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Slovenia: Minister Aims For 'Balanced Tourism'

Ljubljana, 13 December 1996 (RFE/RL) - There is a joke popular among Slovenes that when God was allocating land to the nations of the world, Slovenia was left out. Lost and alone, the tiny country begged not to be forgotten. God took pity and replied, "Take that piece of the Earth that I have kept for myself."

It is not just Slovenes who enthuse about their country, visitors rarely go home disappointed. With breathtaking Alpine vistas, sparkling lakes and Mediterranean sea in a country half the size of Switzerland, Slovenia is without doubt endowed with some of the finest scenery.

But, where tourism is concerned, having something to offer is only half the battle. The rest is knowing how to manage and promote it.

For Peter Vesenjak, Slovenia's Minister for Tourism, this is not always easy. As he points out, the country has faced an uphill struggle in projecting its image to the outside world as a stable nation free from war. Despite the fact that it escaped major bloodshed during the break-up of Yugoslavia, the tour operators stayed away.

Five years since independence and with peace returning to the Balkans, tourism is picking up again, but with a difference. Vesenjak says that although some of the major tour operators from countries like Great Britain are back, more and more people are coming to Slovenia on short trips from nearby or neighboring countries such as Italy, Austria, Croatia and Germany.

"A large part of our revenue from tourism now comes from visitors on one-day trips. Many people come over for shopping or to gamble in the casinos," says Vesenjak.

His aim now is to achieve, what he calls, "balanced tourism." Mindful of the country's small size and of the necessity to preserve its resources, mass tourism is not a desirable option. Instead, he says, individuals and small groups will be encouraged.

In terms of infrastructure, Slovenia is well ahead compared to other post-communist countries that have suffered decades of neglect. Many hotels and restaurants have already been upgraded and given a new look. But, says Vesenjak, major obstacles remain in the path of development.

Firstly, he says, slow privatization is hindering investment. But more importantly, Vesenjak says, the government itself has been slow to commit funding.

But, despite a small annual budget for tourism of only 2.5 million German marks, progress is being made. Most of the money is being spent on promotional activities. This year the government along with the Chamber of Commerce has set up a new center to coordinate the work.

The material produced by the center -- glossy brochures, databases and now a CD ROM -- ends up in the various Slovene tourist information offices in Europe and the United States. In addition, the ten or so staff who work there take part in over 23 tourism fairs around Europe every year.

And, if the money has not always been forthcoming, Slovenia has had help in developing its technical expertise in promoting tourism from the European Union's PHARE program. Vesenjak says some 4,000 staff at all levels went through the program a few years ago. Many, like himself, participated in exchanges with their counterparts in Italy, Spain, Austria and France.

One of the biggest benefits of the program, says Vesenjak, was in understanding marketing techniques.

"Marketing a product or a company is different from marketing a country or a destination," he says. "We learned many new approaches and new ideas."

Tourism officials have been quick to grasp the implications of new technology. In addition to the many well-designed pages Slovenia already has on the Internet, an on-line reservation system for hotels is planned for next year.

This, officials hope, will help put Slovenia firmly on the tourist map. The challenge in the future will be how to ensure that Slovenia remains, in the words of the latest marketing slogan, a "Green Piece of Europe."

This is part two of a three-part series about Slovenia's transition economy.