Serbia 2015: National Toursim Organisation
Interview with Mrs. Gordana Plamenac, CEO of National Tourism Organisation of Serbia
Tourism is one of the key growth sectors for Serbia and a priority for the government. To begin the interview could you highlight the tourism sectors key trends and growth potential?
Gordon Plamenac: What is really evident is that the tourism sector is one of the healthiest and most prosperous industries in Serbia. The statistical figures really show the growth of the income from foreign tourists plus the growth in arrivals and overnights. The total number of tourists has increased by 10 percent in the first four months of 2015, and after several years domestic tourist numbers also increased. The international tourism receipts in Serbia for the year 2014 amounted to 863 million euros. Most tourists from abroad come from neighboring countries, mainly ex-Yugoslavian countries but also from Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey. It is also notable that tourists from Germany are on the rise. If we would count both tourists that arrive on cruising ships, German tourists are the highest because we have about 26,000 German tourists coming from the Danube cruises. These overnights are not included in our statistical figures.
Speaking of the tourists they mainly come to Belgrade. Serbia is also well-known for a great number of events and festivals. Additionally we are growing in the convention and business meeting industry. This is also a large part of frequent visits to the country and Belgrade mainly.
Serbia is one of Europe’s most naturally diverse countries in the region, offering mountains, vineyards, lakes, and beautiful rural settings. What would you like to highlight to our readers about Serbia’s tourism offering?
Gordon Plamenac: Our tourism offer is based on the promotion of city breaks, activity holidays, nature, cultural heritage, spa and wellness, gastronomy and wines, and through the activity of the convention bureau of Serbia we also promote meetings and conventions. In regards to nature related programs, I am referring also to our mountains and mountain resorts, where we actually try to convert these resorts into year round destinations. We do have excellent skiing facilities such as Kapaonik, Zlatibor, Stara Planina, with ski lifts and proper infrastructure. At the same time we also have mountains that are well-known as national parks such as Tara Mountain, Mokra Gora, which is actually a protected nature park. In between Belgrade and Novi Sad - our two largest cities - we also have Fruska Gora National Park. Golija Mountain is under protection from UNESCO as a nature biosphere, which features outstanding flora and fauna.
Serbia has five national parks in total. By connecting these destinations, mixing nature with cultural heritage, gastronomy, festivals and so on, we are trying to combine our offer and promote it to clients.
Can you share with us your communication plans and upcoming campaigns?
Gordon Plamenac: Every year we do have a new promotional campaign. For instance last year it was ‘Lifestyle Serbia’, before lifestyle we had cultural treasure and this year we have “My Serbia”. Last year Lifestyle Serbia was targeted to online followers, and we have managed to increase the number of followers on our social media platforms from 7,000 to more than 70,000. This year “My Serbia” is targeted towards Serbians living abroad and their friends and relatives. We are inviting our diaspora to promote Serbia as a destination among their friends abroad. Up to this point we had a few promotional events that were quite successful. One was in Romania and another in Hungary, which gathered the representatives of Serbian minorities there. In London we worked together with the Serbian British Chamber of Commerce and we managed to bring together over 200 people of Serbian and UK origins. Furthermore we had a promotional event in Austria during the Eurovision contest, which brought Serbian expats and foreigners. We are now getting ready to do events in Germany, one is definitely in Berlin during European Basketball championship. This event will bring many Serbian expats in Germany and surrounding countries. We will also have another in Stuttgart, where we have a large diaspora as well as in Bavaria.
In Brussels we had another event, which was a two part event. One was dedicated to children and we brought a famous TV presenter for children, and organized an excellent show for them. At the second part of the event we showed one of the latest artistic movies from Serbia where we invited many people to come and watch our presentation.
Unfortunately, even though Australia, Canada and the US have many of our expats there, since we do not have any direct flights from those locations we are not doing any promotional campaigns at this time. However, we are getting ready to do a big road show next year because we hope to have a direct flight at that time, particularly from the US or Canada, but this is still not confirmed.
What are the key tourism segments that you plan on developing?
Gordon Plamenac: Our campaign for next year will be dedicated to the Danube and activities on its banks. The Danube is the water lifeline of Europe, and brings together 10 countries that are on the banks of the river. Our two biggest cities are on the Danube, Novi Sad and Belgrade. Fruska Gora as I mentioned before is not only a national park but it also hosts one of our many wine regions. The other national park on the Danube is the Iron Gate, which is the second largest gorge in the world after the Grand Canyon. What is really unique about the Iron Gate is that it features our heritage from Neolithic times to nowadays.
