For the average traveller the Southeast European countries still represent an untapped resource. This is even truer for those seeking business opportunities, since the region is an attractive destination for the foreign guest due to its natural resources. For the meetings industry the Western Balkans have immense potential due to their natural hospitality, which already attracts numerous businessmen and boasts a number of successful export oriented businesses.
The convention bureaus in the region are still developing. This is no surprise since we are dealing with countries with a troubled past and with very live memories. Fact is the doors of the Western Balkan states are only truly opening today. Till recently people who live only a few hundred kilometres from Slovenia had to live behind “visa walls”, their travels into the European union were limited if not impossible. We heard tragic stories of long waiting lines in front of consulates, only the politicians, businessmen and the rich could travel abroad, as did potential criminals through diverse channels. Regular people, average citizens knew the European Union as well as the United States – through television and internet. In the last 20 years an entire generation grew up behind these “visa walls”. These times are fortunately over and this generation will shape our common future through the prism of European values. Slovenia contributed greatly by enabling citizens of Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro to travel to Schengen states without a visa since December 2009 and that citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as Albania no longer need visas since November of last year. Kosovo unfortunately remains an unsolved problem. By entering a visa free regime these five Western Balkan states made a huge step towards the EU. Freedom of travel, a basic right of each EU citizen, will strengthen the political and business cooperation with this region as well as enable cooperation opportunities and sharing of experience and good practices in numerous areas, – also in the area of the meetings industry. Travelling without limitations is also very important in enhancing contacts between people.
The European Union is in a turbulent period. The European governments are facing an economic and financial crisis, growing social concerns and unemployment of the population, general dissatisfaction and dubious perdictions for the future. Economic indicators are gradually improving and who knows when the 27 members will finally be able to achieve a common economic policy and consensus on who will offer financial aid to economies in trouble. In this uncertain situation it’s hard to imagine the Union is going to pay much attention to its enlargement towards the Western Balkans. We are rightfully concerned that this part of Southeast Europe will forever remain in the shade of problems, especially if the countries in the region themselves will not show enough engagement and devotion to European values. It would appear some of them are moving backwards instead of forward. In the last four years Bosnia and Herzegovina has stalled in its efforts to join the Union. The newly elected politicians, who brought hope after last year’s election couldn’t successfully form a government for months, though there is some hope for improvement. In Macedonia political circumstances are unstable, for the last three years its entry into the European Union has been blocked by its unsettled name issue with Greece. In Albania the opposition has been blocking the work of the parliament and demonstrations in the streets have been calling for Prime Minister Sali Berisha to step down. Only Serbia and Montenegro have received a few positive signals from Brussels lately, while Bulgaria and Romania will most likely have to wait to join the Schengen area till fall.
The Western Balkans have a clear European perspective, therefore the European Union also carries a lot of responsibility and often has a divided opinion on the troubles in the region. Slovenians role is much more important since it can represent an important bond between Balkans and the European Union.
Besides that Slovenia has recently experienced a rapid development of the meetings industry. Our country can make an important contribution to the development of this industry and in bringing together national, regional and city convention suppliers from all over Southeast Europe. Such a regional cooperation will certainly open new opportunities for Southeast Europe on the global meetings market. This is quite an undertaking, since the countries are in trouble in the current economic environment. It is also an immense opportunity for our meetings industry providers to forge new ties and opportunities with their knowledge and experience and thus contribute to the economic development of the region as a whole.
Conventa has been strengthening regional meetings industry cooperation in Southeast Europe for the last three years in a row. This year the organizersdecided on a very encouraging message, namely that responsible meetings industry providers can protect the environment and encourage a balanced economic development at the same time. Such messages should be more numerous in the future.
Southeast Europe is definitely an area with numerous unexploited possibilities. Yet the fact remains, that only true commitment to European reforms will lead these countries into the Union. The responsibility for progress is therefore in the hands of the countries. And each step forward with the help of allays such as Slovenia will also encourage a step forward in the development of the meetings industry. I am certain the meetings industry can achieve favourable results with the right approach, mutual respect and common goals, which will certainly contribute to strengthening economic growth, creating new job opportunities and recognizing the role of the entire region in the international market.