Slovenia: Smart Destination Branding for Sustainable Tourism – Special Report

It’s encouraging to see that more and more destinations gear their branding towards supporting a sustainable tourism and encouraging responsible travel. In Europe, Slovenia is among the best examples of such smart destination branding, aimed at enhancing experiences and attracting the right visitors – those who love and appreciate its many natural and cultural attractions. But how do you make it happen?

For the Sustainability Leaders Project I visited Slovenia for a week this April, toured around this small yet incredibly diverse country located south of Austria – and interviewed some of its (unofficial) destination brand ambassadors: individuals who live and incorporate the brand personality promoted by the national tourist board: warm hospitality, love for Slovenian culture and its natural environment.

Let me share with you some of the insights I gained from the trip, especially regarding the achievements, ambitions and strategies behind Slovenia’s success as a “green” destination.

Learn how the Slovenian Tourist Board isn’t just “riding the wave of sustainability promises”, but putting the right structure and incentives in place to ensure the support of its tourism partners, and alignment with the overall country brand strategy. But first, a short introduction to Destination Slovenia:

In this Slovenia destination report:

  • Why Slovenia decided to focus on sustainability as one of the key themes for its economic development and destination positioning;
  • How Slovenia builds and promotes sustainable tourism within the country;
  • How the country’s destination branding facilitates sustainable tourism in Slovenia;
  • Lessons learned: keys to success – and challenges to watch out for.

Why the focus on sustainability?

Some countries and communities have it, others don’t: that special connection to their natural environment, deeply rooted in history and culture. New Zealand is a good example (I wrote about its “green” branding here). Slovenia is another.

As Maja Pak, Director of the Slovenian Tourist Board told me:

Love for nature is deeply embedded in us and the essence of our I feel Slovenia brand identity. Slovenians have a tight connection with nature and attachment to the local environment: most Slovenians are very active in nature – we spend afternoons after work and at weekends on trips, walks, bike rides, skiing in winter. We love to do gardening – balconies of Slovenian houses are always full of flowers. We use seasonal and local food, preserve customs and traditions, and have the biggest number of beekeepers per inhabitant…

This is all reflected in I feel Slovenia. We are green, we develop Slovenia in a green manner and we proudly promote it as green.

In other words, respect for the natural environment is part of the Slovenian lifestyle and identity – even if Slovenians don’t necessarily refer to being particularly sustainable or celebrate themselves as such.

This might be due to the fact that Slovenia has no large cities and a population mostly originating from the countryside, where people were forced to live in harmony with the nature around them, if they wanted to survive, as Janko Humar, Director of the Soča Valley Tourist Board tells on a rainy day over traditional lunch near his office, deep in the Julian Alps.

From an economic point of view, its pristine nature – mountains, forests and lakes – is what attracts most visitors to Slovenia. So, it’s only logical that environmental stewardship and preservation of natural assets are considered top priority: “sustainable development is one of the pre-conditions for a competitive destination and for tourism providers. It also means more resilience when challenges appear.” (Maja Pak)

In addition, customers really start to expect strong commitment to sustainability, as Janko points out during the interview:

In a modern Europe, today a lot of sustainability standards are already included into legislation and people are becoming more and more aware of the responsibility we have to the world we live in.

Not so long ago the protection of nature was an unnecessary extra cost. But today I would dare to say that in our society – and especially in Soča Valley, where our tourism completely depends on natural resources – we all more or less understand that sustainability should be the only way to go. And this cognition concerns all levels: national and local authorities, tourism trade, residents and visitors.

And there is another aspect to the question why focus on sustainability in tourism – a very Millennial way of thinking: It can be very satisfying. “Being ‘green’ gives us the satisfaction that we are doing a good job, tells me the energetic Boštjan Misja, tourism director of Podčetrtek, as we walk around the towns’ well-preserved monastery with its pharmacy where monks will hand you your special potion (just before we head over to the small chocolate factory in the old school building).

How does Slovenia do it?

