Slovenia: A “Green Destination” of Many Hues

It was a green, green time in Slovenia last month.

Especially so for those of us participating in a tourism-themed “Global Green Destinations” conference. We learned about “Green Solutions” and the “Slovenia Green” program and “Green Experiences,” and we did it all in Europe’s official Green City for 2016: Ljubljana, the country’s capital. Even the castle-fort that overlooks the historic old town was awash in celebratory green nighttime lighting.

It sounds like tree-hugger heaven—or hell, depending on your point of view.

Night and day, central Ljubljana belongs to bikes and pedestrians. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot
Night and day, central Ljubljana belongs to bicycles and pedestrians. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot

For some people, especially on the American side of the Atlantic, the claim of green tourism is not necessarily invitational. Skeptics suspect that they’ll have to sacrifice quality at the altar of the environment—that they’ll have to go without tasty food, comfortable temperatures, hot showers, whatever. I recall being told of one resort that sent out two versions of the same brochure, except that one added a plug about their environmental awards. That greener version had the lower response rate. Americans thought they would have to give something up.

Slovenia’s idea of “green,” by contrast, means you get more, not less. Ljubljana (pronounce it “Lyoob-LYA-na” and you’re close) earned its European Union recognition not just for having a good recycling system, but also for an unusually extensive no-cars zone. “Largest in Europe!” claims the energetic mayor, Zoran Janković.

Bike-sharing stations abound in Ljubljana. You can use any bike free for an hour. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot.
Bike-sharing stations abound in Ljubljana. You can use any bike free for an hour. Then switch, or pay a modest fee for longer use. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot.

An elaborate barrier system allows access for delivery vehicles to the city’s appealing historic center, but only until 10 a.m. Thereafter the streets are reserved for pedestrians, bicyclists, and outdoor cafés. Many of these sidewalk bistros make a point of serving up gastronomic delights made with fresh ingredients brought in every morning from nearby farm country. That’s “green,” too.

A Nationwide Attitude

This multifaceted approach goes beyond Ljubljana. A national program called Slovenia Green has now certified 17 destinations, with more in the pipeline. For such a small country, that’s a lot. The certification process employs the usual environmental metrics—green energy use, wastewater treatment, and so on—but the Slovenes have added requirements for character of place, including cultural heritage, nature, and gastronomy. Each destination must show that it is taking care of all the things that make it special—a bulwark against the tide of globalization that overwhelms so many destinations.

Albert Salman and his Netherlands-based Green Destinations group organized the conference, with full support from the Slovenes (who also covered my travel costs). A highlight of the event was announcement of the 2016 Sustainable Destinations Top 100 list, a global competition that Salman founded and which I helped direct. You can see the list of winners and read more about it here.

In Slovenia local wines help make a destination "green." Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot.
In Slovenia, local wines help make destinations officially “Green.” Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot.

Back when Salman persuaded me to help with his contest, we had deliberated about what to call it. We reluctantly chose “Sustainable” rather than “Green” in hopes it would sound more holistic. But we weren’t very satisfied with that term either; lots of people think “sustainable,” too, refers only to the environment. Not so. True sustainability means good stewardship of everything distinctive to a destination—both cultural and natural heritage, as well as wise management of tourism itself.

Clearly, many Slovenes and other Europeans think of “green” as a shorthand way of saying just that, and not without reason. In my experience, a citizenry that cares about the environment tends to care about other things, too—history, traditional music, native cuisine, appealing landscapes, wildlife, architecture—all the stuff that makes a destination both a memorable travel experience and a nice place to live. No wonder that Albert Salman used the occasion to proclaim Slovenia “the world’s first green country.”

Grapes change hands at Ljubljana’s sprawling farmer’s market, itself considered a “Green City” attribute. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot

The Limits of “Green”

But I’ve found that decision-makers and the general public in other parts of the world assume “green” means environment, full stop. Furthermore, some travel writers and editors consider it a tired theme, as if you’re bragging about taking out the garbage. “So what else is new?”

A thoroughly holistic approach, that’s what. The “Top 100” winners include places that are at least trying to do this, to manage tourism so that it complements, supports, and improves authentic sense of place.

Our host country is a case in point, as it augments environmental responsibility with historic preservation, cultural pride, and, not incidentally, good food and wine. In Slovenia, “green” is no virtuous environmental monotone. It’s a vibrant rainbow. More places around the world would do well to follow suit.

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
National Geographic Fellow Emeritus; Founding Director, Nat Geo Center for Sustainable Destinations; former Geotourism Editor, National Geographic Traveler; CEO, Destination Stewardship Center; President, Focus on Places LLC