02 January 2007

High hopes, slippery slopes

By Eric Jansson
Published by Financial Times, 20 December 2006

“Say it’s like Colorado,” says Dragan Petkovic, grinning and dragging on a cigarette in an empty café at Jahorina, the Bosnian ski area where he is deputy manager.

But it is not like Colorado.

Outside, freshly fallen snow makes the mountaintops sparkle on a crisp, bright morning. Jahorina’s modest peaks link together in a row, forming a high ridge of brilliant white set against a clear blue sky. Ski trails plunge from the bare heights, cutting through tall pines on the mountainsides.

Mr Petkovic and others would like to see Jahorina become a major European ski destination. Unfortunately the similarity with premier resorts ends with the natural scenery.

Bombsites are not a big problem. Little visible damage remains from the airstrikes on Jahorina in 1995, when Nato warplanes dropped 1000-lbs bombs to disrupt the area’s use as a command centre and recreation spot for Ratko Mladic and the Bosnian Serb army. The mountain has been demined, too.

Still, the ski area suffers from the fundamental problems of underinvestment, lack of planning and Bosnia’s ongoing war-related isolation in the south-east European tourism market.

Jahorina saw bright days in the past – none brighter than its brief stint as an alpine skiing venue during the XIV Olympic Winter Games. The war cancelled out whatever marketing advantages the Olympic legacy once afforded. Yet hope springs eternal at this high-altitude destination 45 minutes away from Sarajevo.

Already, during the three-month high season, a healthy stream of visitors flows in from nearby Serbia and Slovenia, along with the nearby capital city. The trick now is to broaden and enrich the market by raising quality dramatically, say local tourism investors.

“Jahorina is a real skiers’ mountain. It is not a place for the elite right now, but that does not mean it never will be,” says Dragan Cirkolovic, manager at the Hotel Bistrica, one of the largest hotels on the slopes.

According to a master plan commissioned by public tourism officials for the Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb sub-state, and drafted by Hypo Alpe Adria Consulting, the ski area can be brought up to a high European standard by 2016.

The proposed upgrade is a massive undertaking, expected to cost an estimated €400m over a decade. This would be one of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s largest investment projects, dwarfing anything else seen in the tourist sector – and most other sectors. Indeed the sheer scale of the proposal raises doubts about its practicability.

Some tourism experts say Sarajevo’s dream of becoming a major winter sports destination, competing with the Alps, is a fantasy, despite Jahorina’s prospects. “It is never going to happen,” says Thierry Joubert, a Dutch entrepreneur at the helm of Sarajevo-based Green Visions, a specialist operator focusing on eco-tourism, including backcountry skiing.

Yet it is not entirely impossible to imagine a refurbished Jahorina rebranding itself, in the words of the master plan, as “the top mountain destination in southeast Europe”.

The master plan’s implementation will depend heavily on the participation of private investors, a prospect that Mr Petkovic, among others, welcomes. “We need privatisation right away. Better today than tomorrow,” he says.

Wholesale privatisation is not on the cards for Jahorina, although Bosnia’s other former Olympic ski areas, Igman and Bjelasnica, have considered the option. Defacto privatisation of business operations looks more likely. The master plan calls for a wide variety of investments, some private, some public and some through public-private partnerships, to tackle the resort’s many current shortcomings.

The plan would leave almost no aspect of Jahorina’s operations and infrastructure untouched.
It points out, for instance, that the resort area itself is prohibitively small. Four Jahorinas would fit inside a big European or American ski area. There is, however, plenty of room to expand onto the virgin territory of neighbouring mountains. The plan recommends two major rounds of expansion, with the first new slopes opening in 2010. By 2015, Jahorina’s total terrain is meant to reach a world-class 1,360 hectares.

The plan also foresees upgrades to key ski-related infrastructure – especially the lifts. Whereas many European and American resorts have invested since the 1980s in high-tech lifts and heated gondolas, Jahorina still uses the same pokey chairlifts of two decades ago.

Better accommodation will also be critically important. Most of the hotels clustered at the base of the slopes look anything but graceful. A few are totally unchanged from Yugoslav days, with hammer-and-sickle plaques on prominent display in entry halls. Just one, the Hotel Termag, offers what most western visitors would consider a high standard of comfort and style.

The planners know how much must be done to recapture Jahorina’s fleeting glory. But they still have a question to answer: how would Jahorina’s the area’s hypothetical private investors ever be able to recoup the enormous upgrade costs? Europe’s skiers, after all, already enjoy abundant, high-quality, low-cost competition in the Alps.

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