Slovenia’s New Adventure Routes Make Sustainability the Star

After riding all morning on the new Slovenia Green Kočevsko Cycle Loop, the road defiantly, almost mischievously, tilted up to become an asphalt ribbon of coiled switchbacks. When the climb ended, atop a ridge in southern Slovenia’s Dinaric Alps, our group of breathless cyclists — including the route’s designers, who’d invited me along — clipped out of pedals, reached for water bottles, and went silent. Hawks glided on thermals above a taut green blanket of fir and beech trees streaked with autumn gold under a blue September sky. About five kilometers south, the Kolpa River, which forms the border with Croatia, wound through peaks scattered across both countries.

The loop we were pedaling was just one of several themed routes recently launched in this Central European country, which has developed a reputation for creating some of the most responsible and innovative itineraries in the travel industry. The largely self-guided, active journeys combine adventure, food, wine, and culture while providing independent travelers with the tools needed to explore at their own self-locomotive pace. The adventurers, in turn, carry only what’s needed, visit remote communities, savor local specialties, and embrace the very essence of sustainable tourism.

The multi-stage, 142-kilometer journey we were riding, for instance, circumnavigates the Kočevsko Region, considered Slovenia’s unofficial capital of nature. That’s no small boast. Nearly three-quarters of this biodiverse nation is protected and almost two-thirds of its surface is crowded with trees. Kočevsko is, by comparison, 91 percent forested. This route gives cyclists of all skill levels a human-speed view of the region (often overlooked for the Julian Alps and Soča Valley), which has 217 hectares of rainforests, the UNESCO-inscribed, primeval Krokar Virgin Forest, and is home to fox, bears, deer, wolves, and lynx. Kočevsko’s motto: “Wild. But Nice.”

Gazing across the panorama, I was conscious of how much I’ve taken this country for granted. I have written many articles about Slovenia. Most only focused on its beauty, which, in my defense, is intoxicating — a diamond squeezed by magnetic topography on all sides.

The Alps, glacial lakes and turquoise-blue rivers, the Adriatic Sea, and the Pannonian Plain intersect on a swath of real estate smaller than the state of New Jersey.

However, it took me years to understand that my enjoyment here isn’t coincidental. While much of the tourism industry strives for quantity over quality — gauging success through increased visitor numbers at the expense of authenticity and environmental health — Slovenia went the other way, refining its strategy and quietly becoming one of the world’s gold standards in responsible travel.

“A route like this is a big achievement,” said Jan Klavora after we’d all caught our collective breath. Klavora is one of the Kočevsko Loop’s architects and co-director of GoodPlace, a Slovenia-based NGO that designs forward-thinking, community-based tourism products. “But this is only what the public sees — the practical result of a process with lots of phases, meetings, and brainstorming … hopefully for the purpose of a better future.”

 

Correct for Today, Logical for Tomorrow

At the bottom of a serpentine descent, our tiny peloton reached the Kolpa River’s edge. At a waterside campsite that doubled as a café-bar, we ordered draft beer served in cold, glass, half-liter steins. I sat with Klavora and Jana Apih, GoodPlace’s other co-director. Over the years, Apih has been instrumental in GoodPlace’s role as the main auditor for the country’s progressive Green Scheme of Slovenian Tourism, or Slovenia Green, which educates municipalities, businesses, and parks about best sustainability practices and certifies qualifying candidates.

To be included in Slovenia Green, destinations must pass a rigorous, 100-criteria certification program, accredited by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council and offered by the Netherlands-based Green Destinations. Locales and service providers must satisfy a diverse spectrum of benchmarks that include obvious categories such as “nature conservation.” But, candidates must also prove next-level preparedness in areas like “respecting authenticity,” “avoiding overtourism,” and “equal and fair employment.”

Today, there are 59 certified destinations in Slovenia (with five more expected by year’s end) and more than 100 service providers, which represents a sizable number of Green Destinations’ overall global certifications. Perhaps most impressively, more than 80 percent of all tourism arrivals to Slovenia now occur in a “green” city, town, or village.

“Sustainable tourism doesn’t magically happen,” Apih told me as the beer arrived. “

If a destination’s sustainability is real and not just trendy PR, it takes solid strategy focused on what’s correct today and, challengingly, what’s logical tomorrow.

It seems simple, but this is an evolved concept. Many businesses can’t look past the bottom line right now, so it’s difficult to impress on them the need to protect their future.”

“Yes, Slovenia’s Green Scheme helps with focus and gives us a sort of continual theme for the adventure routes,” Klavora added. “We can then provide an itinerary and reasons why destinations should be involved.”

Before the Kočevsko Loop, GoodPlace created Bike Slovenia Green, the world’s first multi-stage adventure route that stops only in green-certified destinations. They continued the theme using a culinary twist with the Slovenia Green Gourmet Route. That itinerary leans into the country’s status as the 2021 European Region of Gastronomy and takes cyclists from its western edge, through the capital, Ljubljana, to its far eastern end. In June 2022, the Slovenia Green Wellness Route, which stops in green-certified spas, and the Slovenia Green Pannonian Route were both launched.

