Analysis: Macedonian Tourism – I

By CHRISTOPHER DELISO

SKOPJE, Macedonia, July 29, 2003 (UPI) — One anecdote says it all: a German journalist came to Macedonia, and was overwhelmed with the country’s natural beauty and hospitality. He enthusiastically fired off seven articles, but was dismayed to hear his editor say, “nice articles — but I’m not printing anything good about Macedonia.”

A pristine land of mountains and lakes, Macedonia nevertheless has a bad media image, a relic of 2001’s Albanian uprising. Although the peace has long been re-established, occasional violence from Kosovo-linked Albanian terrorist and mafia groups persists.

This residual unrest has prolonged Western governments’ unhelpful, paranoiac travel advisories. “They have to stop saying, ‘don’t go to Macedonia!” avers Arsenije Janevski, president of the Association of Travel Agents of Macedonia and reteller of the above anecdote. “It’s up to us to show the world that this is a safe country.”

However, misperceptions die hard. Britain’s Football Association cancelled ticket sales for September’s international match in Skopje — a rare opportunity for Macedonia to share the world spotlight. The FA advised British supporters to avoid this potentially dangerous “Muslim country.” Almost all Macedonians, however, are Orthodox Christians. And the chiefly Albanian and Bosnian Muslim minorities would hardly terrorize British football tourists.

Perversely, existing ignorance of Macedonia condemns it to further ignominy. A UPI survey of U.S. newspaper travel editors revealed that Macedonia is viewed as “kind of exotic,” “too unstable” and “not interesting for our readers.” Macedonian promoters face the enormous task of reversing such perceptions.

All countries depend on name branding — something which continues to cripple Macedonia. The long-standing dispute with Greece over the name remains unresolved. With the 2004 Athens Olympics approaching, Greek-American diaspora groups are furiously lobbying state legislatures to pass bills recognizing that “Macedonia is Greek.” As of 1 July, this bizarre campaign has claimed success in 14 states.

Being hampered by the unwieldy, provisional title “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” is a marketing disaster. Yet, while Macedonian diaspora groups bewail their inability to lobby with equal vigor, they know that they can’t compete with the much larger and wealthier Greek-American diaspora.

The only thing worse than no marketing is bad marketing — something that Macedonia has in abundance. The standard of written English in promotional materials is usually abysmal. Hoteliers spend millions on refurbishments, yet dash off cheap, verbally anemic brochures which only provoke reader skepticism.

Everyone knows that a picture is worth a thousand words. Disastrously, Macedonian promoters repeatedly try to prove it. Their ekphrastic fervor — due both to decades of Socialism and to the strictures of the Macedonian language — often results in pages of nice, but ultimately meaningless description. Tourism professionals and government officials alike continue to overestimate the quality of their foreign promotions materials.

Security, though over-hyped, remains a problem. Zoran Temov is manager of the Millennium Palace Hotel on Lake Ohrid, Macedonia’s premiere tourist destination. He told UPI that, “the most important thing for us is to have stability in the country” — a sentiment echoed by many.

Isolated Albanian border villages respect their own laws and can be havens for smuggling. However, such areas endanger Macedonian Army border patrols — not tourists. But this isn’t so remarkable. As Arsenije Janevski put it, “when I go to New York, I’m told beforehand to avoid certain dangerous neighborhoods. But their existence doesn’t mean that I should avoid New York altogether, does it?”

Infrastructure and transport problems abound. Old, Socialist-era hotels are drab and uninviting. Many roads need work, and falling rock zones lack safety nets. Macedonian Railways has lost 50 percent of its import business since Hellenic Petroleum’s Thessaloniki-Skopje pipeline began in 2002, and is plagued by chronic labor unrest. Sudden strikes have frequently shut down the daily Belgrade-Skopje-Thessaloniki train — a major inconvenience for international travelers.

According to some airline representatives, Skopje’s small airport chronically mishandles outgoing baggage. There is no airport shuttle bus — only overpriced taxis. In the capital, both the traffic patterns and Cyrillic-only street signs confound. Skopje’s historic quarter, the once-Turkish but now Albanian “Charshia,” is overgrown, well-littered, and blemished by the twin eyesores of a chaotic bus station and ‘Bit Pazar,’ an open-air market for vegetables and bric-a-brac.

Even the most-visited places, such as Lake Ohrid, present problems for families with children and don’t offer a varied enough menu for Western tastes, according to a USAID-funded project, the Macedonian Competitiveness Activity. Kip Garland, who head’s the agency’s tourism project in Skopje, told UPI that the MCA seeks to gather relevant market data and to help private businessmen “unite to make better strategic decisions.”

For Macedonia’s untouched natural environment, tourism may prove a threat. London’s “Guardian” recently reported on pollution and an envisaged five-year ban on trout fishing in Lake Ohrid. The 3 million year-old lake is up to 18 miles long and 948 feet deep. Of its 17 species of fish, 10 are unique to the lake. Dubbed a “living fossil” by the “Guardian,” the Ohrid trout waited out the Ice Age in the lake’s murky depths. A delicacy, the fish features prominently on restaurant menus. Any moratorium on fishing would severely impact the local economy. Nevertheless, the species — whose numbers have been decreasing annually — must be saved.

Unfortunately, tourism remains a low priority for the government. There is no tourism ministry — just an office within the Ministry of Economy. Mind-numbing bureaucracy, a lack of funding, and general apathy have hindered growth.

Last fall, the French government commissioned consultants Louis Berger to create a “master plan” for tourism in Macedonia. The recently completed analysis, which cost 150,000 euros ($170,000), cites dismal statistics for the industry. Macedonia’s tourism income in 2000 amounted to only 1.1 percent of gross domestic product, in comparison to a 2.4 percent European average, 4-8 percent in some neighboring countries and 14 percent in Croatia. In war-affected 2001, figures were much worse. However, the state statistics office still hasn’t processed the data from that year or 2002.

Contrast this with savvy Bulgaria, which recently declared a 2003 visitor increase of 19 percent, and January-April revenues of $224 million. British charter flights bound for the Black Sea coast have also begun this year, meaning Bulgaria should achieve unprecedented summer revenues in 2003.

However, Macedonia’s situation is actually worse than would appear. Louis Berger’s Skopje representative, Daniel Serafimovski, told UPI that statistical vagueness and problematic terminology have affected his study’s veracity.

The state statistics office is under-funded and could learn something from Western methodology. According to the government, any foreigner staying overnight in Macedonia is a tourist. This willfully ignores the fact that the vast majority of foreigners in post-war Macedonia are members of the “international community” — diplomats, NGO types, foreign peacekeepers and businessmen — that is, people with work to do. True tourists are far fewer.

However, though he agrees the government has shortcomings, Serafimovski reserves equal criticism for the private tourism sector. “In researching our study, we went to them and asked, ‘what figures can you show us? What have you done?’ But many didn’t have organized data or information.” Like Kip Garland from USAID, Serafimovski believes that creating a national industry requires better cooperation and organization within the private sector.

For its part, the private sector blames the commercial banks. Offering interest rates above 20 percent, Macedonian commercial banks have long been the bane of private investors. Their restrictive lending policies hit small and medium-sized entrepreneurs hardest.

Zoran Tancev, a successful young restaurateur near the south-eastern city of Strumica, wants to develop local village tourism, but is wary. “I know that I can get a loan from one of our banks,” Tancev told UPI. “But with such high interest rates, it’s a risk — what if the business doesn’t succeed?”

Indeed, for tourism investors, Macedonia can seem hazardous. Yet do the rewards outweigh the risk? This is the subject of Part 2 tomorrow.