For the Bohinj area of Slovenia to be regarded as a village is somewhat misleading. There isn’t as such a settlement simply called ‘Bohinj’, with the valley between regional centre Bohinjska Bistrica and the hamlet of Ukanc, translated as ‘the end’, consisting of several villages including Polje, Ribcev Laz, Kamnje, and Brod. Whilst all of the above is presided over by the Municipality of Bohinj, the semantics attached to referring to the whole area as Bohinj is usually uttered by those staying close to its eponymous lake.
Furthermore, nor should the region be described as a tourist resort, a trap I have even seen some Slovenian media outlets fall into. Bohinj is not a purpose-built centre of tourism replete with man-made constructs to attract visitors, but an area of coexistence where the balance has perhaps shifted over recent times away from agriculture, forestry, and local craft towards the tourist trade. This is something that the local municipality and tourism association have taken significant steps to redress, which has been duly recognised by ‘Bohinj’ recently receiving recognition as a best tourism village by the World Tourism Association.
When this news broke I was initially sceptical. As previously mentioned Bohinj is not a village, but a collection of settlements of varying small sizes as well as the lake itself and for example the Savica waterfall. The area existed long before tourism, when it was predominantly an agrarian-dominated region. Tourism has since spread its long and at times unseemly tentacles throughout the Bohinj region and the surrounding Julian Alps, often to their detriment. In the summertime the amount of people lakeside can make visiting unpleasant, not in the least because of parking violations, litter, sun cream and dog excrement polluting the lake, and illegal cycling along its northern reaches. These issues and many more have and are being actively challenged, but there is still much more to do. Tourism has though been a boon for many Bohinjci, with those pursuing respectful and sustainable ways of making a meaningful livelihood particularly encouraged.
Whilst the accolade’s title is somewhat vague and even counterproductive, the criteria for its awarding is far more encouraging. For example, Bohinj has demonstrated significant adherence to all three pillars of sustainability – environmental, social, and economic. This would suggest that recognition for traditional life not being sacrificed on the altar of tourism whilst the local population are able to make viable livings from for example farming does not tread on the toes of tourism, but crucially, nor does it vice versa.
Old values and traditional customs can of course be a tourism draw in their own right, as long as they are not portrayed in hackneyed and artificial ways. Such practices should already be ongoing, not simply picked up from the distant past in a vain way to be seen as authentic. There is though a not insignificant challenge of wedding pragmatism and age-old ways to enable those involved to make viable livings and remain on the right side of originality.
I mentioned that this award could be seen as counterproductive, only because the publicity garnered from it will inevitably draw yet more people to Lake Bohinj. With Instagram influencers and vloggers being ten a penny there are no longer any ‘best kept secrets’, with day-tripper tourism being somewhat detrimental to places such as Venice, Dubrovnik, and Bohinj’s neighbour Lake Bled. There is nothing subtle about multitudes of visitors crashing into somewhere like Bohinj, then leaving a heavy imprint on the environment before departing at day’s end. The future of Bohinj’s tourism trade must surely therefore be about slower, more responsible visits that are less about bucket and checklists, but where local sensibilities are respected through immersing oneself in the area’s cultural, culinary, and environmental fabric in a way that embraces curiosity and care but does not leave a lasting, negative impression once tourists have packed up and gone home.
In many ways Bohinj is a poster boy for good tourism practice in the European Alps, and has by accident or design become a test case for not just handing over the keys to visitors to do with an area what they will. People are though people, with deteriorating public behaviour and ‘nobody tells me what to do’ attitudes being issues that are at times as challenging as looming Climate Change. Those with a say in Bohinj’s future must not shy away from making the sort of tough decisions that puts its natural environment, cultural traditions, and residents firmly front row and centre. Tourism has to rub along with what has been there since time immemorial, not the other way round.
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