The potential loss of large amounts of farmland and tree cover abutting Maribor’s airport flies in the face of an ‘environment first’ credo that Slovenia has become synonymous with, and of which it is rightly proud. Representing something of a reality check of what value is placed on prime agricultural and arboriculture that serves not only local visual amenity but affords wind protection to local inhabitants and a haven for wildlife, the demands by Maribor’s standards of ‘big business’ have sadly shown that the environment poses few obstacles to the dubious ambitions of but a few. The most galling aspect of these proposals is that the need precipitating them may yet be unrealized, quite aside from the fact they have been previously unmet for good reason.

Since Maribor’s airport has fallen under the control of a Chinese consortium, plans to turn this fine but chronically underused facility into something it was never designed to be have met with justifiable incredulity, and in some quarter’s outright contempt. For an airport to go from a standing start of more or less no annual passengers to becoming a hub for Far East passengers venturing further into Slovenia, Europe, and beyond is fatuous, but in effect encapsulates a scheme that will involve the stationing of perhaps dozens of wide-body Airbus aircraft in Slovenia’s second city, who will eventually receive flights from China, and major European cities.

Contemporary projects of this scale are usually received with enthusiasm but there are three points to be made. As several years have elapsed since the barely believable details were announced to great fanfare by the then Chinese and Dutch consortium, little of substance has occurred to suggest the grand plans for Maribor Airport will ever come to fruition. It is therefore no longer a contemporary plan, but more of one with a feeling of having been kicked into the long grass. Aside from local dignitaries who are faced with accusations of being delusional and of being hoodwinked, levels of enthusiasm, and credulity, have failed to give wings to the scheme that its progenitors would have hoped. Finally, whilst my fondness of Maribor as a city and region are without question, the very fact that a city of less than 100,000 inhabitants would suddenly become a major European hub for air travellers from the East is akin to an elaborate but inexplicably conceived April Fools’ Day prank.

As a regional airport serving its local community and receiving charter traffic for the area’s winter sports, hiking, and wellness attractions, Maribor Airport should be able to function for the purposes of which it was originally constructed. An appalling lack of marketing has ensured its continued inertia which ultimately left it as easy prey for circling prospectors who rarely have their quarry’s best interests at heart. Like countless other European metropolises Maribor as a city could and should be marketed as a short break destination. For those with a fondness for skiing and hiking the nearby Pohorje massif ticks the boxes, as do the many wellness Terme* complexes in and around the region. The latter represents just one open goal continually missed by the lack of a joined-up approach between tourism stakeholders, the city authorities, and the airport itself to attract guests from Russia and the former Soviet Union whose established fondness for such facilities is well known.

To accommodate the plans of its Chinese overlords, and anticipated wide-bodied aircraft, Maribor Airport will have to lengthen its runway. Aside from the reasons of increased noise and air pollution consistent with heightened activity, locals insist that the airport doesn’t need to be expanded but simply run along the lines of a regional facility for which it was originally intended. Not only are the ecological and agricultural losses seen as unnecessary but there is a real fear that they will be to no avail, should the very real likelihood of the plans completely falling through come to pass.

The ultimate irony of mitigation farmland being offered in a quid pro quo basis for what is to be lost only AFTER it has first been deforested of its arboreal contents ensures a double-whammy loss of tree cover, for a scheme that has no guarantee to go the distance. For Slovenia, so often regarded as an exemplar of bucking the trend where the environment commonly bends the knee to commercial activity, this is a significant setback and brings into question its ‘green’ credentials away from the more traditional regions of outstanding natural beauty, such as the Triglav National Park and wider Julian Alps massif. It is though changes to the national spatial plan, thereby sanctioned by Ljubljana, that will enable the Chinese to force through the destruction of the natural environment adjacent to Maribor’s Edvard Rusjan Airport for their own ends.

With little but a failed charter service – operated by the now defunct VLM Airlines linking Maribor with Antwerp, via Munich – to show for two years of grandiose but empty promises, there is still a conspicuous absence of a ‘you were right, we were wrong’ acceptance by those within Maribor’s obcina** all too happy to benefit from facilitating the Chinese takeover; in this sense, there will be no turning back by anyone other than those who conceived Maribor’s improbable place within wider Chinese consciousness.

The recent day of International Civil Aviation provided an ideal opportunity for those concerned by the potential for harm, on so many levels, predicated by the proposed airport expansion, to voice their disquiet. Indeed, the Association of Ecological Movement of Slovenia took this opportunity to publicly echo the fears of local residents and whilst Slovenia’s powerful green lobby will hold considerable sway within the country at large, it will take someone of courage at the highest echelons to pull the plug on the proposed national spatial plan specific to Maribor, in effect tanking the Chinese project for its airport.

Maribor is being sold short by its modern airport not serving the city in a manner that it deserves. Issues of repeated failure to promote Maribor and its immediate area as tourism destinations are though writ large and have significantly contributed to the current stasis and uncertainty. Should the national spatial plan be shelved, the Chinese will presumably pull out altogether. What then of the airport’s future? Is it better to live for the time being in a fool’s paradise than a future that could, without sympathetic and credible intervention, ultimately involve closure? Local residents are perturbed by the prospect of a spike in both noise and air pollution, but as there are virtually no flights currently using the facility, what level of aviation activity would they be willing to accept? Only an amount of traffic that doesn’t involve the carving up of agricultural land and the needless loss of trees is the answer, although without someone getting a grip on how to properly market Maribor as a destination there is little prospect of even a modest but sustainable amount of air traffic once more using the airport. For the airport to be viable whilst operating only a small amount of rotations, fees could become uncompetitive without subsidy. Should therefore the market be left to decide the airport’s fate, or is there a case for interventionism, if only initially?

Aside from whether it is within private or public hands Maribor Airport represents an important piece of national infrastructure to a country of Slovenia’s size. It is therefore incumbent upon the government to take a bigger interest in what is happening in the east of the country and demonstrate that it cares about what occurs away from Ljubljana, the nation’s capital. Maribor Airport is too near to the likes of Zagreb, Graz, and Ljubljana itself, to ever become even a medium-sized facility, although with inclination and innovation it can successfully supply its city and countryside with enough tourists to justify its existence. The time is now for action and reality, without which its future is in real jeopardy.

Source material and further information:

RTV Slovenia:

http://www.rtvslo.si/lokalne-novice/maribor/proti-siritvi-mariborskega-letalisca-za-ohranitev-kmetijskih-zemljisc/466076

http://www.rtvslo.si/lokalne-novice/maribor/gozd-bo-najverjetneje-padal-tudi-za-mariborsko-letalisce/474098

http://www.rtvslo.si/news-in-english/woodlands-will-most-probably-be-destroyed-for-maribor-airport/474183

Slovenian Press Agency(STA):

http://www.sta.si/2583205/v-zeg-ob-mednarodnem-dnevu-letalstva-svarijo-pred-nacrti-mariborskega-letalisca

*Terme – thermal spa complex

**Obcina – Municipality