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USAID Helps Develop Macedonian Eco-Tourism at Struga’s Green Center

September 23, 2005

By Christopher Deliso

Macedonia’s official tourism motto- “cradle of culture, land of nature” – accurately describes this remarkable little country, one rich in natural beauty and historical treasures. Nevertheless, a lack of investment and in some cases foresight have so far hindered the development of a diverse and sustainable tourism industry. Further, little attention has been paid to nurturing key sub-sectors of the tourism sector.

Yet considering Macedonia’s wealth of mountains, rivers and lakes and vast uninhabited stretches, one of the most important such sub-sectors involves the great outdoors – eco-tourism. In a similar vein, establishing youth hostel tourism for young foreigners should be pursued. Now, both have been tackled in one fell swoop with a new venture funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in the southwestern town of Struga, which we will discuss in detail below.

Shortcomings to Address

While there have been steps made in terms of resorts and organized tours in Macedonia’s wild places, the country remains off-the-map as a youth hostel destination- meaning it remains out of the European network for backpackers traveling from northern and western Europe to the south. It (along with slightly more developed Serbia), is the missing link between the Central European countries and much-visited places like Greece and Turkey, both of which have flourishing markets for young travelers.

But with only one youth hostel, a dreary and ridiculously overpriced old place in Skopje, Macedonia does not do well in the guidebooks which many young travelers depend on to plan their trips. For those who find hotels too expensive and private accommodation difficult to find due to barriers of language and mentality, Macedonia thus remains something of a mystery. Of course, for some this is part of the allure, and a reason to go; but for the most part, this demographic (like any other) has a largely conservative, follow-the-herd mentality, which means they visit what is recommended to them in guides.

Macedonian tourism providers are famously short-sighted and tend to want to fulfill their own (frequently Communist-era) grandiose ideals through constructing unnecessarily lavish hotels, which nevertheless fall short of a certain quality standard appreciated by the outside world, though they aren’t aware of this distinction. They thus fall somewhere between markets, in a gray area inhabited by their own fantasies, in which spending millions on marble floors becomes more important than service, innovative ideas or (heaven forbid!) marketing abroad.

Further, the bulk of Macedonia’s short-sighted tourism providers show disrespect for young foreign travelers, simply because they don’t have a lot of money. In this country, the mentality of quick gain trumps all. Yet they don’t realize that preferences are formed early in life and that young people do indeed grow up, have jobs and families, and tend to return to their favorite places- with a lot more money than when they were in their twenties. But comprehending this involves long-term vision and it is far from certain that Macedonians, for a variety of reasons, are interested in the long-term.

The Green Center: A Solution?

These lacks make especially important, therefore, one brave initiative in Struga- the Green Center (known locally as ‘Krste Jon’ after a Macedonian hero). The Center is, essentially, a traditional lodge of Struga’s outdoor scouting club that has been transformed into a functioning modern hostel. With the help of USAID and the IOM, the Struga scouts have added clean new rooms and a dining hall to the renovated building, which sits above a quiet, tree-lined lawn suitable for camping, on the shores of Lake Ohrid.

According to Maja Markovska, the Green Center’s 24 year-old project assistant, the scouting organization was able to contribute $30,000 to go along with the $70,000 given by USAID for the renovations. The US government has also attached a Peace Corps volunteer to the Center to help come up with marketing solutions. “We’re really happy for their help,” says Maya. “like us, they also see that it is important for our future to develop eco-tourism in Macedonia.”

And indeed, Struga is unquestionably one of the areas where such tourism should be developed. The town and region boast not only Lake Ohrid and the Crn Drim River which emerges from it, but also vast areas for hiking and other outdoor sports in Mt. Jablanica to the northwest. The area is perfect for mountain biking, horseback riding, paragliding, climbing, fishing and more. It is a lush, temperate zone of ecological diversity, with unique flora and fauna, the strangest of all being the Ohrid eel, which only lives in the lake and eventually travels, out of instincts known only to itself, to the far-off Sargasso Sea and back.

The Green Center: Activities, Accommodation, Rates

The Center offers plenty of activities designed to educate guests about the Struga area’s natural environment, as well as simply to entertain. “We have same-day access to canoeing and kayaking,” points out Marjan Glavincevski, 37, Project Manager and scouting group leader. “In addition to these and other water sports, we have trained and professional scouts who are happy to take visitors on hikes into the mountains and on excursions to see the beautiful villages of the Struga area.”

