Western Balkans & Via Dinarica
Welcome to the autumn edition of the Western Balkans Geotourism Network and the Via Dinarica Alliance newsletter.
There was a great surge of tourists coming from Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Croatia. Hotels and mass tourism set record high numbers for Albania this year.
Hoteliers are projecting growth for the 2016-17 season in Albania. The Albanian Riviera is a major hot spot for these travelers. This year Butrint received over 1,500 tourist a day during the months of July and August.
The opening of Sezan Island this summer was made possible by the Albanian National Coastline Agency. The Management Plan of the island with the help of the French Literale’ appears to be working toward establishing Sezan Island as national park. The island is located near the port of Vlore. Future tourists should expect to see a well preserved eco destination.
The first recce trip with students from University in Venice kicked off what we feel will put the Western Balkans on the map, especially in Albania, by providing an accessible, identifiable route VIA EGNATIA, which Our Own Expeditions will champion. Along with the Ministry of Tourism, this walking trail will revitalize villages, boost the economy and showcase to the world how important the route has been historically. Our tour which consists of a nine-night/ten-day tour with the option of crossing over to the Macedonian border to lengthen the tour. Tour begin from the Tirana International Airport.
Tourists seem to be gravitating towards more apartment stays and small B&Bs and enjoying shopping at the local markets and in the comfort of their own apartments … which has resulted in over 80% occupancy for some parts of the country.
Festivals will start gearing up for the fall. The new Tirana mayor's efforts for a cleaner Tirana has already received praise from residents and returning travelers.
There has been an increase in providing 24/7 service and greater competition in providing better standards across the board.
A desire for eco-friendly farm visits and wine tasting in the country and experiencing SLOW food is growing. Along with an increase in adventure seaside activities such as jet skis, kayaking, bungee jumping, rafting, hang-gliding ... all of which were at a low interest last year. As a result, local government is establishing stricter guidelines with providers of such services for risk reasons.
Assessment: Bosnia and Herzegovina
During the last couple of months, Green Visions has seen a solid and busy flow of visitors to the region.
From a development standpoint, Green Visions and Bosnia's Adventure Tourism Association (ATA BH) has worked with partners from the municipalities of Trebinje, Ljubinje, Neum, and Ravno to establish--for the first time--Via Dinarica's Blue Trail. Green Visions visited the area to identify and suggest hiking and biking routes. As a result, 80 kilometers of walking trail and 65km of biking trails will be marked this autumn. The findings of Green Visions' area assessment were delivered at a workshop on 23 September 2105 in Zavala, BiH, for regional stakeholders (Neum, Trebinje, Ljubinje, Ravno)
The team concluded that the terrain is ideal for the development of biking and hiking and the following trails have been suggested:
1) Trebinje >> Rapti Zupci >> Orasje Zupci >> Ubla to Vucije Zub (Orjen) (BiH/MNE);
2) Trebinje >> Berkovic Kula >> Zabica >> Ljubinje
3) Zakova >> Turica >> Dolovi >> Zagora
Zavala >> Ivanica >> Drazen do Hutovski grad
Green Visions has also been at work expanding the Via Dinarica into Kosovo's Accursed Mountains and to its border with Macedonia and the Shar and Korab Mountain Ranges. Green Visions acted as the point group for the Novagenus production studio—based in Tuzla—to plan and film videos for a series about the trail in countries across the region.
Previously, Green Visions worked with Novagenus to film a pilot series centered around food, culture and the Via Dinarica. Filming took place in Trebinje with a chef brought in to create fusion dishes along the trail. The episode is upcoming.
Via Dinarica Expands to Macedonia
When the idea for a multi-country trail through the Western Balkans first took form with the Via Dinarica, the trail spanned some of the best mountains of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Albania. But nothing spreads like a good idea, so what was once a five-country trail will soon become an eight-country trail with the inclusion of some of the best mountain ranges in Kosovo and Macedonia ... and later Serbia. The new-and-improved Via Dinarica White Trail will span almost 2,000 kilometers of peaks, valleys, lakes, and villages.
In Macedonia, the trail expansion is progressing as a collaborative project between the Via Dinarica Alliance, the USAID and Swiss financed Small Business Expansion Project, and a number of local stakeholders. The Via Dinarica Macedonia will have several access points in Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania. The sections in Macedonia and Kosovo will connect in the Brezovica area, some 40 kilometers east of Prizren, and near the village of Brod to the south. In Macedonia, the trail will be accessible from the village of Staro selo, the Mavrovo National Park and the village Belchista, 25 kilometers to the north of the famous Lake Ohrid.
This section of the Via Dinarica covers various mountain ranges, including the most predominant Shar and Korab mountains. The Shar Mountains extend from Kosovo and the northwest of the Republic of Macedonia to northeastern Albania. The highest point is Titov Vrv at 2,747 meters. Golem Korab, in the Korab range, is the highest peak along the Via Dinarica at 2,764 meters. With 23 peaks reaching over 2,500 meters in altitude and 39 lakes (27 of which are in Macedonia), these mountains offer once-in-a-lifetime experiences for hikers of all abilities and experience levels.
