Explorer Camps has been offering screen-free summer adventures for children aged 6-17 for some years now, building, friendships, confidence, skills and memories in Slovenia’s great outdoors (as reported here). But the region has much to offer in the cooler months, and so the natural step was for Steve Hartley, the camp director, to launch a winter program to get kids outside, moving and learning, albeit across the border in Austria. We got in touch and asked some questions…
Winter camps are a big step away from the summer camps you run. Why have you made this move?
We'd prefer to call it a natural step rather than a big one. In all honesty, it's something we've been looking to do for some time and with our summer camps being in a position of being one of the best international camps in Europe, we thought it was time to expand even more.
It really was a natural move as our core values, beliefs and identity are all the same whether it be the winter or summer camps. We see this as a chance of reaching more children from around the world, and helping them discover the power and magic of camps thus inspiring them to make positive differences to the world around them.
However, with that in mind it was still a challenge as when looking at winter camps we have some very specific needs and criteria for a location so it's been quite a process finding that right fit. Over three years we’ve taken.
Three years! Your needs and criteria must be very strict?
I guess you could say strict. Our Explorer families expect and deserve the best, so for winter camps we needed to find something that ticked all the boxes and, being honest, do more than ‘just’ tick the boxes. There needed to be that WOW factor.
If you don’t mind me asking, what were some of these needs and criteria in finding the right location?
Winter is quite a challenging season to work with due to the uncertainty about snow conditions, especially for our Christmas to New Year winter camp. Can we guarantee snow? Especially around Christmas time? This was the real concern from our side as we wanted to be in a place that would not just have snow, but give all of our campers that special Explorer experience in nature. A winter wonderful.
On top of that, Explorer Camps has a very entrenched set of values that we continually aim to grow within our Explorer family. It was important finding a location and hotel that had a synergy with our ethos which was surprisingly difficult to discover. A true community feel is essential to our campers as they become more comfortable in their surroundings and ultimately become happier with themselves.
Also, very important to our vision was to have accommodation that was away from touristic areas, so we have privacy to ensure the health and safety of our campers and also to bring them closer to nature. In this day-and-age we’re always striving to help our campers detox from their screens, so we needed to be at a place that would inspire them through the wildness.
Imagine that you’ve discovered that WOW factor and the best location for your winter camps?
That first time we arrived at Felseralm Hotel in Obertauern, Austria we were completely blow away. It was jaw dropping being honest. Nestled in the middle of a beautiful mountain range, completely surrounded by forests and nature. The best part about the location was that it’s secluded and away from the mass tourism most see at any major ski resort, but at the same time it’s only a 5-minute drive to the slopes.
What surprised you about the Felseralm Hotel?
The three llamas that live on-site! Haha. The kids will love them though.
That to the side, the standard of the rooms and facilities was really unexpected. Having had camps at a youth hotel before, naturally I thought the rooms would be a little outdated and worn down but they were simply stunning. Modern. Spacious. Well-kept. Whole floor just for Explorer Camps.
Then there’re the facilities. Ten-pin bowling. Indoor basketball court. Ping-pong tables. Chill out spaces. Multimedia room. Disco hall. 2 dining rooms. It has it all really. Everything we were looking for but more.
So, Felseralm Hotel ticks all the boxes?
It certainly has all the things we’re looking for … and a lot more!
The fact it’s a family run hotel with a really personal touch also aligns with our values and enables us to create a truly special Explorer community during the winter camps. On camp we work from the heart, as does the hotel which means everything to us. It’s more than just accommodation so we can ski at Obertauern. It needs to be a home away from home. And we honestly feel it will be.
We’ve talked a lot about the hotel, what about Obertauern and the ski slopes there?
They call it a ‘snow bowl’ which is where people are surrounded by snow and ski slopes, and as a result the skiing conditions are much better. They have perfect snow from November to May, and over 1oo kilometres of slopes of all different levels. Plus, there’s a really cool Snow Park for tricks etc.
What really attracted us to this location was the fact Obertauern, on top of the snow quality being so high, is that it has such a variety of slopes and difficulties meaning we can target all levels of skiers. From beginners to advanced.
How do you arrange the skiing when you have so many levels?
Our aim at Explorer Winter Camps is to ensure everybody enjoys their time on the snow. We maintain extremely high staff: camper ratios (minimum 1: 4) which gives us the flexibility to allow all campers to join groups appropriate for their level and discipline.
Beginner groups have a dedicated Austrian instructor from CSA ski school for 4.5 hours a day to teach them the skills they need to enjoy the wider ski area. A snow-savvy Explorer counsellor accompanies the groups throughout their lessons to encourage and guide campers on their journey.