The Green Center is located a little bit past the Struga town center, only a ten-minute walk from cafes and eateries. Cradled by tall trees and hugging a protected reed belt on the shores of Lake Ohrid, it is also adjacent to a long beach where swimming and water sports can be enjoyed. Continuing west along the road outside the Center, one comes to Kalista, a village famous for its cave churches and after that, the Albanian border. Numerous other natural and historic beauties abound in the Struga area.

What does it cost to stay at the Green Center? Camping is practically free, with a price of 120 denars (2 euros) per night for putting up a tent, along with 40 denars per person for tourist tax. Campers who come without a tent and need to borrow one from the Center pay a 520 denar nightly rental cost. In addition, if guests would like to ‘eat out’ in the Center’s spacious dining hall, the cost for accommodation plus 3 meals per day is an unbelievable 650 denars per person.

For people scared upstairs by the prospect of ‘too much nature,’ costs in the Center’s nine furnished rooms are low as well. In a four-person room, the total cost is 800 denars per night. The simple but new furnishings include bunkbeds, a table and electrical outlets- standard hostel fare. And, as is also often the case, bathrooms are shared.

What’s Next: The Challenge of Marketing

This summer, the Green Center enjoyed a diverse range of visitors. The season reached its climax in the first weekend of September when the Center hosted an annual gathering of young scouts from all over the country, who showed up for games, competitions and camaraderie. After an opening dinner on Friday night, the weekend was given over to campfire songs, team contests, water events and sheer horseplay. Judging from the boisterousness of this insuppressible bunch, a good time was had by all.

The Center played host to similar events this summer, including organized visits from children’s groups and 2 football camps. Also, it received around 100 independent tourists- not bad considering the very little international
exposure the fledgling hostel had.

Moreover, while over half of these were Macedonians who had previously visited, says Maja, the other half were made up of people “who found us by accident. They would come and say, ‘oh, we were driving along and looking for a nice place to camp’ and found us that way. But some even found us on the internet before coming, through the Hospitality Club.”

This large on-line community says that it aims “…to bring people together – hosts and guests, travelers and locals. Thousands of Hospitality Club members around the world help each other when they are traveling – be it with a roof for the night or a guided tour through town.” Being listed on the site, Maja says, helped several European visitors plan their trips to the Green Center in advance.

The staff at the Green Center is thus well aware of the power of the internet in marketing the hostel. While they currently have no website, Maja stresses that “we have one in preparation- it will be a complex website where potential tourists can not only get information about the Center, about Struga and about Macedonia, but where they will also find information on transportation options and most importantly, be able to check availability for the dates they would like to come.”

One other intriguing idea for the Center is to create various forms of cooperation with local tourism providers, something that would allow the former to utilize their own resources and expertise while increasing the offerings of the latter. However, there is a sense that Macedonian hotels still aren’t aware of the potential.

For example, one local hotel approached by the Center gave a lackluster response to their ideas for offering water sports and hiking trips, as detailed by Marjan above. However, says Maja, “the hotel owners are influenced by the media, and their own ideas of what tourists want. But today’s visitors aren’t just looking for a room with a view, and then to lie on the beach all day. Except for the elderly, they want to be active. There is a sense of, ‘I don’t want a Jacuzzi, I came to see the country!’ But they [the hoteliers] still don’t get it.”

This is a shame, because such a synergistic cooperation as envisioned by the outdoors lovers at the Green Center would markedly improve the quality of services and number of options available through Struga hotels- still the major destination for tourists to the area. But transcending narrow-minded traditional thinking is something that is a long-term proposition- just like the Green Center and the concept it represents.

In the big picture, beyond the Green Center’s goals of building eco-tourism in the Struga area and raising awareness of the area’s environmental richness (the section of the coast it sits upon hosts a protected, but threatened reed belt that is an ecologically vital part of the lake), staffers believe that similar initiatives could and should be undertaken across Macedonia.

“We have a whole network of small scouting houses along hiking trails, everywhere in the country,” says Maja. “If we find can find investors to refurbish these, and develop infrastructure and transport to connect them, it could open a whole new source of revenue and employment, and really put Macedonia on the map for foreign travelers who love being in the outdoors.”

Such an idea does not have to remain mere wishful thinking, of course: it just depends on demonstrating that there is indeed value, in terms of both money and preserving the natural heritage, in creating a hostel network like those long established in more visited countries. Of course, Macedonians are stubborn in their thinking; they are a notoriously hard lot to persuade. But given the success of the first hostel ‘experiment’ in Struga, and that the US government was confident enough about it to provide funds, people may just start to realize that (as an American tourist in Gevgelija excitedly put it one year ago) “you people are sitting on a gold mine here.”

For an informative brochure or more details, contact the Struga Green Center by email at Greencenter_struga@yahoo.com, or by phone: +389 (0)46 788-158.

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