(eTN) – Most weekends Lan Visnar can be found pottering around the steep hills of the Soca Valley in western Slovenia, carefully surveying the ground and giving the occasional prod.
Master Visnar – he has just turned 13 – is a budding archaeologist who seeks out, not classical artefacts, but the remnants of war.
“I’ve found helmets, shell cases, bottles, bullets, knives – the lot. It’s not difficult, even after 90 years. My best find was an Austrian bayonet, really well-preserved,” he says.
During much of the first world war, these hills saw armies from Austro-Hungary and Germany locked in battle with Italian soldiers in a bloody campaign which, while gaining some fame from Ernest Hemingway’s novel A Farewell to Arms, is largely forgotten outside its immediate environs.
But the Isonzo Front – Isonzo is the Italian name for the Soca river – is now attracting interest from more than teenage treasure seekers as increasing numbers of foreigners tour the battle sites, says Dimitrij Piciga, head of the Slovene Tourist Board
“It is amazing how interest in places such as the USA and UK is rising,” he says. “It was a tragedy for all, especially Slovenes, who were fighting on both sides. But now we have a travelling exhibition going to western Europe next year.
“So, from those bad things we are promoting good. I hope we can realise the kind of tourism that Ypres [in Belgium] has from the Great War,” he says.
Mr Piciga is perhaps a little over-optimistic. The Kobarid Museum at the northern end of the Soca valley, which was set up specifically to document the horrors of the front, reports “stable” visiting figures.
But there is little doubt that the “battlefield tourism” adds another hue to Slovenia’s widely varied tourist palette.
These attractions range from stunning Alpine scenes and sporting venues in the north to a short Adriatic coastal strip in the south, where neatly-kept towns and villages are found in limestone landscapes set amid forest and vineyard-dotted hills.
All of these make tourism an important sector of the economy, accounting for almost 8 per cent of GDP and some 10 per cent of employment.
“This year is looking very good. Overnight stays in the first nine months were up 6 per cent, while revenues jumped 18 per cent. This means we are selling better quality tourism,” says Mr Piciga.
The growth, he says, is the result of a steady increase in new hotels. Three or four are due to be added to the current figure of nearly 200 nationwide, helped by improving air connections, including new links to Finland, Belgium and the UK.
It is all supported by a growing awareness of the country, particularly in Europe, and helped by Slovenia’s adoption of the euro.
The upswing meant that even in the warm winter last year, which hit takings on the ski slopes, winter tourism recorded a “positive zero” in overnight stays – mainly because of the alternative products available.
Mr Piciga notes: “Many of the ski hotels are also wellness and spa centres. People just switched over. This sector is excellent value for money, cheaper than Austria and better quality than rival destinations in the region.”
Some, however, argue that the country still fails to realise its full potential.
“We have clean air, clean rivers, and beautiful, natural countryside, with small farms and friendly villages.
“Integrate art and culture into these, and you have the conditions for what I would call ‘intellectual tourism’ – where people would come to Slovenia to study, write books, and to experience the quality of life,” says Danica Purg, dean of the IEDC Bled School of Management, north-west of Ljubljana.
Whether such visionary forms of tourism will ever have a statistical impact is questionable. But the growth in more conventional merriment is clearly visible in the capital – as attested by the thriving café trade along the riverbanks during the warmer months.
Nor is the growth limited to Ljubljana. A visit one foggy Sunday last month to the family-run Klinec Winery in Medana, a picturesque village in western Slovenia, found tables packed at lunchtime, as both local and Italian diners enjoyed indigenous fare.
However, the tell-tale signs of a downside to this growth are beginning to appear:
“I’ve been ripped off twice by dodgy taxi drivers this year. One charged €16 for a €4 trip. It was night, but hey, these were London prices. This is a new trend in my experience, and it was very uncomfortable,” says Julian Mazgon-Ballard, a British-Slovene businessman on a visit to Ljubljana last month.
Whether the appearance of such “taxi-hyenas” – in truth a common occurrence in other cities in central Europe – or the steadily rising hotel prices does anything to stifle the tourist numbers is a moot point.
Mr Pigica, who has promised action to combat taxi fraud, remains confident. “We have a new air connection to Japan next year. That is a very important market, opening the door to other countries in East Asia. And, now we are joining Schengen, I think growth in revenues next year will be even better than now,” he says.