Peaks of the Balkans: towards a virtuous and “winning” tourism.
By Eugenio Berra. A prestigious prize has been recently awarded by the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) to the Peaks of the Balkans Project, a wide network comprising public institutions, private companies and NGOs grouped together to plan and upgrade a cross-border trekking path between Kosovo, Albania and Montenegro. We talked about it with Kirsi Hyvaerinen, CIM advisor to the Montenegro National Tourism Organisation.
Which impressions and memories did You keep from Abu Dhabi? How was the atmosphere?
The incredible material and “man made” richness of the whole region on the one hand but on the other hand the strong and good feeling that our region here, and especially the Peaks of the Balkans and similar authentic, close to the people, nature and culture travel ideas offer something maybe more touching and worth remembering in the human sense – more stories to tell!
The atmosphere was exciting and excited – especially when the keynote speaker, the former President of the US, Bill Clinton already in the afternoon said, - in front of these 1,000 top decision makers of Travel and Tourism - in relation to the Balkans: “Peace works better than conflict and one of the best manifestations is travel and tourism.” – and kept further mentioning our countries in such a positive and affirmative manner (Montenegro – “breathtaking beauty”) . There we already felt like winners, but did not know anything yet!
In the evening, we did cry of joy when the decision was announced in the ceremony in the classic way “...and the winner is...” – with such strong competition like there was, it makes a multiple honour.
Photo © Tarcisio Deflorian.
In order to gain the Tourism for Tomorrow - Destination Stewardship Award the applicants must meet strict requirements. How did “Peaks of the Balkans” match these goals?
The work done in two years has been successful – otherwise you are not selected a finalist, or cannot convince the on site evaluating judge – who met in a week with nearly 40 people from local, NGO, business to ministry levels. And without having done a bunch of things right, you surely cannot convince the final panel of judges who decide. All these judging phases work independently in this prestigious competition.
The project is playing an important role in preserving the natural, cultural and spiritual heritage of the region, as well as restoring mutual trust, collaboration, and economic opportunities between our three Balkan countries. We have provided training, capacity building and support for the development of local tourism enterprises in the small communities along the trail, as well as addressed trans-border issues to ensure easier movement across neighbouring borders for visitors on the trail. The Peaks of the Balkans is recognition of the harmonious working partnerships between Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro. It’s special we have such constructive relationships in a formerly troubled region. Now we can offer safe access and travels for visitors, protect the heritage and bring new social and economic benefits.
However, the work is never finished and we must convince the World and our visitors in the long run. Being a winner doesn´t mean being perfect! Therefore, all the so far education, protection, promotion and cooperation measures we wish to build up on, to make this a worthwhile effort for all who have the same goals of sustainable tourism development – and shares the love for this region – living there since generations and having hopefully new opportunities to keep it that way. So to the question – what´s the “indicator” or “measure” of success? To me it´s simply the number of smoking chimneys in a village which would be in danger to be abandoned. Or number of kids going to school in that village.
The World Travel and Tourism Council is a worldwide recognized institution. Do You think this award will help in promoting the Dinaric Alps (but more in general the inner parts of the Balkans) as responsible tourist destinations?
Yes, it will and already has – we notice it in the media interest. Already the fact that the Balkans are seen more and more in such positive contexts, will help the whole region. And any working models that we can help transfer to others, or to learn back from others – more than happy to cooperate.
Photo © Tarcisio Deflorian.
I would like to highlight two virtuous features of this project: the horizontal system of governance stimulated by the presence of both public administrations, international and local NGOs; the cross-border network, involving three neighbouring States. Is it difficult to manage and cope with this “plurality of voices”?
Of course it is a challenge, especially when you have two languages to deal with as well. But when the basic understanding of the objectives is shared, and the social, economic and ecological meaning of such a project is understood at all levels – then it is not anymore a question if to cooperate but how to coordinate and communicate. Thanks to our relatively short distances we can meet physically, and thanks to modern media - it can all be arranged. We hope that local and national media will keep the buzz alive too, go and interview travellers and tour operators from abroad as well. And encourage our own people here to go and experience why this project is special.
Which will be the further steps of the “Peaks of the Balkans” project?
We will discuss and decide in the Steering Group on all kinds of needs to maintain the quality of work, services to the guests, promotion – and funding sources for all that. The next meeting is set for the 7/8 May and then slowly - the hiking season starts. We hope also that the year is celebrated as the common “Peaks of the Balkans” year and that the communities along the Trail will notice positive impacts, and invest further on the service and infrastructure in the authentic quality way required. And that the municipalities are not afraid to stop wrong type of developments which would endanger the authentic and delicate beauty of this region. It´s the responsibility of each and every individual to make the right decisions, be it when building a house, or taking care of waste.
You are a Senior Advisor to the Montenegro National Tourism Organization. This country seems to follow a “double track” regarding tourism: on one hand, especially in the inner part, a very sustainable-oriented touristic offer; on the other, the seaside (i.e. Budva) is currently at risk of building speculation and overgrazing – usury of its environmental and cultural commons. Might this award also strengthen awareness on these issues?
There is no “double track” – however, the values of responsible management and allocation of valuable resources are harder to live by if you are under short term, money-minded and “I want it all, I want it now” pressures. It takes a strong leadership to say “no” to certain offers, and to keep following the visions of the Tourism Development Strategy to 2020 as the guiding star. So to your question - yes, this huge success, seen by World tourism leaders might and it can help with the awareness for the right things. Just take a look what´s happening elsewhere in the World - where are the most successful countries in terms of making their visitors and people happy, where is the leadership putting true effort into implementing responsible policies, serving also future generations? They have been there to learn from already for the past 15 years. I hope and trust that some lessons of the mistakes in the near past can be learnt of and that the reasons for true and long lasting competitiveness as a destination and as a country – not only for the short term profit of individuals – are seen more clearly.
By the way, my scope of work as CIM advisor to the Montenegro National Tourism Organisation is coming to its end – after visiting the country for the first time 2003 and then, working and living here since 2006. I have decided to call it home. So no farewells, but a great ending to a lot of good things realized together in these years, all in the sense of “difficult is worth doing”.