Slovakia: Poverty in Romani settlements to become a tourist destination
Speculation has been circulating for some time that tourism in Slovakia could be developed around organizing visits to Romani settlements. Petr Duda, Mayor of Veľká Lomnice, a village in the Tatra mountains, is planning to turn local Romani settlements into a kind of tourist destination and his doing his best to push the plan through in the nearby settlement of Nový Dvůr, where 1 600 people are eking out a living on the edge of poverty in completely substandard conditions, without clean water or sewerage.
"This would be an organized tour of the Romani settlements here in Veľká Lomnice," Duda explained to the Czech Radio news server Rozhlas.cz. "The reason is to get people to realize what kinds of conditions Romani people live in here. On the other hand, it could motivate the Romani people to improve their living conditions on their own."
The information that tourists from abroad and from all over Slovakia might be happily visiting the Romani settlements in an organized way starting in July prompted an outcry of disagreement in both the Czech and Slovak media. Critics say the village town hall wants to make money out of its neighbors' destitution and suffering instead of providing social assistance. The settlements are evidently a tempting sight for many tourists. Some locals and residents of Nový Dvůr, however, see the tourists as an opportunity to draw attention to the settlement's problems and raise money to address them.
"Let the dirt come to the surface, the tourists will tell others about it. Then maybe the government will finally wake up and release some money," Lucia Horváthová (30), who lives in the settlement and works as a field social worker, told the Czech weekly RESPEKT.
During the 1940s, Romani settlements which had originally formed part of the village were relocated several kilometers beyond its limits and became completely cut off from civilization. They majority of those living in Romani settlements in Slovakia are dependent on welfare, which was drastically cut a few years ago, and their chances of getting out of the settlements are minimal. The government is not able to address the Romani population's isolation or their conflicts with the majority population. Some villages have recently decided to address the problems with co-existence between the communities by enclosing Romani settlements behind concrete walls.
Mayor Duda's plan was born in the context of this dismal situation. "It spontaneously occurred to me during a meeting of the Tourism Development Commission. We have been looking for a new way to improve the situation in Nový Dvůr, which scandalizes visitors to our village. I based this on my experience with ethnic trips abroad, for example, to Bedouin settlements," Duda explained to RESPEKT.
People in the settlements have no work and have long lived in apathy and a feeling of total hopelessness. Mayor Duda believes the activation aspect of his idea is essential, whereby the Romani people themselves would participate in creating a "program" for visiting tourists. They would be motivated to revive their traditional occupations, such as basket weaving and metal work, and Romani dance and music are very popular. This would create room for business.
Mayor Duda does not imagine tourists would randomly arrive by busloads to meet with Romani residents, but would always visit as part of arranged, official visits. Through such tours, the visitors would get a chance to view the "real" life of Romani people in settlements in Slovakia.
Similar "excursions" have already been running for some time in other European states, such as Bulgaria. Some Slovak travel agents have offered trips to Romani settlements in the past without the participation of municipalities.