Sustainable development of outdoor tourism in the capital of North Macedonia

A crossroads between East and West, North Macedonia is a treasure chest of historical monuments, natural wonders, and vibrant culture. A microcosm of the region, North Macedonia stuffs the entire gamut of Balkan experiences into its small size. North Macedonia is on the other hand also one of the least visited countries in the world. Most tourists are merely transit guests traveling to Greece. As it lacks in tourism infrastructure and may never be able (or want) to compete with its neighbors in terms of mass tourism, North Macedonia should position itself on its own competitive advantages and target market niches that align with them.

Glittering Lake Ohrid and its historic town have etched out a place for North Macedonia on the tourist map, but there is a wealth of natural beauty in this small country. With its pristine landscapes, uncharted terrain, and world-class adventure activities, this region is an outdoor paradise. Not to forget the amazing food made from scratch, exceptional wines, and the charming hospitality of the people. With the right development and good governance, North Macedonia could realistically be one of Europe’s top adventure destinations. However, for adventure tourism to be at the top level, investments are needed besides the natural beauties. Furthermore, to develop sustainable adventure tourism products that are also financially sound, stable domestic demand is essential. 

The capital of North Macedonia, Skopje, with more than 600.000 inhabitants, accounts for more than one-quarter of all population. Skopje is not only urbanized but is also surrounded by mountain massive and provides a variety of opportunities for the development of soft and hard adventure tourism products. With an aim to win the title of European Green Capital 2021 the city of Skopje is revitalizing parks and forests in and around the city and provides full support for the development of outdoor activities and tourism. Skopje is consequently a perfect setting for the initial development of outdoor and adventure tourism in Northern Macedonia.

The city of Skopje is situated at the foothills of the 1066 meters high mountain Vodno, crowned with the fifth largest cross in the world. As it rises from the urban area, this mountain is the nearest recreational site. A cable car whisks visitors to the summit for easy viewing or they can climb up the mountain via several hiking paths, bike, climb, or just relax in the natural environment. Vodno is also one of the most important green areas near Skopje, which has an unrivaled protective, ecological and sports-recreational role, due to its large surface and purpose. Even though Vodno is considered the popular retreat for the residents of Skopje, it is facing unprecedented challenges environmentally and economically, and it is not fully meeting the needs of residents as well as tourists. It lacks basic infrastructure and amenities as well as attractive and quality activities which would draw a wider spectrum of visitors. 

To accommodate and bolster further development and prevent ad-hoc decisions from previous years, the Municipality of Skopje recognized the need to develop a thorough master plan that sets forth a vision for Vodno with consideration of community needs, recreation, historic and cultural identity, tourism, and sustainability. While initially, the idea was to build a ski area on Vodno mountain, the changing climate and low altitude make such investment unsustainable. Planning for four-season recreation activities has consequently come to the forefront of Vodno’s future development. In order to reveal its aim to develop year-round nature and sports activities, the master plan initiative was named Vodno 365. 

The master plan originates from the philosophy that the mountain belongs to the local community and that it requires ongoing commitment and investment from residents, authorities, and private partners in order to endure. Initially, an engaged group of stakeholders and our expert team met to discuss the future of Vodno and create an environmentally and economically sustainable framework for the mountain that would maximize the potential of the mountain while being sympathetic to the preservation of local culture and the region’s ecological richness. Focusing on the naturally given advantages and existing infrastructure, the development aims to the long-term sustainability, which will however not only provide social and environmental benefits but will be also economically sound. Then we have performed a comprehensive analysis of the intrinsic qualities of the mountain, investigating a variety of landscapes, connection with the axes of access – an analysis of target customers and the tourism industry to build a benchmark for Vodno as a local retreat as well as a tourist destination. 

Master plan Vodno 365 outlines a year-round resort, inclined towards mountains and nature, providing unforgettable experiences. Reaching an international standard quality level, it will be developed in a sustainable and innovative way. A proposed development aims to offer a number of additional activities to create a “critical mass” large enough to attract locals as well as tourists. The more immersive those experiences can be, and the more they connect the mountain with the city, the more Skopje, and its residents benefit. Adventurers may lead the charge in the development of Vodno, but its families will populate most of the mountain. In order to attract the entire family as well as adventure seekers, offered activities must be broad and varied. Vodno will consequently provide the right mix of services, sports, commercial facilities, and leisure amenities at the highest quality level. Proposed activities are divided into three segments; a family segment: where all family members can enjoy activities together, an activity segment: for visitors who are looking to spend their time more energetically, and an adventure segment: for thrill-seeking visitors who enjoy new challenges. Therefore, visitors will benefit from numerous summer and winter activities, such as mountain biking, paragliding, hiking, zip-line, aerial adventure park, via ferrata, snowshoeing, sledding activities, etc.

As an integrated adventure, recreational and leisure development that is sure to become a family destination, attracting local and regional visitors, as well as thrill-seekers and tourists from all over the world, Vodno 365 will contribute to the local community through world-class outdoor recreation activities and a thriving outdoor hub right in the heart of Skopje. It will provide a significant boost to the tourism industry in Skopje, in addition to economic benefits for the local community and businesses. Apart from economic benefits, it will be an exemplary environment-friendly project and will help to increase residents’ quality of life. Hopefully, it will also become the role model for the strategic and sustainable development of outdoor and adventure tourism in North Macedonia and enhance the country’s attraction as an adventure destination. 

We at Alliance have a full range of services and international expertise to support the development of adventure tourism and the implementation of purpose-built infrastructure. Contact us to find out how we can help you to take advantage of this rapidly growing market segment.