The trek itself in this region is a 220-kilometer walk along the Shar and Korab mountain ridges dividing Macedonia with Kosovo and Albania. Much of the ridge lies above 2,000 meters. This is also the most isolated section of the Via Dinarica with only occasional access to low-lying villages and contact with local shepherds. The area is ideal for long highland treks over developing trails once used by villagers throughout the region.
Accommodation is available in the lower villages, but not along the ridges. Hikers should be prepared with tents and all rations needed along the trail. The southern section of the trail that goes through the Mavrovo National Park is the only exception, where a variety of lodging options exist, from high-end hotels to authentic traditional houses. While you will likely encounter shepherds, few traditional shepherd huts or "bacilo" are found at the higher altitudes.
For those who are more interested in exploring the cultural heritage of Macedonia, the trail offers an opportunity to visit the scenic village of Galicnik, the beautifully preserved St. Jovan Bigorski monastery, the Old Town of the city of Ohrid and many other smaller attractions, such as remote mountain villages and shepherd huts. The traditional Macedonian food that is available anywhere on the trail deserves its own article, but the short version is that travelers will be tempted by a great variety of local pastries, cheeses, vegetable dips, fresh salads, local wines and, as anywhere on the Western Balkans, a lot of rakija.
During August and early September, we welcomed mostly North American active clients in the 40-65 age range, as well as active British families here in Montenegro. Arriving for hiking, rafting, biking and cultural trips--many private guide itineraries--30% bookings from agency partners and 70% direct bookings.
August is the hottest month and most trips took place away from the crowded, hot coastline, concentrating on the north of Montenegro in the mountain and canyon areas as well as several trips crossing into Albania, Bosnia and Croatia, handled by our partners in those countries.
Those who did hit the Montenegrin coastline enjoyed some great kayaking and delicious fresh seafood as well as the stunning coastal hikes around the Bay of Kotor.
We also saw some great cultural events along the coastline, for visitors and locals alike, including a festival of figs and cheese in Herceg Novi (photo attached) and the annual Boka Nights sea festival in Kotor.
Assessment: Jack Delf's Big Mammal Conservation Project in Macedonia
Bear Watching and Conservation "Learning by Doing" Retreat Mavrovo and Pelister National Parks, October 16-18
Invited guests will experience a three-day version of the new Wildlife Tourism offers being developed in Macedonia by the USAID/REG project. The title of the New Offers will be ‘Europe’s Last Wildernesses – Bear Viewing Photo Expeditions, Protection and Park ranger Volunteer Programs.
The new offers will launch at the beginning of 2016, the Learning retreat will allow us to test the delivery of parts of the new offer and also to showcase the potential for promoting a new type of wildlife tourism in the region which has the highest bio-diversity in Europe.
Oct 16: Arrival of guests at Radika Hotel in Leunovo, Mavrovo National Park. Welcome meeting and briefing at Mavrovo National Park Center followed by an early dinner.
Oct 17: 5:30 start for bear viewing Trek lead by National Park Rangers. After driving to the location (30 minutes), we take a two-hour guided hike into the most densely populated "bear areas" in the park. We will look for evidence of the bears, tracks, scat and to see the entrance to the winter hibernation caves. With luck we may be able to see some of the bears as the sun rises.
Following breakfast we break the group into two, to take part in optional conservation activities. Guests can choose from work to renovate a viewing hide or join the fence patrol at the parks Deer Reproduction Center to check for--and repair--damage to the perimeter fence (largely caused by bears). A picnic lunch will be offered during these activities.
In the afternoon we join a 4x4 Jeep safari to the Galicnik area of the park, to look for wild mountain goat, the main prey species of the Lynx. We will take salt licks and mineral tablets for the goats a vital supplement too their diet. During the drive we will also look for many of the other animals which inhabit the higher regions of the park: eagle, falcon, wolf and deer species.
In the evening, we'll go to a traditional Macedonian restaurant to try local specialities, before an early night in preparation for the final day.
Oct 18: After breakfast we depart for Lake Ohrid and a tour of the Hydro-biological Institute to learn how future guests will be able to take part in Lake Ohrid scientific survey expeditions and conservation work.
Following lunch we continue to Pelister National Park and our accommodation in the village of Brajchino. After a briefing from the rangers, guests depart for the evening bear-viewing expedition. Our transport leaves at 17:30 to make sure that we can hike to the viewing hide before dusk. Once in the hide, we will maintain a silent vigil (with hot drinks and snacks) until midnight ... our best chance to see the Dinaric Pindus brown bear in the wild.
Oct 19: Departure.
Assessment: Marketing Team
Before I launch into recapping the last five months, I’d like to say that this has been a rewarding time. I am grateful. I’ve had the chance to meet several of those assembled here. I have had the opportunity to work with some of you. I have forged a few working (and real) friendships. And, I look forward to the future so that we can continue what we’ve started.
What exists in this region—the Western Balkans Network and the Via Dinarica Alliance—is singular in the tourism world. These are not just “projects” or “initiatives” but working partnerships that have a real effect on the outcome of tourism in the region. As I mentioned in a recent essay for Paste magazine (http://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2015/09/travel-redux-in-southeastern-europe.html), this group is attempting something historic. This is not just my enthusiasm speaking.
