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Small country, great expectations
While Slovenia is on the make, not everyone seems to know it. At an Avis car rental office in Germany, the attendants first need to be convinced that the vehicles can be taken into Slovenia. Then the company levies an extra daily fee, citing the risk of theft in Slovenia, even though the country’s highways buzz with high-end German cars. Along with those BMWs and Audis, an endless stream of Turkish trucks and Romanian passenger vans criss-cross the country in a brief few hours, transporting goods and workers.
How to capitalize on that transit traffic is Slovenia’s conundrum as the economies to its east grow and orient themselves toward the west, via this tiny country of just over 2 million. The current solution is an expensive highway sticker and hefty fines for any vehicle that crosses the border without one.
But the Slovenes recognize they are part of a small country and must think creatively. Consider the dilemma faced by Dimitrij Piciga, general director of the Slovenian Tourist Board: “Outside of the 500 kilometers around Slovenia, people still mix it up with Slovakia.” So his office targets neighboring countries in promoting weekend breaks, while figuring out how to appear as more than a blip on the radar screens of tour operators taking groups from Vienna to Dubrovnik or Venice, who are “obliged to pass through Slovenia." With just 1,500 hotel beds in the capital, Ljubljana, Piciga can’t expect to attract large conferences. But certain areas, such as culinary tourism and outdoor activities, could grow. When Slovenia held the rotating presidency of the EU in the spring of 2008, another first among the member states that joined in 2004, it had a tremendous impact on tourism, Piciga said — the presidency accounted for more than 50,000 hotel nights for official visitors. “But this was the direct impact, more important was the media,” he added. The country held Slovenia events connected to the presidency in Japan, China and India and this year Piciga expects to exceed 100,000 Japanese visitors.
In the two decades since independence, Slovenes, like Cesko and Piciga, have seized the opportunities offered by their new political circumstances. But as Slovenia’s economy grows to the point where the country will have to subsidize other EU members rather than the other way around, Bebler said there is a new joke among diplomats: “Instead of the Belgrade express it’s the Brussels express.”
But he’s not too worried that the small country will again be eclipsed by a regional power. “There are great differences between today’s EU and then-Yugoslavia,” Bebler said. “The methods of mediating conflict are much more democratic.”