It was June 1999, with the dying embers of the Kosovo conflict but several hundred miles away from my vacation in Slovenia’s Bohinj region. What though to many without any knowledge of Yugoslavia and the relative geographic proximity of its former component parts was a risky location for my holiday, could not have proven to be any further from the truth. The mere mention of ‘former Yugoslavia’ conjured up images of NATO bombings, ethnic cleansing, the shelling of historic Dubrovnik, and the destruction of Mostar’s iconic bridge.
Ignorance in what was still the pre-internet age(remember that?) grouped a diverse and sprawling Yugoslavia as a single melting pot of division fraught with danger. Slovenia had though seceded from Belgrade eight years prior to my first visit to the country and was as far away in terms of peace and stability from impoverished, war torn Kosovo as could be imagined. It was though on being asked “where’s Slovenia?” that my answer of its former but dim and distant place within the Yugoslavia federation would receive uninformed replies along the lines of ‘why do you want to go there?’ and ‘isn’t it dangerous? Then there were those who thought, in line with my rather contrary personality, that I was going for the perceived attendant danger. Putting aside my annoyance of their ignorance I let my detractors’ thoughts fester as to whether I would return unscathed from behind the barbed wire and snipers’ nests. I obviously did, as I have from a subsequent ten or so visits to Slovenia.
I do not like crowds, especially in the mountains. For that reason visiting almost anywhere in the Alps during July and August is for me a red line, when seeking out areas of solitude can take up a greater part of one’s vacation. And then there are Europe’s summer temperatures that seemingly increase with each high season. I understand why many venture abroad during times of fixed school holidays but aside from those who revel in seething masses of often badly behaved humanity and society’s general penchant to follow what others do, how can enjoyment be derived in such conditions on what might be the only chance that many get during the year to escape their everyday lives?
Even as a callow 22-year old I was shocked by how quiet Bohinj was in June 1999. Surely this was not influenced by war in Kosovo. Many visitors to the Alps travel over land from, for example, Germany, the Netherlands, and Poland, countries whose citizens are more connected with and knowledgeable of events in continental Europe. Without a need to venture near Serbia, Albania, or Kosovo itself to get to Slovenia, events 400-500 miles further south would not unduly trouble the more enlightened. But did it?
Today, it is almost impossible to comprehend walking around Lake Bohinj, a trek that takes approximately 3 hours, without seeing a living soul. I do though vividly recall feeling that I was the only person in on the Bohinj secret, and how fortunate to be this alone. A rather mournful souvenir/snack seller adjacent to where the smooth path of the lake’s eastern flank gives way to its rocky northern reaches personified the feeling of desperation within the area’s tourist trade, for reasons as far from its shores as they were out of its hands.
Events in Kosovo ran their course, and those areas of the former Yugoslavia that relied on tourism once more breathed a sigh of relief that their place within a long-deceased federation was no longer dictating terms. Quite aside from being erroneously tainted with guilt by apparent association, such a scenario shows how little has changed in the intervening period where Social Media drives, and manipulates, the perception and knowledge(or lack of it) of media consumers. In an era of deep dive research and a love of many to ‘drill down’ into detail, the reactionary ignorance of those led to water by unverifiable sources and the ‘red top’ print media is sadly alive and kicking.
Bohinj and neighbouring Lake Bled are now what is known as ‘Instagrammable’, an egregious term suggesting somewhere or something to be particularly photogenic. Social Media has driven the ‘must visit’ craze where those who are unable to think for themselves are guided by those who do it for them. These ‘influencers’ are often subsidised by hotels, airlines, or associated businesses anxious to be part of the next wave of the travellers’ journey to wherever the current ‘it’ place may be. In an action equivalent of throwing a live hand grenade into a room and then fleeing the scene, those that bombard timelines with ‘you really must go here’ messages put great pressure on infrastructure and the natural environment in area’s not equipped, nor should ever be expected to be, to deal with hordes of selfie stick wielding day tourists. Bohinj and Austria’s Hallstatt are two examples at one end of a scale which is occupied at its more high profile pinnacle by Dubrovnik and Venice. Whether large or small, well known or relatively not so, the negative consequences of unsustainable number of tourists and the type of tourism this creates is shared by diverse areas of Europe who are floundering under a common theme.
As Covid-19 lockdowns and travel restrictions begin to unravel at different rates across the continent, it is from here and within its own borders where the vast majority of Slovenia’s tourism will stem during the remainder of 2020. Will Bohinj and Bled both then have a better idea as from where tourists stem who have the greatest negative effect on their respective areas? Or will the significant drop in footfall prove that it is more the amount of travellers, without a distinction from where they originate, that is the overall problem? I would suggest that the answer lies somewhere in between. Lockdown has though through collective sequestration created a negative trait of entitlement within many, who given the first available opportunity are likely to stampede en masse to areas like Bohinj and other alpine pearls.
Slovenians love to travel far and wide and whilst clipping their wings from venturing to the Mediterranean and North Africa could mean greater levels of ‘staycationing’, distorting the tourist market during this presumably one-off year might not have the desired effect on increasingly beleaguered resorts. It has been said that foreign visitors are often the better behaved than those more local who understandably at times feel pushed out by overseas guests, but there is little evidence to conclude anything more definitive than sweeping generalisations. It is a truism that foreign tourists can be ignorant and insensitive to local customs and ordinances, as it is that those holidaying within their own country can act out their perceived entitlement to do as they please.
It is then with a heavy heart that I report that Bohinj has found itself onto a wholly pointless, but potentially damaging list of the 20 safest places to vacation within Europe. Little more than a marketing exercise which could end up pushing unsustainable levels of tourism into areas least equipped to deal with it and in some cases, perhaps even relishing the pause brought about by the novel coronavirus, the compilation of locations comprising capital cities(Vienna, Warsaw), islands such as Corfu and even a whole country, Malta, under a single banner is ludicrous.
It is all well and good to say that the 20 destinations have had far fewer recorded cases of Covid-19 and in some cases virtually none whilst reassuringly having a higher number of hospital beds per head of population should travellers succumb to any illness, but an ability to handle increased amounts of visitors on the basis of the findings of the European Best Destinations(EBD) organization will greatly vary location to location. For those already susceptible to being seduced by bucket lists and the rarely altruistic blandishments of influencers, such a ‘roll of honour’ at a point in time where respecting social distancing remains vital is in my mind wholly irresponsible and could be counterproductive.
Social Media and cheap, lazy journalism have forever changed the rules of engagement between consumer and the destination. There are now few ‘best kept secret’ locations untouched by human intervention and selfishness remaining in Europe. It is in our nature to explore, but history serves countless salutary reminders of areas of the world being pillaged and disrespected on being discovered. Is our obsession to chronicle the world through Social Media and highlight the ‘me, me, me’ priorities in many of our lives by sating unchecked desires for the world to witness the striking through of yet another bucket list location a modern day continuation of our sense of entitlement, shamefully exhibited to such extremes over the centuries by slave traders and the pursuing of an Empire?
For the avoidance of any doubt I can confirm that Bohinj was safe in 1999 and continues to be so, albeit latterly under threat from selfishness and ignorance. Twenty one years ago I was quite happy for the ignorance of others to amount to peaceful bliss, but an unnecessary compilation of places in the world with seemingly something not evidently obvious in common could staunch their efforts to keep Covid-19 at bay, whilst besieging those areas seeking better tourist, not more of it.
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