Writing about Slovenia is particularly rewarding, as it so often feels like your articles open up a hidden doorway for readers with limited or no preconceptions about a country they will inevitably love. Readers have an idea about what travel to, say, Italy or Spain, Thailand or Costa Rica might be like. But while most will have heard of Slovenia—and heard good things about it—it does not have the immediate recognition of other potential travel destinations. That means that each article can have a significant positive effect in encouraging people to visit.
Dr Noah Charney should know. He has been writing about Slovenia for more than a decade, regularly covering it for The Guardian newspaper’s travel section, but also writing about it everywhere from Lonely Planet to National Geographic, from the Washington Post to Atlas Obscura.
His guest in this episode is perhaps the most prominent of all travel writers who write regularly about Slovenia: Alex Crevar. The American expat has written about Slovenia for The New York Times, Lonely Planet and National Geographic. What is more, he was also involved in the development of the Slovenia Green Gourmet Cycling Route, which attracted international attention. He also works as an editor and consultant on responsible tourism, though he's not sure he likes the term responsible tourism or consultant either.
He currently lives in Škofja Loka, Slovenia and was named Ambassador of Slovenian Tourism in 2022. Dr Noah caught up with him on the sun-drenched terrace of Hotel Plesnik in the Logar Valley, while attending the Transformational Travel Conference, which is the subject of its own episode.
Here are some of the most inspiring quotes from the conversation:
"Long story short, I am, for lack of a better term, a sustainable journalist because I actually care about the place that I cover. "
"I'm not the arbiter of whether or not the place has reached its limit. I know stories that I will cover and that I won't cover. "
"I think it makes more sense to replace it with responsible from the perspective of you know what you have, and in your heart, you know what you should be doing. You have a responsibility to balance the compromises that it's necessary to get there. Sustainable tends to be too much of an empty label."
"Would you do it if there was no money in it?"
Feel Slovenia the Podcast is brought to you by the Slovenian Tourist Board and hosted by Dr Noah Charney.
Sound Production: Urska Charney
Dr Noah Charney: [00:00:00] Hello, welcome and dobrodošli to Feel Slovenia, the podcast. In each episode, we will explore what I have called the world's best country. Meeting locals, traveling, eating, and getting to know the very best of Slovenia. This podcast is written and hosted by me, Dr. Noah Charney, and is brought to you by the Slovenian Tourist Board.
In this episode, I spoke to American expat travel writer and ambassador of Slovenian Tourism, Alex Crevar. We discussed transformational travel, including responsible tourism and what life is like as a travel journalist. Writing about Slovenia is particularly rewarding as it so often feels like your articles open up a hidden doorway for readers with limited or no preconception about a country, they will inevitably love.
[00:01:00] Readers have an idea about what travel to say Italy or Spain, Thailand or Costa Rica might be like, but while most will have heard of Slovenia and heard good things about it, it does not have the immediate recognition of other potential travel destinations. That means that each article can have significant positive effect in encouraging people to visit.
I should know, I've been writing about Slovenia for more than a decade, regularly covering it for the Guardian newspaper's travel section, but also writing about it everywhere from Lonely Planet to National Geographic, from the Washington Post to Atlas Obscura. I've even published books about it, including Slovenology, Living and Traveling in the World's Best Country, a cookbook and travel log called Slovenian Cuisine and Gold Wine about Goriška Brda and an indigenous grape varietal called rebula.
There are a handful of specialist travel writers who are as in love with Slovenia as I am and delight in [00:02:00] writing about it. My guest today is perhaps the most prominent of them. Alex Crevar is an American expat travel writer. After living most of his life in Atlanta, Georgia, he has spent years in Croatia and Bosnia.
He's become one of the preeminent names in travel journalism, regularly publishing in the New York Times, Lonely Planet and beyond. He's written about Slovenia for those venues as well as in National Geographic, and he was involved in the development of the Slovenia Green Cycling Route. He also works as an editor and consultant on responsible tourism, though he's not sure he likes the term responsible tourism or consultant either.
He currently lives in Škofja Loka, Slovenia and was named Ambassador of Slovenian Tourism in 2022. I caught up with him on the sun-drenched terrace of Hotel Plesnik in the Logar Valley, while attending the Transformational Travel Conference, which is the subject of its own episode.
