Finding a niche
Well Ljubljana is now one of the growing destinations served by low-cost airlines with rumours that Maribor will soon follow suit. But is the arrival of drunken Stag and Hen parties from the UK in search of cheap beer a sign of marketing success? Well it certainly makes life easier for me when I want to return 'home' to see family and friends and stock up on Indian curry sauces and nan breads. Despite this when people ask where I am currently living and working the answer 'Slovenia' is still often greeted with a dumbfounded look no doubt confounded by the fact that I did move to Slovakia for 9 months prior to returning here in March this year. To answer the question posed above I decided to take a look at a couple of reports provided by the Slovenian Tourist Board. The first was a report on tourism in 2004 and the second the Board's marketing strategy (both available online). The first thing that struck me was just how much the arrival of that infamous budget airline has had on tourist numbers from the UK - up 64,000 on the previous year. (Interestingly, and I'm sure there is no coincidence here, German overnight stays fell by over 40,000 in the same period... did someone mention the war??). The other big surprise was just how important health tourism continues to be. Aging German and Austrian pensioners in search of thermal springs remain the single largest group of tourists to Slovenia with the country's health resorts the principal tourist attraction! OK while I'm the first to admit that a dip in a thermal pool followed by a relaxing sauna (nude and mixed-sex) has remarkable appeal, it cannot be the cornerstone of the country's tourism strategy, especially as the overwhelming majority of these tourists are over 65. So where else are people visiting? Well the Italians favour the coast and those more active German pensioners are found wandering around the Slovenian mountains. Indeed it seems it's only the Brits and French that find Ljubljana's nightlife particularly appealing, oh and the handful of Americans that make it here. OK so where do we go from here? Well the big omission from the tourist arrivals is from Asia. Where are all the Japanese and Chinese? Well one of Slovenia's biggest weaknesses is the lack of 5-star international chain hotels. Think of any capital city and you think Marriot, Hilton, Radisson SAS Carlton etc etc. In Ljubljana you have the ageing shrine to the '80s (the Slon), the traditional grandeur of Grand Hotel Union and the non-descript block that is the Lev. These have recently been joined by the ultra-modern Domina Grand Media which, along with the GHU, are in reality the only 'real' 5 star hotels in the city. OK some of you may think that the lack of international chain hotels is a good thing in a 'resist-globalization-support-local-business' sort of way. Unfortunately without them you're not on the map. Whether you are seeking to attract the international business traveller, conference tourism, or simply luxury high net worth individuals, international chain hotels do punch above their weight and bring in the tourist dollars. Linked with this are related problems of tourism infrastructure. For example, I love skiing in Slovenia but few resorts can compete with the facilities offered in neighbouring Austria and Italy. Contrast Nassfeld with any of the resorts in the Julian Alps and you know what I'm talking about. Slovenia has enormous potential but increasingly in a globalised economy where competition is fierce the tourist industry, like all industries, has to exploit its niches. Slovenia's obvious attraction is its countryside and here so much more could be done to boost niche markets. I recently jumped off the top of one of the lesser hills surrounding Lake Bohinj for my first ever paragliding experience. It was breathtaking, and one of the most amazing ways of appreciating just how spectacular the scenery around Bohinj truly is. The jump (or flight) was courtesy of a small outdoor sports company that a friend of mine works for. It is companies like this where the future of Slovenian tourism should lie. Exploiting niches: hiking, mountaineering, adventure sports, wine tours. Couple these with the size of the country and you have enormous potential for action-packed weekends. Breakfast in Ljubljana, lunch in the Julian Alps and dinner watching the sunset in Piran. Now doesn't that sound better than canteen food in a thermal spa surrounded by a load of Grannies?