As the temperatures warm and the curtain falls on the often brutal winter of 2012, the tourism industry reflects on a solid season.
By Aleksandar Pavlevski for Southeast European Times in Skopje -- 19/03/12
Popova Sapka ski centre and others in the region were busy this season. [Aleksandar Pavlevski/SETimes]
Aleksandar Chonevski, owner of the Iguana Tours travel agency in Skopje, can't be any clearer about the secret to success. "The most important factor for a good winter season is to have snow ... just like this year. Compared with last season, this one was better, more productive," he told SETimes. "I'll repeat: it was all because of the snow."
This winter, tourism in Macedonia and more broadly across the region experienced a big boom. The number of tourists packing thick socks and cash to spend significantly increased at all recreational centres throughout the Balkans compared with previous years.
Chonevski cites another factor he sees as crucial to the success. "Visa liberalisation is very important for all of us ... a huge and very positive step." Indeed, statistics from 2011, the most recent available, demonstrate that the region is trending towards almost a borderless mentality in terms of tourism.
Macedonia, for example, last year drew 35% more foreign tourists than in 2010. And most of them came from neighbouring countries: Greece, Bulgaria, Albania, Serbia and the other former Yugoslav republics.
Tourists from the Netherlands, Turkey, Belgium, Finland and Israel also visited in great numbers. A smaller number came from Japan, China, Korea, and Australia, according to the Association of Tourist Guides of Macedonia.
But this doesn't mean tourists spend all their time in one country. Groups are coming from some neighboring countries just to transit to other places. Usually guests from Greece and Bulgaria transit to Albania, Kosovo or Montenegro, according to the Association.
Winter tourism is only one segment of the sector that is cleared for take-off. [Aleksandar Pavlevski/SETimes]
Serbia's Tourism State Secretary Goran Petkovic told SETimes that mountain destinations and village tourism are growing increasingly popular, as is spa tourism. Boasting renowned and medicinal destinations like the Arandjelovac spa, this segment marks the fastest growth segment in the sector. Petkovic adds that Serbia in 2011 was among the top 50 meeting destinations in the world, a trend that continues this year.
In Macedonia, the government is gearing up to develop "all types of tourism: mass tourism, rural, alternative, winter, wine and eco," Minister of Economy Valon Saraquin told SETimes. "By 2015, we expect 4 to 5% of the GDP to be contributed by tourism. We are negotiating with a lot of tour operators ... We are starting with the new concept of tourism developmental zones which will function similar to the free economic zones, and we already have listed a huge number of tourists from the Netherlands."
Croatia's Tourism Ministry said investments in the sector are expected to increase 37% in 2012 as compared to last year. According to a poll conducted by the ministry, the greatest increase is in the hotel sector. Of 28 hotels surveyed, all said they plan to invest almost 50% more funds this year in improving their tourist offerings.
In Skopje, Chonevski stresses that tourism should be regarded as "an export industry: as more tourists visit our wonderful country, [there will be] more jobs for everyone, and because of that reason, we are appealing for more assistance." He says additional services are needed, along with better infrastructure. "If we compare with our neighborhood, we will immediately notice the difference, but to realise all projects, to develop tourist centres, principally we are expecting support, assistance, the attention of the institution's system, not from the private sector."
Tourists are gravitating to idyllic scenes in the Balkans in part to avoid crises elsewhere in the world. [Aleksandar Pavlevski/SETimes]
Macedonia, for example, has focused on renovating its ski facilities, a trend seen too in surrounding countries where nature lends itself to winter tourism. Petre Dimitrieski, CEO of the Popova Sapka ski centre, told SETimes "They have modern equipment, the paths are wonderful, ski lifts work perfectly, and the restaurants and hotels are full of guests from Albania, Kosovo, Greece, Croatia and Germany. At this pace, we are planning next year to be even more successful."
Events well beyond the Balkans are of course contributing to the uptick. European tourism in general rose 6% last year, partially because of civil conflicts in certain parts of the world. The Arab spring and other developments impacted destinations in the Middle East, which saw an overall decline of 8%, and in North Africa where tourism levels dropped by 12%. In Japan, the tsunami, earthquake and nuclear reactor disaster that struck a year ago is blamed for a decline of 13%.
According to predictions, international tourism is expected to rebound somewhat this year, with over a billion travelers expected to pack their bags worldwide.
Yet another trend is developing. Contrary to previous years, the development of tourism is more prominent in the more developed economies, than in the developing countries. Overall, growth of the sector -- which accounts for 5% GDP of the global economy -- is potentially good news, in this difficult economic time -- according to a report by the World Tourism Organisation at the UN.
Back in Skopje, Chonevski couldn't agree more."The world is becoming a global village, especially in the sphere of business; there are no borders, the most important thing is profit, and that's the big truth."