Working as a group is important for a number of reasons. As stated from the very beginning: the exponential momentum created as a group is quite powerful. One or two can’t have the same outcome that 10 will have. Working as a group is not always easy … but the effort will be rewarded.
My simple—and objective—assessment of the past months is this: the Balkans have had a hell of a summer in terms of press. In nearly two decades of covering the area, I have never seen so many travel stories about the region … nearly all positive. Speaking to editors, I know that editorial calendars are filled with future stories as well. The challenge for Western Balkans and Via Dinarica moving forward will be to manage that success and the numbers, which will soon make the Balkans a regular tourism stop. As a group, and through cooperation and information sharing, we can manage that growth correctly and give tourists the best offer possible. No other region has the tools in place like the Western Balkans do at this moment. That is exciting.
What has the marketing/PR team been up to during this period?
Since June, 24 stories have either been published or are presently awaiting publication. (The original goal was to pitch or publish four.) That is 1.5 stories per week about the region placed in national publications. These stories have mentioned every country under our regional umbrella.
It is possible to quantify what this means.
First, publication of these stories translates—very conservatively—to around $60,000 in FAM trip costs (and those costs are often without guaranteed publication). The stories which ran in Paste (I edit the Travel section) hit a potential audience of more than 6 million readers per month and some 15 million page views. These stories also get multiple mentions on Paste and Paste Travel’s social media pages—very important for a continued, editorial conversation.
The New York Times, where two regional stories have been placed (and two more have been assigned and await publication), have a potential audience of some 40 million readers and 670 million page views. A full-page story in The Times (which these have been and will be) has an estimated ad value of just over $160,000. These four stories represent around 750,000 in ad dollars for the region.
We have, as well, placed the Via Dinarica in its first guidebook: Le Petit Fute, which is the main Francophone point of travel reference. By communicating with the publishers, and receiving financial assistance from USAID/Macedonia Small Business Expansion Project, the USAID Kosovo EMPOWER Private Sector Project, USAID REG Project, the Via Dinarica Alliance, and other businesses, the trail received a full article; a full-page advertisement in the book; a full LPF web page with photos, video, links and text; and will be a part of the LPF app. Inclusion in the guidebook also gives us a proverbial chip at the table for the tourism fair in Paris.
I am particularly proud of the social media work we have done. For this, we should all be very thankful for Molly Harris. Molly has been working with me from the beginning. She is largely responsible for running content for both the Western Balkans and Via Dinarica Facebook and Twitter pages. Because of her involvement, we have seen double- and triple-digit percentage increases in viewership across all forums. (Please see the numbers above.) Across the big picture, this work may be among the most important thing we do. Journalism stories are sexy, but it is the day-to-day social media conversations with people across the planet that help change the perception of the Balkans from post-conflict to “the next great place.”
Beyond this, Molly has helped compile the newsletter contributions and draft letters to make contact with associations (both journalism and tourism). She is assisting in our creation of a group for ATTA and a continual newsletter mention on its HUB forum. These contacts lay the groundwork for the future and will be among the next set of deliverables in the coming months. This was also part of the marketing team's work to assist stakeholders in their preparation for the Adventure Travel World Summit in Chile in October.
During this period, I have met with stakeholders—through official workshops and in working meetings—in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Macedonia, Albania, and Kosovo. The results of these meetings have all either turned into stories or social media blitzes.
We have also played a direct part in extending the Via Dinarica further into Kosovo's Accursed Mountains and along its border with Macedonia and the Shar and Korab Mountain Ranges. This expands our reach, extends possible coverage, and incorporates partners in a meaningful way for future collaboration.
Among the activities related to this extension, I worked with Bosnia's Green Visions Adventure Tourism Company and the Novagenus production studio—based in Tuzla—to plan the new routes in Kosovo and Macedonia and film videos (see above under the Macedonia section) for an upcoming series about the trail, the communities along the way, and the Via Dinarica's role to connect the Western Balkans region. An upcoming new trailer will be released at ATTA's Adventure Travel World Summit in Chile.
In this vein, the marketing team also worked closely with the Via Dinarica Alliance and USAID REG (Filip and Snjezana) to strategize for the upcoming tourism-fair season. This planning included identifying fairs of interest for stakeholders and focusing the messages which will be shared with international travel professionals, journalists, and tourists.
For the future, I am in contact with other guidebook companies with regard to regional inclusion. I am also communicating with media conglomerates to promote the countries—as a group and the trail—consistently to millions of readers. My next steps include continuing to place journalism stories, creating a budget for the next period to publicize the region through directed social media campaigns, working with Western Balkans and Via Dinarica members about collaborations with international adventurism companies to bring more groups to the region, and developing FAM trips.
Over the next handful of months, I will also be at your disposal as we continue to prepare for a busy tourism-fair season. As always, my email door is open and I am looking forward to focusing any message for the future you all would like to communicate.
Many thanks to all of you who contributed to this and the previous newsletter. I am excited to be in touch and work with all of you moving forward.