Amid the now annual summer stampede to Lake Bohinj its potential as an all year-round destination is increasingly overlooked. It is though the very reason why winter visitor numbers have significantly declined that the local municipality and tourist association are pinning their hopes on rebalancing Bohinj’s appeal as a holiday location for all seasons.
The Vogel ski resort above Lake Bohinj is something of a climate change bellwether, either receiving too much snow but increasingly in insufficient quantities for it to be a reliable option for those travelling from outside the area. And therein lies the problem: a ski resort can never be financially viable when its lacks an image of being snow sure, which inevitably leaves those able to visit at a minute’s notice as its primary end user market.
It is this uncertainty of snowfall that has led to slopes in recent winters taking on greener hues than white, and all but killing off Vogel as a ski resort for anyone other than those able to travel to it from within Slovenia. If the country had a large enough captive market to sustain resorts without the added bonus of foreign patronage, the likes of Vogel because of its proximity to Bohinj and views of the Julian Alps, including Mount Triglav, would clean up. In a country though of just 2 million residents who have access to numerous winter sports options over the border in both Austria and Italy, the comparative attractions of day skiing in resorts of similar altitude to Vogel but whose connectivity and snow making facilities offer greater piste diversity are there for all to see. As a one trick pony Vogel cannot compete when snow depth is insufficient or conspicuous by its absence.
Foreign visitors usually book their week or long weekend on the slopes many months in advance, usually as a package that includes flights, transfers, board arrangements, and lift passes. This is a market in which Vogel cannot compete and has stymied Bohinj’s attempts to become a bijou ski resort. Recognizing that Climate Change has in effect brought about the area’s tourism dormancy during the winter months, Bohinj must now use the lack of snow to its advantage and encourage winter walking, wellness breaks, and guided ski touring in areas with snow but which are otherwise inaccessible to skiers using Vogel’s cable car and chairlifts.
The emergence of Cryptocurrency millionaire Damian Merlak into the tourism equation adds intrigues but also a much needed shot in the arm to Bohinj as an overnight and long stay destination. The acquisition of several hotels including the high-profile Zlatorog and Ski Hotel Vogel will not have been undertaken for them to retreat meekly into winter hibernation, but to lead the area’s reboot as a year-round destination. With both the Zlatorog and Ski Hotel in close proximity to the slopes – the Ukanc-based Zlatorog is located near to the Vogel cableway valley station, the Ski Hotel abuts the top station – the opportunity to create a diverse offering in which winter sports is just one option instead of the be all and end all is there for the taking, and one that Merlak is fully expected to exploit.
It will though be interesting what form the dramatically located Ski Hotel will eventually take. An edifice both enhanced and restricted by its position overlooking Lake Bohinj and on a good day Triglav but inaccessible to vacationers without the use of the cable car, any significant upgrading without which it has little future will have to be recouped through not simply being marketed just towards skiers, a demographic hardly guaranteed in great numbers. Dropping the ‘Ski’ from the hotel’s title would allow it to be rebranded as accommodation ideally sited for giving summer hikers an incredible head start at altitude. Without transferring customers in Snowcat-type vehicles from Ukanc along the precipitous Zagarjev Graben ski run/hiking path or helicoptering in the wealthy, a trend that Austrian and Swiss ski resorts have a significant head start over its alpine rivals, Merlak will have to work in conjunction with the Vogel cableway owner-operator to ensure the hotel’s clients can access their lodgings. With though the cable car being unable to operate in extreme weather conditions, is there an argument for a fully refurbished Ski Hotel to only open from May – October, when it is more likely to have higher occupancy rates and be fully reachable?
Utilizing Bohinj’s general lack of snow to the area’s advantage must now form a central plank to a multidisciplinary wintertime strategy. A highly-publicized struggle with summer season day tripper mass tourism, a ‘here to stay’ phenomenon that will have to be managed rather than dissuaded, is being acknowledged through a continued commitment to increasing park and ride schemes, punitive fines for illegal parking and through parking charges designed to deter the use of personal vehicles even in designated areas close to the lake It is though unrealistic on the promise of a greater wintertime offering to expect visitor numbers in the summer to even out to more controllable numbers, but a focus away from putting all the colder months’ eggs in the winter sports basket in conjunction with modernized, forward thinking hotels will at least attempt to level up what has become an untenable and lopsided reliance on tourism revenue generated during the warmer months.
The environmental impact of the manner by which tourists arrive at Bohinj has been addressed and continues to be so but without physically limiting the number of visitors to the area, something that is almost impossible to regulate notwithstanding European Union Freedom of Movement directives, damage to the lake’s water purity from chemicals contained within sunscreen, littering, and a general disregard for its northern shoreline will continue unless there is greater investment in both educating and as a last resort penalizing transgressors. Although undoubtedly heavily influenced by Covid-19 social distancing principles the local municipality has given the green light for outdoor seating areas and terraces to be temporarily enlarged, but it must guard against lakeside ephemeral developments becoming normalized and eventually established.
Balancing out Bohinj’s appeal and viability as more than just a summer destination will undoubtedly help the local economy, but there is little evidence that its fragile environment will benefit from or witness a reduction in mass tourism towards a more sustainable model. Unless a cap on summer visitor numbers can somehow be enforced, an increase in the number of overnight stays during the winter season will merely be an aside to the unrelenting summertime rush to the lake. Increased winter tourism prevents associated revenue from drying up but will not offset the damage done in the summer.
How to make Bohinj a fully sustainable location is the ultimate conundrum at hand; how it can become an all year round destination is perhaps the more straightforward task of the two in its in tray.
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