Last night NK Maribor drew with Chelsea at Ljudski Vrt, arguably their most creditable result since last eating at European football’s top-table back in 1999, when an astonishing win at the then mighty Dynamo Kiev proved to be the highlight of an otherwise disastrous group-stage campaign. Adding to the feelgood factor currently being enjoyed by the Slovenia’s second city, thanks to the recapitalisation of Aerodrom Maribor by a new majority shareholder and the rescuing of the Pohorje ski-operation by the Municipality, it will not just be the best marketers in the city who’ll be able to link together the potential of the individual parts that make up this triumvirate of positivity.

I am unsure if the visiting Chelsea fans flew to Maribor for their fleeting visit to the east of Slovenia. Last season supporters from Wigan Athletic, journeying for their team’s Europa League clash with Maribor chartered a flight to Aerodrom Maribor and felt the benefits of doing so, giving them almost instant access to the city and of course the Ljudski Vrt stadium. The Wigan fans were greatly impressed with Maribor, enchanted by its architecture and charmed by the low beer prices. It can only be assumed the Chelsea fans would’ve been similarly minded but having a far greater fan-base than those travelling from the DW Stadium, their spending-power and word-of-mouth recommendations when extolling the virtues of Maribor will carry some considerable weight. This would sound to anyone as a win-win situation for Maribor, both in the short-term and long after the strains of Zadok the Priest have drifted away with NK Maribor’s Champions League campaign.

Here though lies the problem. Just like Wigan Athletic fans last season, Chelsea supporters will return to England eulogizing about the component parts that make Maribor and its immediate area a great place to visit, harbouring strong convictions of a non-football related return visit in the not too distant future. The reality though is that unless travellers are willing to journey to Brnik Airport in Ljubljana and travel cross-country by train to Maribor or, fly into Graz, Slovenia’s second city remains a frustratingly hard place to access, especially for a short city-break or ski trip.

It has been extensively reported on this blog and by The Slovenia Times that Aerodrom Maribor is on the cusp of realising its potential, helped not in the least by the recent recapitalisation stimulus from new majority shareholder Delavska hranilnica, whose chairman Joze Stegne is hopeful of scheduled flights becoming a staple rather than a mere pipe-dream. The publicity created by success in the Champions League and positive experiences by visiting high-spending football fans is exposure money cannot buy but will in the end for on barren ground, should all the relevant players – Aerodrom Maribor, the city’s municipality and Slovenia Tourism – not work in unison towards the common-goal of creating a joined-up and sustainable future for tourism in the Maribor and Pohorje regions. I am of the opinion, with the added possibility of NK Maribor tapping into the lucrative football tourism market, that Slovenia’s hitherto unheralded second city will never get a better chance to step out of Ljubljana’s shadow but the time for action is now, while the prevailing winds of change continue to be positive.

Additional reporting on this issue can be found at The Slovenia Times – Maribor Airport