Other recent Slovenian routes, supported by the Slovenian Tourist Board, include the 168-mile, 16-stage Juliana Trail, which circles Triglav National Park and Mount Triglav (9,396 feet), the country’s tallest peak. The 137-mile, 11-stage Walk of Peace treks along the WWI frontline between Italy and the Austria-Hungarian Empire in what is today Slovenia. That trail’s aim is to provide an adventure, naturally, but also to educate, preserve history, and shine a light on the need for empathy, open-mindedness, and forgiveness.

As a group, the routes’ purpose is manifold: provide explorers with cultural and culinary information, maps, and GPS coordinates while also helping to reduce the country’s car traffic, bottlenecks, over-tourism, and thus pollution at popular sites. And, as visitors move in a more natural line of travel, overlooked communities inevitably receive more guests.

Honest Strategy Markets Itself

The next day, the Kočevsko Loop passed its second primeval forest: the 51-hectare Rajhenavski Rog. We got off our bikes and walked to the largest and oldest fir in the region, known as Kraljica, or the Queen, to wrap our arms collectively around the 180-foot-high, 17-foot-wide, 500-year-old tree. I had another realization — this one two-pronged. Left to my own devices, I wouldn’t have found this tree. Secondly, when a destination looks after its natural strengths, promotion takes care of itself.

“In Slovenia, green tourism strategy is not just a marketing strategy or something we invented at the Slovenian Tourist Board to boost the numbers of arrivals,” says Maja Pak, the director of the Slovenian Tourist Board. “Tourism service providers, as well as local inhabitants, have been working in this way for years, or wanted to operate in a more nature-friendly way; they just did not have the tools to assess and improve this.”

According to Pak, the process took more than a decade. During that period, the country has been continually fêted for its commitment. In 2016, Ljubljana was named the Green Capital of Europe. The same year, Slovenia was certified as a Green Destination, the first country to achieve such status. In 2017, Slovenia received a National Geographic World Legacy Award and has been called “the world’s most sustainable country” regularly since. This year, the nation was a finalist for Newsweek’s Future of Travel Awards. For cultured adventure travelers, it hasn’t hurt that Slovenia’s restaurants earned their first Michelin stars in 2020 and its cyclists have won the last two Tour de France championships and three Tour of Spain titles.

“Once the industry and businesses saw that sustainability had become the fil rouge of national promotional activities, they got on board,”

continues Pak. “Sustainable tourism and our efforts in that area have helped Slovenia to position itself as a major player on the global tourist map. It has become our signature quality, something we are known for.”

Other countries are taking note of Slovenia’s success. Slovenia’s former Yugoslav mate, Bosnia and Herzegovina, is in the midst of recalibrating its strategy to embrace both sustainability and adventure travel. A nationwide tourism project there, run by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), has started to emulate Slovenia’s straightforward methods of certification and letting responsibility lead promotion.

“The tourism experiences USAID in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) wants to promote, particularly in the nature-and-adventure space, are similar to those offered in Slovenia, which offers real lessons,” says Karl Wurster, USAID/BiH Economic Development Office Director. “Like Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina has a wealth of mountainous and remote nature. Slovenia’s success was not only a pursuit of sustainability, but one anchored in effective promotion. USAID is also working to introduce Bosnia and Herzegovina to the world as an attractive, sustainable destination, so marketing is key.”

 

The End of the Trail is Only the Beginning

The Kočevsko Cycle Loop’s final stretch took us along a forest road, where a group of visitors crouched around a guide pointing out different animal prints. He outlined bear, deer, and fox marks. Their tour would eventually move from ground tracking to observation in designated photography blinds from above. The tourism product has helped change the forest narrative and provide local hunters with new profession-changing opportunities as educators and sustainability experts. The program is another example of finding novel solutions and positively transforming mentalities.

Director Pak believes Slovenia can provide a guide for other national tourism efforts. “[Slovenia Green’s] implementation is quite straightforward since it is based on international standards for both destinations and service providers,” says Pak. “We are proud that many countries have recognised Slovenia Green as a model with great potential and that the European Travel Commission used it as a key study in their recent handbook ‘Sustainable Tourism Implementation: Framework and Toolkit.’”

We finished the loop, emerging from the ancient stand of trees onto the country road that would take us back to civilization. It was the first time we’d seen a car all day.

“It helps that Slovenia is the perfect place for the kind of outdoors, challenging-but-rewarding adventures travelers are seeking these days — so making resources a priority is key,” said Klavora at our post-ride, celebratory meal. “Regardless, our mission would be the same: Combine logic and responsibility and understand that planning for today and tomorrow is the same thing.”