When skiers and snowboarders get to a level that they can safely use all types of lifts, and confidently navigate blue slopes, they then join our guided groups led by experienced Explorer staff, who know the best places in resort for their level. Guided groups are also offered some hours of instruction with the ski school at different points through the week in order to give campers an opportunity to further develop technically.
You’re hiring Austrian instructors plus your own? Is there a need for that many staff?
As I previously mentioned, quality before quantity. Safety has always been our focus at summer camps, the slopes of Obertauern present different challenges which we need to be prepared for which is why we’re combining local expertise with our own.
While it’s true traditional ski schools wouldn’t be offering such intense supervision, it’s important to our values that we are there with our campers throughout the whole day. They need to feel that Explorer spirit 24/7.
Taking all of this into account, how do the winter and summer camps really differ?
As I mentioned, both our winter and summer camps share the same core values and beliefs where we focus on our campers’ personal growth by surrounding them in a warm, positive and caring environment. This is what makes these camps so unique and attractive to our Explorer families.
Of course, our winter and summer camps have different activities in quite different seasons however throughout it all we rely heavily upon our core values to drive our entire community to reach greater heights.
So, when our children step onto either a winter or summer camp they know what kind of environment they can expect, and the expectations that are set out. Every day we’ve got a very strong focus on growing these values as we know how much children can truly benefit from the right camp experience which ultimately leads to a greater sense of self-worth, self-belief, independence, and confidence. Which all parents want for their children, don’t you think?
So, you think that these values and personal growth is the most attractive thing about the winter camps this year?
Well, no doubt it’s the most attractive thing about Explorer Camps judging by campers’ and parents’
Clearly, the amazing ski slopes of Obertauern catch the eye and make it something really interesting for all of our families. However, the positive connections they make during camp and the life-long memories they create will be what truly shapes their lives and ultimately the biggest attraction of the camps.
Sounds like hard work putting all of that together. Activities. Location. Life Skills. Personal Approach.
Yes, but with the right team it makes things much easier. I think Explorer Camps has been truly lucky to have created an amazing foundation of experienced staff all with a very similar outlook on life, and a clear goal of helping our campers to enjoy winter and summer while ultimately becoming better young people themselves.
In saying this, we believe in continual growth so we do have online training for our staff covering a number of different areas. And, in addition to this, we also do live trainings to further boost their skills whether it be in supervision, communicating with campers, homesickness. Training is a very important part of our camps so there is a bit of work involved, but it’s worth it in the end.
Have you bitten off more than you can chew? Balancing winter and summer camps. Training.
Ha, I like a challenge and it’s really exciting starting this new project as it’s something that I truly believe in. It really is.
But, thankfully Catherine and Tim Earles, who are also expats here in Slovenia, have both stepped into co-director roles for our winter camps which has been a complete blessing. Adding them to our team really boosts all of our performances and ensures our campers will have an even better and personal experience. We’re very lucky to have them!
So, with all of the groundwork clearly been done … what excites you most about this winter?
Our firm belief is that camps have this special power and magic that can transform children. We see it all the time during the summer so we’re most excited about being able to bring these special moments to winter also!
It’s an exciting step … natural step for these camps, and we can’t wait to open our doors to even more youngsters from around the world.A video showing the summer camps
STA, 24 September 2021 - Budget carrier FlyDubai launched scheduled flights between Ljubljana and Dubai on Friday in what is a culmination of ten-year efforts by the Ljubljana Jože Pučnik Airport. The connection will also be important for connectivity with Asia and Oceania.
FlyDubai will operate three flights a week with a Boeing 737 max to offer the first direct flight connection between Slovenia and the United Arab Emirates.
Flying under the Emirates brand, passengers will be able to easily continue their journey from the Dubai hub.
According to Zmago Skobir, the head of Fraport Slovenija, which manages the Ljubljana airport, negotiations with FlyDubai and its owner, the Emirates, started in 2012.
A key breakthrough in the talks was the closing of an agreement on air transport between Slovenia and Dubai.
FlyDubai CEO Ghaith Al Ghaith said the Slovenian government, agencies and the airport had been very persistent, so the company decided to give the connection a try although some of Slovenia's neighbouring countries already have a direct link to Dubai.
Jeyhun Efendi, senior vice president of commercial operations & e-commerce, said FlyDubai started flying to this region ten years ago, first to Belgrade, Serbia. Other connections followed, and just yesterday the link with Zagreb, Croatia, was restored after being suspended during the epidemic.
Al Ghaith said that because of the Expo Dubai now was a good time to set up new connections. He is confident that the new route, currently envisaged in the winter schedule, would stick.
He sees great potential, since both Slovenia and Dubai are attractive tourist destinations and Dubai is also a hub with over 200 flights to different exotic destinations.
