It is now over 20 years since I first visited Slovenia’s Lake Bohinj, but until recent times changes to the area’s preeminent hotel stock had been painfully, glacially slow, if that is to say that the inexorable decline of many of its most famous tourist accommodation has only in recent times started to be arrested.

For several hotels, including the Zlatorog, Ski Hotel Vogel, and the eponymous Bohinj, it has taken the intervention of young Cryptocurrency millionaire Damian Merlak to breath life into institutions through ongoing and future plans that were akin to pipe dreams under the ruinous previous ownership of Zmago Pacnik. That the name ‘Zmago’ translates as ‘Victor’, whose exit stage left is very much a victory for the Bohinj region, must rank as a considerable irony.

The condition of the famous but fallen Hotel Zlatorog was perhaps of greatest concern for the area, with a long-since closed business leaving its various buildings at the mercy of the alpine elements and those whose interest in the property went beyond harmless curiosity. When the roof covering the indoor swimming pool gave way under what I believe was weight of snow, atrophying of the main building gathered apace. As time went by a hotel that was once known for hosting Marshal Tito’s Communist and Non-Aligned allies became more an object for complete demolition, than a complex but achievable renovation project.

Plans are now well in hand to albeit sadly but inevitably demolish the Zlatorog, and replace it and the depandansa(annex) with modern, fit for purpose accommodation that will harmonize with the unique backdrop and surroundings set amid the Triglav National Park(TNP). That it will take longer to gain the necessary consents because of the hotel’s situation within the TNP is reassuring, and will ensure that Merlak is in it for the long haul with a design that must be fitting for the landscape and history of the original Zlatorog, whilst also turning a profit for the Bitstamp creator.

If the Zlatorog is situated in an area, Ukanc, that is translated as ‘the end’, the Hotel Bohinj can be found at the epicentre of activity for the lake at the opposite limit of Bohinjsko Jezero, in Ribcev Laz. My first memories of the hotel were under its previous identity, the Kompas, where a rather utilitarian wooden facade was offset by balconies overlooking the lake and mountains, as well as the hotel’s very own perfectly round but completely exposed alfresco swimming pool. That the Kompas/Bohinj is close to the ‘action’ in Ribcev Laz but positioned on a secluded hill that offers a private but advantageous perspective of Bohinj’s ultimate selling points should make its 3.0 version a resounding success, but this was also something traded on by the previous owner/operator to seemingly justify offering an experience that fell well short of the required standard.

After the Aparthotel Triglav in nearby Stara Fuzina was successfully rebooted last year, representing the fourth part of Merlak’s acquisition from Pacnik and arguably the mot straightforward to bring back on stream, the real acid test will though be the successful redevelopment of both the Zlatorog and Ski Hotel Vogel, the latter perched above Lake Bohinj adjacent to the Vogel cableway’s top station. Both hotels offer unique challenges entirely in keeping with their stunning but contrasting situations, but also where the Triglav National Park authority must be entirely satisfied before plans for the Zlatorog can be realized, obstacles relating to adjacent landowners including the lift operator must be overcome for the Ski Hotel to receive a much needed makeover, and find a purpose and reason for being for this somewhat stark, Brutalist-type edifice which is as much looked down upon as it is gazed up to.

Ski Hotel Vogel adjacent to the Vogel cableway’s Rjava Skala top station

The issue of retaining the name as a ‘ski’ hotel might be one that Damian Merlak eventually has to address. Notwithstanding the interrupted and otherwise ruined 2020/21 winter sports’ season there is too little scope for the Ski Hotel Vogel(SKH) to justify what would have to be a significant investment in its whole structure for it to remain a ‘winter only’ accommodation provider. How it can be made into an all year round concern will not be an insignificant challenge, especially as access for end users is entirely dependent upon the cableway. A unique, distinctive, but isolated location ticks many of the boxes for those seeking to escape mass tourism and the encroaching world, but these otherwise worthy traits will not make the SKH an easy project to be successfully executed.

There is much to be hopeful for and to be looked forward to as Bohinj takes a necessary step into controlled modernity, a term I coin to reflect the damage done to several of its well-known hotels under previous auspices, but also one that reflects the respect for the area, its traditions and landscape that renovations and rebuilds must factor into their plans; without which, the obligatory consents will not anyhow be achieved.

With an air of not being beholden to tourism that can often be felt in some areas of alpine Austria, Slovenia will need to move with the times but not in step with how others approach what they believe to be a crock of gold around every mountainous corner. By attempting to replicate what many other alpine resorts – I do not though regard Bohinj as a resort – have attempted and in many cases achieved, there is always an inherent danger of undermining the very reasons which draw guests to the Alps in he first place.

Tourism should never feel forced, or artificial, and whilst all areas now popular with visitors were once the preserve of those who lived there and predominantly off the land, Bohinj’s still thriving agricultural sector must not be undermined or used as a twee gimmick harking back to times’ past.

Striking the balance of coexistence between both industries is a perpetual challenge throughout Europe’s alpine regions, but far from being a tourist attraction in its own right, Bohinj’s agrarian sphere is as much part of the landscape as the surrounding Julian Alps and Lake Bohinj itself. Bringing back the Zlatorog, Bohinj, and eventually the Ski Hotel will help refocus tourism activities in locations where it was previously established, and enable attempts for new builds and barn conversions to be resisted that otherwise could have been argued as able to pick up the lost slack.

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