It’s easy to say you are a green destination, but very difficult to become one. In Slovenia, apart from sustainability “think” being part of national identity, it is actively promoted by the national tourism board and taken seriously by the highest levels of governance, embraced and supported by the Ministry of Economic Development and Technology, where the Tourism Directorate is based. Such support from the top is crucial, as it gives the strategy “teeth” and lends credibility to the actions required to live up to the brand promise.

Jana Apih, Managing Director of GoodPlace, a travel agency and consulting business in the country’s capital, Ljubljana: “Slovenia has made sustainable tourism one of the basic economic pillars in the Strategy of Smart Specialisation. So, the national frame and support is there, and it is very strong, focused and successful.”

This political will, together with thorough market analysis and grassroots encouragement, led to the Slovenia Green scheme.

How does the Slovenia Green scheme work? First of all, it offers promotional benefits to those doing the right thing by facilitating sustainable experiences to their guests. And it doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel but integrates with already existing certifications.

Maja Pak explains:

The most important [part] is that it is a national programme, owned by the Slovenian Tourism Board. This gives it credibility on the one hand, and on the other it gives all Slovenia Green destinations and businesses a closer link to effective promotion. Without that I am sure it wouldn’t be as successful as it is.

The other very important thing is that when developing it, we didn’t come up with our own standards and tools, but we carefully studied what was already out there and was most in line with what we were looking for.

By endorsing existing certification programmes (Travelife, Green Globe, Green Key, EU Eco Label, Bio Hotels and EMAS), tourism businesses are free to choose the label that suits them best, content-wise and financially. On top of the international label they also get the Slovenia Green certificate.

For destinations (which are now more and more in the focus of attention), Slovenia uses the Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria for Destinations (GSTC), which leans on the European Tourism Indicator System (ETIS) and some additional national characteristics.

Using existing international standards – apart from credibility gains – allows destinations to benchmark their performance against others. “We knew that it was not going to be enough to develop the system in isolation, but that we had to make it globally comparable.” (Maja Pak)

As Maja Pak recalls:

The game changer for us has definitely been the development of the Green Scheme of Slovenian Tourism (GSST). Before that we talked to our stakeholders about the need for sustainable tourism practices, did quite a lot of training, seminars, research and developed individual toolkits. But the idea of sustainability was not showing in practice, and was not bringing results.

Then we decided to develop the GSST as a national program for assessment and improving the sustainability of our destinations and tourism providers. It’s not only a certification program giving destinations and providers a complete tool for the assessment of their sustainability, but also a label.

Future-focused: The Green Scheme of Slovenia Tourism is process-oriented in that it does not only look at how sustainable a business or destination is presently, but also provides the tools and coaching to help them develop and improve.

How destination branding and marketing can facilitate sustainable tourism

Integrating sustainable tourism development within the country with its positioning towards external markets of potential visitors is key, and a smart way to connect destination branding with placemaking and economic development.

Maja Pak:

Our sustainability commitment comes from our DNA and is communicated through I feel Slovenia, which tells the story of green Slovenia. Our 3-stage green philosophy is: (1) Slovenia is green, (2) Slovenia develops green (GSST) and (3) Slovenia loves green and proudly promotes it.

To better understand our green story, let me explain the essence of I feel Slovenia, a country brand which was created 10 years ago. The core of the brand is love for green. The brand communications speak of unspoilt nature and our focus to keep it that way. The vision behind the brand positioning is green boutiqueness, which is reflected in our new tourism strategy of building and promoting a green boutique destination for 5-star experiences.

Some persons I spoke with found the overt sustainability focus in the country’s brand positioning too much of an expectation to live up to (fearing accusations of “greenwashing”) as clearly, many communities in Slovenia – as elsewhere – are still struggling to find the right balance between economic exploitation and preservation of natural assets. That said, it’s clear that a strong aspirational message is needed to rally stakeholders behind a common purpose and direction.

Lessons learned: keys to success

What can other destinations learn from Slovenia’s approach to sustainable tourism and destination branding?

Maja Pak:

I believe that the key to success so far has been our ability to show our destinations and providers the value of a comprehensive system in which marketing and development of sustainable practices are strongly interconnected. This combination is leading to the desired image and development of Slovenia, which is in line with our vision of green, boutique Slovenia for 5-star experiences.

