Southeast Europe (SEE) is emerging as the centre of ‘New Europe’ and the countries of SEE are set to become major tourist destinations with Greece and Turkey leading the way over the past decade having visitation of international tourists exceeding 33 million and 39.5 million respectively in 2018. Other countries of SEE – Albania; Bosnia and Herzegovina; Bulgaria; Croatia; Montenegro; North Macedonia; Romania and Serbia together welcomed an additional 44 million international tourists in 2018, representing 64 per cent growth in international inbound tourism over the past 5 years.
The combined population of the SEE countries is around 147 million and the total GDP for the region in 2018 was over 1,300 EUR Billion. While the focus of tourism is often about international travel and visitation, data published by SEE countries indicate that domestic tourism is a significant component of each country’s tourism economy. In Romania for instance, 76 per cent of overnight stays are by locals and this needs to be considered in the context of tourism development projects and infrastructure.
The SEE region is located near the long-established trade routes between Asia and Western Europe and has an ethnic diversity that contributes to its unique cultural development. It is where empires met, fought and combined to create this unique culture leaving their own indelible mark on the local architecture, cuisine, languages, music and traditions. In SEE, one finds UNESCO World Heritage sites and archaeological treasures tracing back to the ancient Greeks, Byzantine, Ottoman and Russian Empires. Also, medieval Orthodox monasteries, Renaissance Catholic churches, mosques and minarets standing in close proximity and within the same city walls.
The SEE region offers visitors and locals many different experiences from gastronomy, to natural and cultural heritage, traditions, hospitality, historical sites, impressive coastlines and so much more. The aroma of local food from bazaars testifies to the fusion of East and West, while the region’s eclectic music, dance and cultural festivals celebrate this rich heritage. The UNWTO’s Western Silk Road program recognises this important cultural heritage and guides a unified effort to promote it globally.
The indented coastline of SEE extends some 3,500 kilometres along the warm waters of the Adriatic, Ionian, Mediterranean, Aegean and Black Seas and touches all the SEE countries except Serbia and North Macedonia. Its spectacular sandy and rocky beaches dotted with historic fortifications are now the sought-after destination for over 80 million tourists who stay in a diverse range of accommodation including local and global branded 4 and 5 star hotels and resorts.
Access to the seas brings large numbers of tourist cruise ships and luxury yachts, and provides for limitless water sports. While the Greek Islands are well known around world, Bulgaria’s Sunny Beach, Montenegro’s Sveti Stefan Beach and Croatia’s Zlatni Rat Beach are among many SEE beaches gaining global prominence.
Rising from the coastal areas, the mountain ranges that dominate SEE and provide tourists with year-round pursuits to experience ecotourism, cultural and heritage tourism, trekking and unparalleled air, land and water-based adventure sports. Cooperation between SEE countries has seen mega trails developed such as Via Dinarica that crosses seven countries and provides access to 19 UNESCO World Heritage sites, 20 National Parks, 240 mountains, 2,000 kilometres of hiking and biking trails and over 2,200 spectacular waterways.
Snow skiing is one of the main winter activities with over 120 established ski resorts across all the SEE countries and 850 kilometres of ski slopes. Bankso and Borovets ski resorts in Bulgaria are the highest (2,560 metres) and considered the best in SEE providing the excitement and challenge that rival the western European ski slopes.
Medical, health and wellbeing tourism is a developing sector founded on the ‘medical spa’ health, relaxation and rehabilitation centres that have been around for over 150 years in SEE countries. New medical and spa facilities, and wellness resorts have been integrated into many hotel complexes and provide modern medical, dental and optical procedures as well as unique traditional treatments and balneotherapy. As the majority of natural mineral water spas are located in regional areas, tourists can combine their treatments with a reinvigorating ecotourism holiday in picturesque settings.
Experiencing new cuisines complemented by local varietal wines is one of the best ways to become immersed in the cultures of the SEE region. More than 400 autochthonous varieties of wine grapes are grown across the countries of SEE and with their own traditional cuisines, fuel potential for greater development of wine and food tourism in the region. In addition to gastronomy tours in every SEE country, much anticipated food and wine festivals are held every year such as the Balkan Wine Festival in Sofia, Bulgaria, RO-Wine International Wine Festival in Bucharest, Romania and Rostiljiјаdа, an authentic grilled meat festival held annually in Leskovac, Serbia.
The SEE countries have growing economies and business tourism is a significant market for the region’s tourism industry. New hotels in capital cities and commercial centres have been developed for global hotel brands and more are under construction to meet demand. Conference and exhibition complexes have developed in major business centres and there are plans for these facilities to be developed in many regional cities to decentralise business tourism and its economic benefits. SEE countries are also promoting their destinations to the Meeting, incentives, conferences, and exhibitions (MICE) market, encouraging a fusion between business and leisure tourism with the intention of enticing delegates back for an extended holiday in Southeast Europe.