What are really special are our medieval fortresses on the Danube, because they show the layers and structures of different historical periods. Hungarian rulers made some in the 14th and 15th century, following the Ottoman Empire, some of the fortresses also show Serbian rule, for example the Kalamegdan fortress.
The largest fortress on the Danube was in fact built by a Serbian medieval ruler. In addition, as I mentioned there are prime examples of our industrial culture and heritage. In the northern part of Serbia, on the Hungarian border there are some locks which were built by the Eiffel bureau, and also the hydropower electric plants in the Iron Gate are a great example of industrial heritage. So our efforts in the Danube strategy really expose it as an important European corridor from several aspects. It is a great opportunity for us to discuss the cultural routes on the Danube as it brings together many nationalities. It includes the pan-European hiking and cycling routes that extend from the Atlantic Ocean all the way to the Black Sea. The Danube also has ‘Iron Curtain Routes’, which go partly along the Danube, the ‘Roman Emperor’s Route’, and the ‘Wine Route’ along the Danube. This is our main promotional platform for next year. We are very much involved with International organisations working in the region, not only for the enhancement in regional cooperation but also to demonstrate that we are dedicated to product development in order to use this as our offer together with representatives from the private sector. The tourists from long-haul markets do not come to see one thing, they want to see as much as possible and for that reason we are discussing regional topics such as these routes that I have mentioned along the Danube and other regional activities in Serbia.
What kind of international collaboration have you established so far, and in particular in Germany?
Gordon Plamenac: The Danube initiative is going through the Danube Competency Centre which is the association of over 80 representatives from all Danube countries and is working heavily with the German organisation for technical cooperation, GIZ. GIZ have dedicated human and financial resources to the sustainability of the Danube Competency Centre. Serbia was one of the initiators of this association as we felt this was the best way to bring together Governmental and Private Sector.
The NTO was heavily involved in establishing the DCC as it really helps cluster the regions together and bring together its representatives. We are also working with the OECD as they have a program for tourism development in the Western Balkans. Within the expert group, which consists of members from civil, governmental and non-governmental sectors, OECD is working on this together with the RCC. In addition, we are also being supported by the Swiss development agency where we enhance SMEs especially in the field of hospitality and gastronomy. USAID helped us a lot with the establishment of the Convention bureau of Serbia.
It was 8 years ago when the Convention bureau was established and in these 8 years we have increased the ranking of Serbia for conventions based on ICCA (International congress and convention association) from 79th to 42nd on the world list. This is really a tremendous progress and since then the whole industry started to gather around the convention bureau and works synergistically in bringing these meetings to Serbia. This is why it is of upmost importance to refurbish the convention centre of Serbia, as it was built in the 70’s and since then in view of all the events we had, a major renovation is in order to sustain our growing trends of events in Belgrade. It is also important to renovate it based on the large number of new hotels that we have in Belgrade - investors expect a return on their investments so it is important to have tourists and conference participants to fill these hotels.
We also have a new national carrier Air Serbia that is promoting Belgrade as a hub for international travellers. This extension of flight patterns will in turn increase our tourist numbers not only to the city but Serbia as a whole.
Unfortunately, the image of Serbia in most parts of the world do not meet what this country actually has to offer. What are you doing to help change the image of Serbia?
Gordon Plamenac: Image is something that we are trying to alter through all the improvements that I previously mentioned. Working together regionally is something that contributes to the image, highlighting our willingness to improve. Through our collaboration with the European Travel Commission we fully support the idea of Pan-European Routes. There is a need to somehow update the offer of Europe, to add value to already existing destination promotion for overseas visitors. We are also cooperating with German National Tourism Organisations bilaterally and exchanging our experiences. It is important that we participate, speaking of promotions, in 30 international and regional fairs and trade shows. Our online channels are also present to promote Serbia and our media as well. Additionally, we bring representatives from industry, such as tour operators, to visit Serbia to see our potential. Also, important is our collaboration with foreign airlines like Etihad, Qatar Airways etc. Continuous education of our industry is vital and GIZ and USAID are helping very much in this field. The benefits of knowledge transfer we really honour are and grateful for their contributions.
To conclude this interview what final message would you like to share with the readers of Der Spiegel?
Gordon Plamenac:Lonely planet pronounced Serbia as one the Top 10 destinations to visit. What I can assure to your readers that no one will feel lonely.