Our key success factor was that the Slovenian Tourist Board took the initiative, found a partner [GoodPlace] and led the way. We have incorporated the scheme into our organisation, give SLOVENIA GREEN destinations and providers extra marketing exposure, and work with them on a daily basis.

Janko Humar adds:

I believe that a harmonized and consistent development policy among the key destination players – local community, DMO, strong tourism company and other, smaller ones – is a precondition for an effective sustainability. In Slovenia, Podčetertek is the only case I know of where this idea is really working.

Build trust: whether tourism businesses and destination managers trust the capabilities of their national tourism organization is not something to take lightly, as if they don’t, any initiative coming from it – as well meant as it may be – will fail to gain the necessary support.

Boštjan Misja, who in Podčetertek works at the coalface of making it happen, in our interview also emphasized the importance of trust, especially the need for tourism providers to understand how important the DMOs work is for the destination’s development:

“Promotion is just part of the things that DMOs have to do, there is more. And the providers have to trust the DMOs will do their job and listen to them and follow.”

How to achieve it? His advice to DMOs:

  • Communicate and be involved – don’t just sit in the office. Go out and interact with locals and tourists.
  • Try to think three steps ahead.
  • Go step by step, don’t rush.

Challenges to watch out for

When visiting destinations and talking to their leaders, it’s impossible (for me) not to ask them about the challenges they face. What comes up most of the time: climate change. One way or another, it seems now to be affecting every destination. For some, it is becoming a real headache. In alpine regions, longer and warmer summers lead to new opportunities, while (the traditionally stronger) winter business might suffer, tells me Janko Humar:

It is not a problem to adapt in the summertime: our rivers are getting warmer, the outside temperature is higher, and it is nicer to swim in our emerald waters than it used to be. The conditions for outdoor sports and visiting the attractions are not worse, the real problem is that we are definitely losing winter. Not only snow but also a way of life, traditions and customs that used to go alongside snow.

He also points out that massive investments are needed to upgrade winter sport installations to those new conditions, to get people higher up the mountains and to protect flora and fauna, which is more fragile the higher the altitude.

Apart from adapting to climatic changes, the risk of greenwashing – that is, overselling one’s sustainability credentials – is something destination marketers need to watch out for, also in Slovenia.

This view is shared by Maja Čampelj, whose company G-Guides is a leading training institution for new tourist guides and also runs the annual Green Microphone award (recognizing tour guides who are champions in encouraging responsible travel). Together with her colleague Tina Hudnik I find myself on a wooden boat cruising along Ljubljanica river, admiring the picturesque city and former European Green Capital from the water. Later, in the interview Maja explains:

Many people in Slovenia have done an amazing job in the field of tourism in the last few years. I am very proud every time I see Slovenia on the list of top ten green, clean, safe, sustainable and must visit destinations. At the same time, I am also very afraid.

There is one crucial mistake which many brands and destinations have done before: over-promise and under-deliver. It is indeed very flattering to be on all those lists, but this alone does not bring sustainable tourism into life. Today’s tourists are very much aware of what is and what is not responsible tourism and sustainable development, so we should by no means underestimate the knowledge and awareness of our guests. It can backfire easily.

Because sustainability seems to be a must-use word now in Slovenian tourism, there is big potential danger of green-washing.

Slovenia wouldn’t be Slovenia if the topic of sustainability in tourism hadn’t been picked up – or, in fact, driven – by its academics. A leading voice in this area is Professor Tanja Mihalič of the Institute for Tourism at the University of Ljubljana. One of my key takeaways from her interview is the following quote:

Sound sustainable performance in all three pillars: environmental (nature), socio-cultural (culture, society) and economic (finance) is a must. The challenge is to bring them together and to have tourism stakeholders and researchers that clearly understand that sustainability is about all three pillars at the same time.

All in all, Slovenia is doing well – both in terms of promoting the country’s sustainability credentials internationally, and making sure structures are in place to foster the topic, “get it done” internally.

Let me end this special report with my favorite quote from Maja Pak:

Sustainability has to be the way you work and not to be used only for a specific niche market. It has to be something that you believe in, and it has to be a part of your story.

May the leaders of destinations in other countries take note and follow suit.


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