Alex Crevar: I'm [00:03:00] Alex Crevar, originally from the United States and still live part-time in the United States, and presently living in Škofja Loka.
I'm a freelance travel journalist and have been for 25 years and spending a bunch of time in the region, living in Zagreb , also living in Sarajevo. After you spend enough time in this region, as you know, it doesn't make a lot of sense to take what was fairly hard earned knowledge as a foreigner. Cause it's a, it's a complex history, and then throw that away by covering lots of places on the planet.
So, once I started covering the Balkan, I was just kind of like, yeah, you need to learn something better than superficial. I mean, I'm, it's superficial for people who are from here, but as a foreigner, it's probably slightly more than superficial.
And over the years, um, I swear that there's gonna be a point to this. I would say over the years, my, uh, focus on being slightly more of a responsible [00:04:00] travel journalist has been largely governed by the Balkans. Not because of the region per se, but because of the subconscious desire to, for lack of a better term, embed myself somewhere to actually know it, instead of what is typically fairly superficial travel journalism.
So there's a whole bunch of different levels of sustainable, we could be talking about the way the environment's treated. We could be talking about, uh, all the aspects that are kind of related to how we deal with garbage and all of that stuff. To me, as big of a part and maybe more, uh, appropriate for what I do is the story you're telling about the place and cause of one reason or another. Staying in the Balkans meant that I needed to also be probably a little bit more true to the subject than one would be if they're only there for four days at a time. I also have a lot of friends here that if I wrote something particularly stupid, [00:05:00] they would immediately let me know it.
So anyway, incredibly. Long story short, I am, for lack of a better term, a sustainable journalist because I actually care about the place that I cover. Not that other people don't care about the places that they cover, but if you're only there for a week, there's only so much caring you can do.
And that has translated into me also wanting to do the kind of travel writing that promotes seeing things more slowly. So, what maybe is a more traditional form of, uh, sustainable tourism would be the cycle tourism we do, because it doesn't use automobiles and it doesn't do some of those aspects. But again, I think it's part of the same equation.
Seeing things here that are worth seeing in a more slow way so that people can actually enjoy the region instead of breezing [00:06:00] through it. So, you know, it's taken two decades to get to a place of some level of maturity about this, you know, not the way it was in the early going. I would've taken any story about anything, you know.
Dr Noah Charney: I'm interested as a fellow writer how you act responsibly as a travel writer. I sometimes have people say, Ooh, don't tell, don't write about this place cuz then so many people know about it. And also you don't want to flood the place with tourists if it's not able to sustain them and if it's gonna feel too crowded, too hectic. So what, what do you see as your role when you're writing to make sure you're writing in a way that is gonna sustain the locations you're writing about?
Alex Crevar: Yeah, in some ways that is the question, especially now. We didn't think about that so much 20 years ago. Um, I remember, I remember coming up with that, that kind of thought maybe a decade ago or maybe a little bit more than that. And communicating with people. Cuz I covered a ton of stories in Croatia [00:07:00] and saying something to on one island or another, and them being like, how dare you make that judgment for me about whether people should come here.
And, you know, that was, so, it's a complicated question, which is the reason you're asking it, but, um, because it comes down, I'm about to give a, a talking here a little bit about respect. And that's a really patronizing word in some ways. And I'll just use myself as an example. It's not me who gets to decide those things.
I'm not the arbiter of whether or not the place has reached its limit. I know for me, I know stories that I will cover and that I won't cover. Most places, I've never had a place complain. But there's been plenty of stories, especially recently that I just simply won't cover. Editors will ask for it. And I just politely, I don't give them reasons. I politely say one reason or another why I can't.
Dr Noah Charney: Do you feel comfortable giving an example of when you passed on?
Alex Crevar: Yeah. Dubrovnik is a place that I have regularly said no to. Um, and, you know, again, I, I owe a lot, maybe, maybe most of [00:08:00] what it is that I have kind of matured into, for better or worse, to Croatia. So, I mean, zero disrespect to the country, um, and really zero disrespect to Dubrovnik or the path that it's been on. Everybody in the region, I'm sure you do too, knows exactly what I'm saying. This is, it's this Venice kind of situation, which is fine. It is what it is.
