tourism trickles back, infrastructure protests mount

At almost 1,400m altitude, the Krnskih Jezerih mountain lodge, where hikers can sleep over, is not the highest or the most remote in Slovenia.

But the nearby pristine Krn lake, nestled between two massive faces of rock, is a lure for the curious.

In the distance, clouds appear to peel away from the surface of the craggy ravines, drifting away in pieces up towards the mountain peaks.

The quiet stillness is mesmerising.

A hike up from the valley, cut by the clear turquoise blue water of the Lepenca river below, can take up to three hours. The lodge cannot be reached by car.

« It is not an easy job, » says Matija Brumen, who spends a month out of his year working at the mountain lodge, which can sleep over 100 people.

Brumen says they can currently only operate at one-third normal capacity, given the government-imposed restrictions to contain the Covid-19 pandemic.

In a country of just over two million inhabitants, squeezed in by Austria, Croatia, Hungary and Italy, the fallout caused by the virus has hit Slovenia’s tourist industry hard.

Slovenia has imposed tough restrictions on border crossings, requiring residents of Belgium or the Netherlands for instance, to enter a two-week quarantine upon arrival.

Although restrictions are modified on a weekly basis, Sweden is currently the only EU-member state from which most entry is banned. People from UK and Northern Ireland cannot enter either.

A country has to have under 10 Covid-19 cases per 100,000 inhabitants in order to enter without any problems.

The crisis has impacted a tourist industry that accounts for some 10 percent of Slovenia’s GDP, helping to push the country into a recession.

Last year, over 70 percent of hotel nights were booked by foreign tourists. That percentage has since dropped considerably.

In an effort to stimulate internal tourism among Slovenians, the government in mid-June started issuing residents €200 vouchers for an overnight stay in hotels.

Brumen says the scheme is attracting a new type of clientele to the mountain lodge, some unprepared or unaware of the dangers nature has to offer.

« We still have free [rescue] helicopters, » he half-jokingly pointed out, noting some visitors hiked to the lodge in flip-flops.

‘Wuhan’s neighbour’

Jelko Kacin is Slovenia’s government Covid-19 spokesperson and a familiar face for the wider domestic public, given his role in helping the country secure its independence in the early 1990s.

At a meeting room inside the ministry of foreign affairs in Slovenia’s capital city, Ljubljana, Kacin says the country had been spooked into a rapid response.

The deadly and sudden outbreak in Italy’s Lombardy region, which straddles Slovenia, had momentarily turned Europe into the world’s pandemic epicentre.

« We are somehow recognised as a direct neighbour of Wuhan and due to that, we closed the borders and we started with very restrictive measures in the very early stage, » he explained.

A scheduled concert by Italian opera singer Andrea Bocelli in Ljubljana in early March had only heightened the fears of a contagion.

Bocelli at the time was infected but had kept it a secret as hundreds of Italian fans were set to be bussed into the city.

The event was cancelled just 24 hours before the concert. Less than two days later, Italy’s prime minister announced a lockdown throughout Lombardy.

The entire episode followed swiftly on from the political turmoil in Slovenia that saw its prime minister step down from office in late January.

In fact, a new coalition government was only formed a day after the World Health Organization officially classified the virus as a global pandemic on 12 March.

« On 15 May, we announced that we are Covid-free, » said Kacin, noting twice-daily briefings were being organised to keep the public informed.

The government then started easing border restrictions first with Croatia, then Hungary and Austria. Italy followed on 15 June – although the government in Ljubljana remains wary of Lombardy.

At the time of writing, just over 100 people have died of the virus in Slovenia with some 1,500 confirmed cases.

Mixed reactions

But not everyone is happy.

Kobarid is a small town in the Soca valley where the German supported Austrian-Hungarian forces broke through the Italian front line in 1917.

Further up the Soca river, the surrounding nature offers stunning vistas of waterfalls and the Triglav, Slovenia’s tallest mountain at 2,864m.

Kobarid is also home to Marie Egan, a Canadian who runs the Hemingway House bed and breakfast.

« Other than giving people a tax holiday for two months, the government has not given any assistance, » she says.

Egan dropped her rates to attract business and she has had to suspend renovations works because of the pandemic.

She runs the business on her own, noting that Belgians and the Dutch are cancelling reservations, made for July and the first week of August, on an almost daily basis.

« The government has not really made it easy for the vouchers to be used either, » she said, citing cumbersome administration.

But for Simona Kosnik, who also runs a family-owned bed and breakfast, the relative political stability has been a massive help.

« Thank God we changed the government on the 13 March and we said finally there will be order, » she says.

Kosnik employs four people at the Pr’Kosnik hotel near Bohinjsko, Slovenia’s largest lake.

She says all four received some 80 percent of their salary from March until the end of May and that social security contributions had also been deferred.

The hotel is running at 50-percent normal capacity.

Although Slovenian guests are using the vouchers, she hasn’t had time to do the paperwork on it.

For others, the pandemic has been a welcomed reprieve given the large influx of tourism over the past three years.

The Jelinc camping ground along the Soca river said they were turning away up to 70 tourists a day last year.

« We got our spring back, » said one of the co-managers, who asked not to be named.

Protests against controversial infrastructure projects

Simon Zajc, Slovenia’s state secretary from the ministry of economic development and technology, defended the government’s economic reaction.

He said three stimulus packages had been adopted, with a fourth underway. He said the first package prevented unemployment figures from exploding by subsidising part-time work and furloughs.

« We have decided to somehow motivate our own citizens to spend their holiday’s in Slovenia, » he said, projecting that between 50 to 70 percent of the population may end up using their vouchers.

Big government-led infrastructure projects are also planned. Earlier this month it announced almost €8bn for some 120 projects ranging from road construction to a new nuclear power plant.

Environmental NGOs are in an uproar, accusing the government of rushing through legislation that will make it much more difficult for them to challenge the projects in court.

Among the biggest headaches for the NGOs is a planned hydropower plant along the Sava river near the border with Croatia.

NGOs have been fighting against the plant for years in the courts and managed to get the environmental permits quashed. Now its back on the table.

« It affects one of species of fish that is most common in that area and the population could be destroyed if this project goes forward, » said Barbara Kvac, who works for the NGO Focus.

Kvac says new rules imposed by the government is making their work difficult, requiring NGOs to prove that they had acted in the public interest for the past two years, in order to challenge the projects.

It also the means the projects could start work even before it is challenged in the courts, she said.

The issue is part of a wider weekly Friday protest against the government in Ljubljana.

Such protests have been taking place for the past eight weeks, first at a distance on the balconies, then on bicycles and now mostly on foot.

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