Photo credit: M. Kastelic, Photo Library of Ljubljana Tourism

How to transform a city with untapped tourism potential into a »wannagothere« destination

This story might have some elements of a fairy-tale, but there was definitely no magic wand.

The way from “Cinderella city” to “Sexy LJ” was not always straight and obvious. The road to success was paved by a clear vision, coupled by strong will and passion, plus many footsteps following the right direction. Less than 10 years ago, the Mayor of Ljubljana, Zoran Janković, mapped the sustainable development master plan, Ljubljana 2025, defining the key projects aimed at improving the city’s functionality and the quality of life of its residents and visitors alike.

Petra Stušek Managing Director of Ljubljana Tourism

Petra Stušek is now in her third year as Managing Director of the Ljubljana Tourist Board. Petra is also a Board Member of an international European Cities Marketing, a non-profit organisation for improving the competitiveness and performance of the leading cities of Europe. Prior to this roles, she had a leading role in communications for foreign and domestic public in Ljubljana Tourist Board, reporting directly to CEO.

Urban interventions

Urban interventions in the very city centre created vast pedestrian spaces open to new purposes. The gradual expansion of the traffic-free zone, the construction of underground parking garages, the landscaping of the Ljubljanica riverbanks, which won the prestigious European Prize for Public Open Space 2012, and the further implementation of green policies are among many projects that not only changed the image of Ljubljana. They actually generated a number of other effects, such as positive attitude and pride, which turned many local residents into enthusiastic »ambassadors« of their city, including an overall favourable reaction to tourism and the growing number of foreign visitors.

The very visible physical transformation of Ljubljana had an absolute impact on changing the perception of the city among the domestic and foreign public: from a rather “incognito” status it stepped among destinations on the bucket list to visit.

The meetings industry sector also drew a benefit from this positive shift in Ljubljana’s image and stronger brand in the international arena.

The many projects implemented through the development strategy were crowned by a series of resounding and prestigious awards that Ljubljana received over the last years, which echoed in many countries. At the top of the list, the title of European Green Capital 2016, which the European Commission awarded Ljubljana because it has, in the shortest amount of time, introduced the largest number of positive changes in the quality of life. With this, we have become a model European country in regard to organising life in a city that is environmentally and tourist friendly, and very liveable.

At last year’s World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) global summit, Ljubljana won the Tourism for Tomorrow Destination Award for 2015.

As the jury explained: »Extensive pedestrian spaces, an ecological zone and state of the art under-street recycling systems have greatly improved the city. Central to Ljubljana’s success is the partnership between Ljubljana Tourism and the Municipality, engaging not only local businesses but also residents to input into and influence policy. This really is a shared vision for the destination, which means that tourism growth has been central to Ljubljana’s development, reviving cultural activity, restaurants and the entertainment sector. Now tourism and city life are inextricably linked, with sustainability principles at the heart«. At the same time we stress that we have retained our way of life, what is now called the trendy authenticity factor, meaning that the locals share it with visitors, who are welcome to join in.

Growth of the tourism industry

Growth of the tourism industry has given a boost to investments in the hotel sector over the last few years, with refurbishments and upgrades of existing properties underway, new expansion plans and hotel openings announced, together with new contents, products, and improved overall services. Alongside, the development of other quality accommodations on the market, even in the attractive Old Town area – from B&B, to short-let apartments and hostels, has responded to an increasing travellers’ demand, not limited only to leisure visitors, for this type of accommodation.

Furthermore, many new active experiences and themed tours have been developed for Ljubljana and the region of Central Slovenia, both by agencies and Ljubljana Tourism itself. Our philosophy is to actively promote, and also create, trips and experiences from Ljubljana to the surrounding region or to other parts of Slovenia, including the classical “icons”, or main attractions in the country (Lake Bled, Postojna Cave, the coastline with Piran, etc), bookable also online on the Visit Ljubljana web portal. We see this as an added value to our destination.

Depending on the season, a host of active programmes on land, water, snow, underground or in the sky provide additional options to prospective visitors or those who are already here – a flexible model also for those attending business events. A number of them are also suitable for teambuilding events or incentive programmes.

Among our own newer products, we are happy that the “Taste Ljubljana” tour and “Beer Lovers’ Experience” have met success with the public, even the local one. The experience of a city or a country is also sensory – taste being one of them.

“Taste Ljubljana” is a culinary project aimed at reviving and promoting our traditional dishes in local restaurants and at various events, including business meetings and congresses, which complements the “Taste Slovenia” project. They both underline the importance of the quality of the ingredients, most often locally grown, which is the basis for creating high-quality culinary experiences.

Green initiatives

There are many other initiatives that visitors to Ljubljana notice, or we are proud of: the only vehicles allowed to permanently enter the traffic-free zone have a kind name – Kavalir, or Gentle helper, which corresponds to the attitude of their drivers and service they politely provide. The ride is free of charge and green, as they run on electric power. The Urban electric tourist train is a novelty in town. Our tap water is chemically untreated, retaining practically the same quality as at the very source. Not to mention the drinking water fountains scattered around the city, which you can easily spot out by using the practical Tap Water Ljubljana app. And wherever you are in Ljubljana, you can count seeing a tree – bearing in mind that 542 sq m of public green space are available to each of its 286.000 residents, according to “green statistics”. Mentioning statistics, although numbers are not the sole indicator: 579.000 overnight stays were recorded in Ljubljana in 2005, while by 2015 they grew to 1.186.000, adding that 96% were generated by foreign visitors.

Venue options in Ljubljana

Coming to the meetings industry, for a city of its size, the venue options in Ljubljana to choose from are really ample: two flexible and centrally located congress centres with a different space concept, a number of functional and well-equipped convention hotels and hotels with meeting facilities in historic or modern shells, plus functional academic venues are the backbone of Ljubljana’s meetings offerings. One of its strong points is also its compact size – meaning easy logistics and walking distances to many of the meeting and special event venues, hotels, the Old Town and other points of interest, which organisers and attendees appreciate.

Moreover, at least a dozen of special event venues are found within 15 minutes walking from the most central downtown spot, including museums and galleries, the crown being one of the city landmarks – the Ljubljana Castle, which is nestled above the Old Town. But there’s more to add moving a bit further, even into the central Tivoli Park. Professional service with a personal touch is the name of the game in the destination, and this “human factor” is what clients from abroad often stress as one of our advantages, plus the genuine hospitality.

Ljubljana Tourism with its Convention Bureau is a partner in all the major marketing projects in this segment, including the Conventa Show that has been organised by the Slovenian Convention Bureau in our city for eight years, with the new Conventa Crossover conference that brought a fresh breeze to hot summer days.

What next?

Keep a focus on the tourism strategy and keep an eye on trends, maintain an open and constructive communication with stakeholders in the destination and think smart, not necessarily big. Ljubljana, a charming and original old lady young at heart, deserves to have a bright future for all of us!