I don't need to add to that. So the decisions that I make are less about like, oh, should I take the story? And then once I've taken the story, oh, should I cover it? It's like I have to make that decision early on.
Um, recently it, it came to me again recently in the story that I was covering, cycling in Albania. It's just phenomenal there and in the mountains of Albania and, you know, it's one of those things, it's like, I can, I can definitely see this is gonna be that moment. It's like, do you remember 10 years ago when. But then, you know, it's not up to me to make that decision. So it, I make a decision about how to deal with that early on, meaning I will or won't take the story.
And, um, if I take the story, I cover it. [00:09:00] If I feel that I'm going to be, uh, not doing anything but potentially bringing them yet more wows, I don't discuss it with them or anybody else. I decide, you know, there's other stories.
Dr Noah Charney: I'm interested in your role as a responsible tourism consultant. When you're invited to consult, what's the process look like? What do you want to know from your clients, and what sort of suggestions are you likely to make?
Alex Crevar: It's funny that you say that because I was reading over the, the speech that I've gotta give in here today. And what I realize is because I'm giving a speech to a lot of folks who think about this a lot and that's not typically what I would do. Most of the times I'm going into a place, and this is patronizing in some ways and it's also very American and I try to distance myself from both of those as much as possible. But I'm an American and unfortunately there's things that are hardwired. So I will be fighting against some of this stuff all my life, but especially in this region.
And when I say this region, I don't mean so much Slovenia or even Croatia, it's usually Bosnia. And, and Serbia and Albania and Macedonia, [00:10:00] and it's places that are phenomenally beautiful. They just haven't yet quite made the priority that they need to make of some of these issues. So I have to say, to some degree, I'm going in and speaking to folks who haven't given this as much thought.
So it's a little bit easier from that perspective, and I don't want to make it seem like I'm coming in with any great solutions. I'm trying to come in and communicate what I think is correct, not just for what they're doing now, but for what they will be in the future. And that's a judgment call and it's, and sometimes I feel a little bit weird about making it, but they don't have to accept it and I give them that. I try not to make anybody, I would never use the word expert. Although, maybe, I have at times, but only because it's easier to communicate it. Consultant's, even goofy, but bringing folks what it is that I see as, uh, what is potential and what is out there, and the way that they can start the process for moving into a certain [00:11:00] sector of tourism is what I would relate.
And then often what we will do is, especially if we're creating a route which we've been doing more and more of recently. There's always an education component, but again, I don't ever want it to be patronizing cuz the folks that we're talking to certainly know their region better than I definitely will ever know it.
But they also know a lot about tourist. They might just not know exactly how to look at the kind of tourists that we're targeting. Which isn't just somebody who likes to cycle. We're trying to create slight business engine to where it's somebody who likes to cycle, who wants to be slowly but maybe has a little bit of extra dough at the end of the day, to also have a nice glass of wine.
So it's not so much that that's a concept that's beyond anybody, but it's like how do we zero it in? So they're like, ah-ha, okay, this could be my, or if they decide not to, that's also fine. So it's more about presenting the way I see it. Not presenting it in the way that makes it seem like I'm some clever guy who's [00:12:00] coming up with a solution, but a different angle, and then working at it from there.
And, you know, again, without sounding too kumbaya about this, I end up learning way more than they do because they already know this stuff. And the, the stuff that I'm bringing is more just a, it's like prism shift. Stuff that they're giving to me is like opening a world. So that's it. I mean, I never quite answer any of these complains quite as well.
Dr Noah Charney: So how about this, is there a difference between responsible tourism and sustainable tourism, or do they overlap or are they the same idea? Two different ways to this other.
Alex Crevar: Yeah, I mean, the easiest answer here is they're all words that are quickly becoming quite empty. I tend to use responsible as much as, or more than I use sustainable just because I can't stomach the idea of somebody writing down that they're a sustainable tourism expert. Right. There's three words and it's like, I never want next to my name, but, but that's essentially what I'm doing, so you know, I think responsible [00:13:00] is slightly better in my opinion, because it gives more of an opportunity for somebody to judge what it is that's responsible for them.
