An update from: Bohinj: finally some hope for Hotel Zlatorog?
A quartet of Bohinj-based tourist accommodation providers have been bought by Bitstamp co-founder Damijan Merlak, finally drawing to a close shameful scenes that saw several of the area’s preeminent hotels fall into disrepair under the gaze of its powerless municipality.
Purchased from erstwhile owner Zmago Pacnik the crypotcurrency millionaire is starting to reinvest some of the €100 million garnered from the 2018 sale of the now Luxembourg-based bitcoin exchange. Although a significant departure from his former business life Merlak will be all too aware of the extent Bohinj’s tourism offer has been undermined by Pacnik’s laissez faire approach to inward investment, and the incredible opportunity he now has to bring back to life such a former tourist icon as the Hotel Zlatorog, situated in Ukanc on the western reaches of Bohinj’s eponymous lake.
Included in the sale are the Stara Fuzina-based Residence Triglav Apartments, the Hotel Bohinj – older readers may remember it as the former Hotel Kompas – and the Ski Hotel Vogel, adjacent to the Rjava Skala top station of Vogel’s cableway. Whilst these three functioning accommodation providers will for the time being continue ‘as you were’ under the auspice of sitting tenants it is the Zlatorog where much of Merlak’s attention, and investment, will need to be concentrated.
Sadly sitting idol for the best part of 8 years the Zlatorog has in its time welcomed heads of state and diplomatic dignitaries, particularly during Tito’s 35-year grip on Slovenia as part of the doomed-to-fail Yugoslav federation. Bought by Pacnik in 2002 the ‘Zlat’ gradually fell into disrepair as tourist income drained away to more sympathetically owned hotels. Once the sitting tenant was unable to generate sufficient income to maintain the hotel it soon ceased to trade, laying bare the naked motivation of a owner concerned with little more than sweating an asset than investing his own funds into its upkeep, and modernization.
Occupying a prominent position in Ribcev Laz the Hotel Bohinj has staggered on despite extremely indifferent reviews from many guests; the same can be said for Residence Triglav. Ski Hotel Vogel, an almost Brutalist-style wood and stone construct has in recent years been astutely operated by its sitting tenant, although its challenging location from an access perspective and Vogel’s haphazard snow record ensures that it remains less than the sum of its parts. Its perilous situation perched high above Lake Bohinj heavily restricts growth and modernization to its current footprint although there is surely scope to make it an all year round destination, giving hikers and climbers a wonderful head start during the warmer months. As with all of Merlak’s new purchases, the Ski Hotel Vogel is ripe for someone with vision and a suitable depth of pocket to improve its kerb appeal and offering, whilst being mindful of the need for sympathetic development amidst such ecologically sensitive surroundings overseen by the Triglav National Park(TNP) authority in this part of the Julian Alps.
Merlak pragmatically attests that it could be 2 years before the Zlatorog is once more in a position to receive guests, highlighting that the remaining carcass of the former hotel might not be salvageable – other than as a focal point for a wrecking ball. Should the hotel have to be completely demolished – mother nature and vandalism have already started the process – it is hoped a modern twist that is heavily redolent of the former edifice’s design can be incorporated into the new build.
These are heady days for Bohinj’s tourism industry. Although there is still much uncertainty and at this early stage plans for the future are subject to feasibility and overcoming bureaucracy, the prospect of Bohinj’s ‘big 4’ – Zlatorog, Bellevue, Jezero, and Ski Hotel Vogel – being the well-patronized, modern, fit for purpose hotels that positively promote sustainable tourism in one of the most scenic but ecologically fragile corners of Europe is something that surely enthuses local officials. The Bellevue, itself having suffered a Zlatorog-style abandonment, become embroiled in a labyrinthine ownership structure that might once have involved Pacnik, but was ultimately dispensed with by Japec Jakopin at the behest of the courts tasked with discharging the entrepreneur’s wider business liabilities. Bought at auction with the lakeside Hostel Pod Voglom, it is widely anticipated that the hotel once used by Agatha Christie will be brought back to its former glory. Its current condition, and situation on a heavily wooded crest at the end of an 800 metre road above Ribcev Laz undoubtedly lends itself to a backdrop more in keeping with a crime thriller, although Christie herself insisted Bohinj was far too beautiful for it to figure in any of her stories.
With so much negativity attached to Pacnik’s stranglehold over a significant proportion of Bohinj’s tourism accommodation there will now be a palpable sense of relief that his involvement in the area has drawn to a close. Such feelings will inevitably generate a certain amount of apprehension of what the future holds in the hands of a moneyed young man with little previous experience in the tourism sector. Although understandable I believe such sentiments are unfounded, and will prove to be so. Typifying a new breed of entrepreneurs that Slovenia desperately needs, Damijan Merlak will have entered into this transaction with a determination to realize each component part’s potential, and take advantage of Slovenia rapidly losing its tag of being Europe’s great tourism secret. Merlak knows more than anyone that for his plans to be a success, consensus, not discord, must be struck with Bohinj’s municipality and in particular the Triglav National Park authority.
The war is now over, with peace finally breaking out in an area that so heavily relies upon tourism revenue but has had to endure reputational damage by the actions of one man. There are obviously legislative lessons to be learned, which former mayor of Bohinj, Franc Kramar, himself now a member of parliament will presumably be raising during his time in Ljubljana, to guard against a repeat of a set of circumstances that hamstrung the local authority, but sadly fell the right side of legality. Intervention from local and/or national governments in a market economy somewhat undermines its principles but the tightening of tax laws, and the drawing up of statutes designed to punish absentee landlords by ultimately seizing assets once their condition has fallen below an acceptable level are just two ways to hinder past mistakes being revisited.
In the context of Slovenia as a nation Bohinj is a special case, and should have been treated as such by its national government. If the same set of circumstances had arisen in neighbouring Bled, I doubt Ljubljana would have stood idly by. State intervention does leave government officials open to accusations of corruption and favouritism, but as was seen by the financial bailout to kick start Bovec’s grounded Kanin cableway, it is not entirely without precedent. It will therefore be of some relief within government that the stasis in Bohinj hasn’t become terminal, although it is perhaps sad that it has taken a self-made young man with vision and courage to intervene where the state couldn’t, or simply wouldn’t.
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