakia on the map of congress business. Currently, there is only a blank space here,” said minister of transport Andrej Doležal (Sme Rodina).

The ministry wants to have a new congressional centre in Bratislava finished by 2030 – a year during which Slovakia will have a presidency of the Council of the European Union.

Focus on domestic travel

Before the pandemic is over and foreign tourism return to pre-pandemic levels, Bratislava wants to focus on domestic tourists. Bratislava Tourist Board (BTB), a city organisation responsible for tourism and marketing activities, expects a complete revival of domestic tourism in 2022. For foreign tourists, the estimate is 2025.

Last summer, the number of domestic tourists was 20% higher than in 2020. “We are happy because we focused on domestic tourists in our communication and marketing campaign, and we also supported many local projects,” said Vladimír Grežo, head of BTB.

“We believe that focusing on domestic tourists makes sense in the long run,” Grežo said.

But solely focusing on domestic travel cannot save the whole hospitality sector.

Grežo added that Bratislava is very much dependent on foreign tourists as the overall numbers last year were even worse than for the first pandemic year 2020.

During the first three quarters of 2021, more than 265.000 people visited the city, while during the same time in 2020, more than 358.000 thousand people arrived. In 2019, the city reported more than a million tourists.