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September 12, 2013 9:34 pm
Tim Bloom is quite candid as to why he and his girlfriend chose Macedonia for their holidays last year.
“First and foremost, it was down to cost. We chose the trip, since it was kind of cheap at €299 and another €99 for a four-day excursion package,” says Mr Bloom, 28, a demolition project manager from The Hague, in the Netherlands.
The couple, who spent a week at Lake Ohrid, on Macedonia’s southwestern border, say English language skills are sometimes lacking, and the hotel had been overfloridly described – but they found the country “offers a lot to suit different tastes”.
Cheap and cheerful perhaps, but the couple did come back last month for a repeat stay, although at a different hotel.
News of returning visitors is music to the ears of Jordan Trajkov, director of the national tourism agency.
He says tourism is a priority sector, with much untapped potential. “Macedonia is a small country, but with so much to offer, from culture and history to nature and wine.
“We are targeting double-digit growth in tourism, and the figures so far this year show that this is feasible.”
Last year, Macedonia hosted 350,000 foreign tourists, who spent 810,000 guest nights – a 7 per cent rise on 2011 – according to the state statistical office.
Such numbers may appear small compared with its neighbours. At the other end of the Balkans, Slovenia, for example, attracted 3.3m tourists and 9.5m guest nights last year.
Nonetheless, they represent a threefold jump on the figures from just a decade previously. Even at such modest levels, tourism creates about 3 per cent of GDP and employs some 16,500 people in an economy desperate for jobs.
Turks top the visitor charts, with 50,000 or 14 per cent of all tourists arriving last year.
Yet visitors from the Netherlands, who numbered only 27,000 (a little under 8 per cent of arrivals), made a greater impact. With the majority on package tours and staying a week or more, they made up 43 per cent of foreign guest nights in 2012.
The Dutch influx is the direct result of the government subsidising organised tours from 2009, says Doncho Tanevski, president of the Macedonian Hotels Association.
“Croatia subsidised tour operators to build up their tourist industry. I took that model to our prime minister, with a plan that showed the proposed subsidies would be paid back by the end of August through extra tourist spending. After that, everything would be a gain for the government,” he says.
The subsidy – which for charter flights from Europe varies between €25 and €65 a passenger, depending on country of origin – combined with discounted rates of just €30 for a double room in a four-star hotel, makes package holidays at Ohrid outstanding value, Mr Tanevski says.
“I negotiated this deal with one Dutch tour operator, and we got three flights a week. Soon another signed a deal for two flights a week. The planes are not always full, but they brought an extra 20,000 tourists last year.”
The Hotels Association also successfully lobbied to slash the VAT on accommodation to just 5 per cent, which has further boosted numbers, Mr Tanevski says.
He adds: “We calculate that the Dutch tourists who come spend between €50 and €70 more a day than the average; that’s how the government makes up its revenues, through the VAT on that spend.”
Macedonia is only really just beginning to exploit its tourism potential. It boasts great natural beauty, but is still largely unknown outside the Balkans and its transport and tourism infrastructure is in the main below par by west European standards
Mr Bloom says: “I’ve visited a lot of hotels in Germany, Benelux and France and a 4-star hotel in Macedonia is around the same quality as a 2- or 3-star hotel in those countries, here I’m talking mostly about the room”.
Mr Trajkov insists that the government and agencies work hard to address such problems, but says 20 years of neglect cannot be quickly overcome.
He says: “The government has encouraged investment in new hotels, with several being built in Skopje. We support budget airlines, so Wizz Air, a Hungarian carrier, flies from an increasing number of European destinations. I think the figures show we are on the right track.”
Tourists say one of Macedonia’s greatest assets is its people.
As Mr Bloom notes: “The hotel we stayed in last year [on Lake Ohrid] took a lot of criticism and, God knows, the Dutch complain a lot. But staff tried to solve every complaint.
“Our lasting impressions are that people are willing to help in any way possible. We are sure to return some day, as we have this year.”
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