Marija Labović, Director of TOS - We want every guest in Serbia to feel welcome and to inspire future visitors with their experience

Source: eKapija Wednesday, 13.03.2024. 19:30
(Photo: Peter Irman)
Last year was a record for the number of tourist arrivals and overnight stays, and the new one also started with record numbers. As Marija Labović, director of the Tourist Organization of Serbia, says for eKapija, these facts are pleasing, but also binding. We discussed the strengths of our tourist offer, as well as segments with great potential, which should be further improved. Find out how TOS prepares for Expo 2027, how it educates its staff, and how it sees cooperation with the region.

Last year was a record year for Serbia`s tourism. What are the expectations for the current year and what do you see as our greatest asset?

- In 2023, according to NBS data, a foreign exchange inflow from tourism was realized in the amount of EUR 2.558 billion, which is 8% more than in 2022. Last year was also a record for the number of tourist arrivals and overnight stays, with a 13% increase in the number of arrivals and overnight stays of foreign guests. The new year 2024 also started with record numbers, with an overall growth of 8% in tourists. An increase in the number of domestic tourists of 6% and an increase in the number of foreign tourists of 11% are recorded. All these are facts that are very pleasing, but also oblige, so that the year 2024 will be recorded as very successful, as far as the tourism sector is concerned.

When it comes to foreign tourists, our biggest assets are city breaks, first and foremost Belgrade and Novi Sad with a rich offer of cultural and historical heritage, various contents, excellent gastronomic offer and interesting night life. Domestic tourists most often decide to stay in spas and mountain centers. The natural beauty of Serbia is certainly our advantage in the tourist offer, which is promoted through active vacations, staying in nature and rural tourism.

The Danube is an important tourist product that should always be emphasized, because it combines natural beauty and rich cultural and historical heritage.

Which segment of Serbia`s tourist offer do you consider to be undervalued? How can we make it attractive for tourists?

- The tourism potential of Serbia is great and one of the main goals for this year is the improvement and development of rural tourism. Accordingly, the funds allocated by the Ministry of Tourism and Youth for businesses and individuals engaged in this branch of tourism, which includes farms, ethnic houses and rural households, have been separated from the budget of the Republic of Serbia. As the funds are primarily intended for investments in arranging, equipping and renovating the space, as well as expanding accommodation capacities, a significant improvement in Serbia`s tourist offer in the sphere of rural tourism is expected. Rural tourism is becoming more and more popular and interesting not only for domestic but also foreign tourists, so a quality offer is of great importance for success.

Winery (Photo: Predrag Stanić)Winery

Also, the Danube through Serbia is an exceptional tourist product that combines natural beauty and rich cultural and historical heritage, exactly what tourists are looking for. The national multi-year project "Sail in Serbia", which was launched last year and continues this year, includes the construction of new piers, and thus the growth of water traffic. The entire nautical infrastructure along the Danube, which has already been built and which will be built, will affect the increase in Serbia`s tourism offer.

The number of foreign tourists is increasing, so last year there were 230% more Chinese tourists than in 2022. Which markets will our campaign focus on this year, when it comes to visits?

- The promotion of Serbia as a tourist destination is carried out continuously throughout the year, both on the domestic and international markets. Our promotional activities will be intensive this year as well, with the aim of presenting the diversity and wealth of our country`s tourism offer to a wider audience, both in the region and in distant destinations. Our promotion includes a large number of markets, including the region, the countries of Western Europe, and other markets, the most represented of which are the markets of Turkey and China.

Do you think that more work needs to be done to attract domestic tourists and how do you see the role of tourist vouchers?

- Every year, the Tourist Organization of Serbia also implements campaigns aimed at domestic tourists, because they represent almost 50% of the total number of tourists and about 55% of the total overnight stays by tourists in Serbia. Our campaigns are year-round, with a special emphasis on the summer and winter tourist seasons, and we implement them through all types of communication, from traditional campaigns on TV and radio, to digital campaigns through various types of online communication (social networks, online portals, YouTube, etc. .)

Vouchers certainly contributed significantly to the attraction of domestic tourists, the fact that they were distributed in record time this year also confirms how great the interest of our citizens is in this type of subsidized vacation. Also, they contributed to the extension of tourists` stay at the destination as well as the extension of the tourist season, and they also stimulated accommodation service providers to register and thus reduced the gray economy.

One of the biggest problems in tourism and hospitality is staff and workforce. On the other hand, it is imperative to follow trends, introduce smart technologies, and sustainability principles. In that sense, how do you see the development of the hotel industry and the hospitality offer in our country in the period ahead? Where are our strengths, and where are our weaknesses, and how can we use or overcome them?

- During the previous years, and the Tourist Organization of Serbia will continue with this in the future, we successfully organized a series of trainings for employees in the tourism sector, with an emphasis on recognizing the importance of the human factor in tourism. We are aware that Serbian hospitality is one of the key segments of our tourist offer, and it is important to preserve it and improve it further more.

The trainings for employees that we implement are not only aimed at strengthening skills, but also at monitoring new trends and technologies that facilitate the work of restaurateurs and improve the experience of guests. We want every guest to feel welcome and to be able to convey their experience in Serbia in the best possible way, inspiring potential future visitors.

Taor springs (Photo: Miroslav Jeremić)Taor springs

In three years, the specialized exhibition Expo awaits us. It will undoubtedly have an impact on the field of tourism. Is there a strategy planned that will be aimed at the arrival of tourists on this occasion?

- The specialized world exhibition Expo is an opportunity for Serbia and Belgrade to present themselves to the world as good hosts, and at the same time it will have an impact on the entire image of the country. The Expo is a big event that will certainly attract a large number of international companies and tourists, and Serbia will become the center of the world during the three months of the World Expo.

We have already started with the promotional activities related to Expo 2027 and the promotion of Belgrade as a host at fairs abroad as well as at the recently held tourism fair in Belgrade. In the coming period, the promotion will be further intensified, as the exhibition approaches.

How current is the regional cooperation of tourist organizations in the creation of a common offer of the Balkans?

- The modern tourist is looking for an intensive vacation that will offer him new experiences, acquaintance with different cultures, enjoyment of untouched nature. These are all the potentials that the Balkans offer to tourists due to their position. That is why the connection of regional tourism organizations is one of the key factors that influence the growth of the number of overnight stays by tourists.
The Open Balkans initiative is an excellent opportunity to present ourselves with a joint offer, especially in distant markets, and thereby influence further growth in tourist arrivals and overnight stays.

It was the Wine Vision of the Open Balkans event, which was organized for the second time in a row together with North Macedonia and Albania in 2023, that showed the importance of connecting countries both economically and touristically by creating a unique wine route.
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