I'm about to give a conference speech about respect and what you show. But the word respect is really patronizing from the standpoint of me deciding whether or not your culture is worth being respected. I think it makes more sense to replace it with responsible from the perspective of you know what you have, and in your heart, you know what you should be doing. You have a responsibility to balance the compromises that it's necessary to get there. Sustainable tends to be both too much of an empty label. It also tends to be a little bit concrete and static in the way that it sees what it is that needs to be dealt with on a day-to-day basis.
So, an American can walk in and say, you should be sustainable. Somebody from a village may be like, you know, thank you for saying that, but we have this, this, and this to handle. That's more responsible to me. [00:14:00] That's just simply adding the moniker or the, the label sustainable. But, you know, truthfully, they're, they're about the same. I can just use responsible more because it doesn't seem quite full of myself.
Dr Noah Charney: So you're about to give a talk on, uh, transformational storytelling. Can you give us the nucleus of that? What's the gist of the talk?
Alex Crevar: Yeah. And I'd say it's almost like the anti-version of that because, um, I love what these guys and what the TTC is, what they're doing.
And I have, uh, have a unique relationship with this organization. Because I tend to almost play the kind of playful, adversarial role. They had put me on the, the docket to speak about respectful storytelling. But I'm gonna basically walk in and say, if you're making money off of travel, then I don't think you can use the word respectful.
You're [00:15:00] being respectful as you can be, given the compromises that you need to, to make a living off of another place with culture. So what I'm gonna challenge them, and this is the kind of the, the nut graph, the, the crux of this is that, uh, what I'm gonna challenge them to do is to create a baseline that is more pure than that.
Would you do it if there was no money in it? And then we can come up with the compromises that are necessary to make when money enters the equation. There's always compromises when money enters the equation. Um, but my guess is most folks justify it because the word respect is something that, you know, you need to use in your brochures as being the proper way to bring, but, but they're validating what they're doing, which is fine.
I just want us for at least an hour to have an open discussion where I don't need to be right. They don't need to be right. We can push back. And I, I don't want folks to agree with this, but I wanna see if we're asking questions at least to set the baseline at somewhere pure. And then get to a place where you're making your compromises [00:16:00] instead of the baseline being where you've already gone for your compromise, because you know you need to make a living. And then going from there. And we'll see. I mean, you know, maybe no one shows up.
Dr Noah Charney: I think it's gonna be a full house. Last one. Then I'll let you get to get to firing it up. Um, at the moment you're based in Slovenia. What do you like or admire about Slovenia particularly with regard to how they handle tourism?
Alex Crevar: Well, you know, there's a lot of ways to answer that. I mean, I think that the innovation that, as a foreigner and as a foreigner who spent a lot of time in Croatia, I actually have always thought that it was one of Slovenia's great strengths that they don't have a big coast line. I think it's also a strength that, that it's a small country with a fairly small population because you can develop consensus and it's also a group of folks who have more or less a general idea about what they need to preserve. It's hard to do that when you, and it's nothing against Croatia, but it's hard to do that when you build your tourism on 1200 islands and people coming and relaxing. When you come to Slovenia, you, you know, you basically, you [00:17:00] have to work a little bit.
You have to hike, you have to cycle. But that's the kind of work people want to do. You know, so what I admire about it is the fact that they have taken what they have, they've been innovative about it. They have been, uh, way ahead of, of the mark when it comes to putting, um, criteria in place to make sure folks not only do what's correct, but encourage folks who aren't doing what's correct to get there, but also rewarding folks when they get there.
You know, these Slovenia Green Cycle routes that we've been working on is essentially doing that. We don't make any money off of it. They're nobody's paying us to go on these routes. They're open to any traveler. So the places that are involved because they got the Slovenia Green certification, are now getting a chance to have something that they can market and they've earned it because they've done that. And I think that that's kind of, um, I think that that's indicative of the general, at least from, again, from my very ignorant foreign, it suits me to know that there's an agenda that, [00:18:00] although not perfect, again, starts at a baseline that at least sees purity as a, as a baseline.
There's always compromises. Instead of it being based on how the numbers of people that have visited, I know they have to do that here too, but it's not the only metric. It's a metric and folks who need to see that need to see it. But it's nice that other folks also see that one metric is also general level of local happiness and local satisfaction about the direction that things are going, which is huge, right? It doesn't happen very often.
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