Thursday, January 18, 2007

Macedonian Government Offers New Tender, Strategies to Increase Tourism

The Macedonian Ministry of Economy has announced an open tender for consulting firms interested in devising a tourism strategy for the country, based upon research into current global industry trends and local possibilities.

The tender is available on the bottom of the homepage of Exploring Macedonia, the country’s national tourism website. Clicking on a link there opens a Word document giving the necessary details. Bidders have until January 22 to apply.

The tender is meant in part to revise and update the strategy laid out in an earlier study, carried out in 2003 by the French consulting firm Louis Berger and funded by the French government. For officials like Zoran Nikolovski, Assistant Head of Tourism in the Ministry of Economy, it remains a mystery as to why the previous government, which commissioned the study, did not implement it. “They had no answer when we asked this,” he stated for last week.Considering the formidable, book-length Louis Berger study’s comprehensiveness, it might at first seem strange as to why the government would require another rather broad-based research and advisory project as is delineated in the tender. A major reason why it is being done thus is because the previous report is now outdated. “The statistics in it cover only until 2001,” says Nikolovski.

Yet another, and happier reason for the necessary updating is that Macedonian tourism growth has exceeded all expectations. While the French study predicted a national tourism intake of 215 million euros between 2003 and 2015, says Nikolovski, “the intake was almost 100 million euros for the first nine months of 2006 alone.

The challenges and limitations affecting Macedonian tourism development have been noted for years. Nowadays, while some have been overcome, the lingering lack of budget airlines and direct flights to many major European cities has hindered Macedonia’s air travel capacity, as has a monopolistic situation in various capacities with the national airline. And the long-promised east-west railways to Bulgaria and Albania remain unbuilt. Since Bulgaria is now an EU member and has already attracted significant charter flight activity, as well as property sales to northern European second-home buyers and vacationers, Macedonia would do well to accentuate its proximity to its eastern neighbor to attract spillover visitors.

While everyone agrees that tourism is a vital industry for Macedonia’s future economic growth, there remains the question of where and how this growth is to take place. Leading destination Ohrid currently absorbs approximately 70 percent of Macedonia’s tourist visitors, a figure that is “unsustainable” because of the finite resources and ecological sensitivity of the lake region. There are many other promising areas for tourism development, such as the mountains of the east, but a lack of infrastructure presents a challenge there.

“We must offer various kinds of concessions to interested foreign investors,” willing to come into the Macedonian tourism market, says Nikolovski, who spells out one of the concepts the government is working on: the “Macedonian Village.” Rural tourism that soothes overstressed foreign urbanites with a sense of local hospitality, authentic old lodgings and hearty country fare is becoming increasingly important for countries throughout the region. With its forested mountains, tranquil lakes and miles of rivers, Macedonia has the natural beauty as well as the age-old villages to make it happen.

However, it has been difficult to convince the Macedonian captains of industry and leisure that the sort of Western tourists who might be drawn to the country are interested in getting away from it all- not in five-star hotels with urban amenities. Macedonia is not, and never will be, that kind of destination. Its strengths lie in the rustic, the natural, the authenticity that is becoming a rarer and thus more prized commodity in an increasingly built-up and modernized Europe.

ohridcastlebalkanalysis.jpg Ohrid, pictured here from Tsar Samuel’s castle, is Macedonia’s leading tourism destination- though diversification is necessary.

There are several pre-existing models for what the Macedonian Village government plan could look like. One is Serbian filmmakers Emir Kusturica’s Drvengrad/Kustendorf, a recreated traditional village of wood houses selling local arts and crafts. Another is Brajcino, the Lake Prespa-area village that was considered as a sort of pilot project for eco-tourism in Macedonia and developed with the help of Swiss sponsors. Brajcino has succeeded in drawing an increasing number of international visitors, despite its prices being higher than in the usual Macedonian village. According to Nikolovski, the ministry’s plan would involve either a village created from the ground up, like Kusturica’s, or else an existing one with traditional homes in need of some refurbishment. A cost-benefit analysis of the two models remains to be done before the plan can be submitted.

Another key issue is marketing. Foreign governments all too often still have cautionary caveats on their websites telling their citizens that Macedonia is a dangerous place. “They must tell them that our country does not suffer tensions and it is a safe place to invest and to visit,” says Nikolovski. An advertising campaign on CNN last summer was only partially effective and, in a glaring error, failed to point viewers to websites where they could find more information- a fatal mistake in a country whose very name is contested fiercely by southern neighbor Greece with its own Macedonian province.

At the same time, a consciousness shift has to occur on the local level, to educate would-be tourism providers about the need to stamp out littering, to not make problems for foreign ‘competitors’ except through basic free-market competition, and to persuade more private accommodation providers to come out of the ‘black market’ and report their takings to the taxman. While this would inevitably raise prices across the board, it would also provide some protection for tourists feeling wronged by their hosts or for the hosts, when they feel wronged by their guests (this writer remembers one frugal couple who robbed their host of his silverware upon leaving).

Nevertheless, Macedonian tourism certainly has potential and with Northern Europeans and Russians buying up Montenegro, Croatia and Bulgaria wholesale it will only be a matter of time before the best parts of Macedonia are in private foreign hands as well. For now, land prices are relatively inexpensive and it is an opportune moment for foreign investors willing to establish everything from bed-and-breakfasts to larger guesthouses, or simply their own private homes, to come into the country. Travel industry sources have predicted that the period 2008-2010 will see the first significant interest in Macedonia from the international property, tour operator and media markets; now is the time to act to stay ahead of the curve.

Of course, many will wait for the government’s plan and especially for the updated figures to be produced by whoever wins the tourism tender. There will be a preliminary and then a final round and a winner should emerge by the first of April, while the winning bidder will have until June to complete the commissioned study. We will then be in a better position to see just what Macedonia is capable of and, equally importantly, whether there is the collective will to make it happen.

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