Bookings and reservations of the flights are promising. About 100 passengers arrived in Ljubljana with the first flight today and 80 flew to Dubai, which is fighting the Covid-19 pandemic with high vaccination rate and frequent testing.
The lowest price for a return ticket was EUR 280, but due to high demand prices have already climbed to around EUR 400.
The arrival of FlyDubai is very important for Slovenia's connectivity with Dubai and wider, Skobir said. "Asia and Oceania are at least as accessible through Dubai as they are through Istanbul," he said. Apart from Slovenians, he is also counting on passengers from Austria and Italy.
Efendi said the last couple of years had been very weird for the aviation industry. "Now we can see the light at the end of the tunnel and this connection comes exactly at a time when travel is being resumed."
Infrastructure Ministry State secretary Aleš Mihelič also welcomed the new connection, saying that Slovenia managed to get some new connections recently despite the challenging times.
It took a lot of effort, money and energy to make sure Slovenia remains connected to the world, he said, adding that the government had lowered airport tax to Fraport Slovenija and granted it EUR 5 million in special aid.
Skobir said the money had been spent on current operations and the finishing of the new passenger terminal. So far the company has lived off its accumulated profit and fresh revenue, but next year a short-term loan will probably be needed, as air traffic is still picking up relatively slowly.
"If all goes well, we expect 400,000 passengers this year, which is only 20% of the 2019 figure," he said. Next year, the number should double.
STA, 24 September 2021 - In 2021, the EU marks the European Year of Rail with a project named Connecting Europe Express - a train that will travel across Europe. On the occasion of its arrival in Ljubljana on Friday, Slovenian officials reiterated the country's commitment to modernise its railway infrastructure.
Among the officials present were Infrastructure Minister Jernej Vrtovec, director general of the Slovenian railway company Dušan Mes and European Commissioner for Transport Adina Valean, who welcomed the Divača-Koper second track project.
"As a symbolic celebration of the European Year of Rail, we want to emphasise the importance of sustainable mobility, especially railways, which must become the backbone of passenger transport," said Vrtovec in a press statement at the Ljubljana railway station on Friday.
"The state must ensure that railway transport is efficient, fast, economical and comfortable. We still have a lot to do, but we are moving in the right direction.
"We need additional investments in infrastructure, to make it easier for people to choose travelling by train instead of personal vehicles," added Vrtovec.
He highlighted establishing new connections and the renovation of railway lines and stations, and the introduction of cheaper weekend and family tickets.
#ConnectingEurope Express is an excellent opportunity to come together & create much-needed political & social momentum to put rail at the heart of our sustainable, smart & resilient mobility of the future – let’s continue to make the most of it. @AdinaValean in ?? #EUYearofRail pic.twitter.com/kxDaDmNGJJ— EU Transport (@Transport_EU) September 24, 2021
At the ceremony marking the arrival of the Connecting Europe Express in Ljubljana, Slovenske Železnice CEO Dušan Mes pointed out that rail has always been an important link in the development of Europe and Slovenia.
He added that Slovenia wanted to catch up with Western and Northern Europe in terms of investment in rail infrastructure. In doing so, it will also rely on European funds.
Anne Elisabet Jensen, the European coordinator for the Baltic-Adriatic corridor, stressed that rail plays a key role in the transition to a sustainable transport network.
She also lauded the project that aims to build the second railway line between Divača and Koper.
That was also highlighted by Commissioner Valean, who stressed that the European Commission was looking forward to this Slovenian project.
Visiting the Divača-Koper track construction site with Minister Vrtovec, the commissioner said that being part of the European corridor, it was an important project for Europe.
"It is important to us that the project is built on time," said Valean, adding she was glad to see the work on the project proceeding as it should be.
These projects are important to move into a more sustainable future and strengthen freight and passenger rail transport, she said.
Minister Vrtovec was also happy with the progress of work on the site, and the EU's support for the project, which he said would tackle the bottleneck between Divača and the Koper port.
"All the goods will arrive faster into central Slovenia and on toward countries further inland that are of key importance to the development of the Koper port," he said.
Asked about the involvement of those countries in the project, he said he would always be inviting them to use the potential of the Koper port and the second track in one way or anther.
He said that cooperation with the countries was under way but would have to be stepped up. Most recently he discussed the potential for that in Poland, which he said recognised Luka Koper as a strategic port to supply south Poland.
"Cooperation with Poland and Luka Koper will be strengthened further. We would like them to increase transshipment with Luka Koper as much as possible," he said.
Pavle Hevka, the CEO of the state-run company managing the second track project 2TDK, noted that EUR 247 million in grants had been obtained for the projects, but they planned to bid for EUR 100 million more.
The EU is celebrating the European Year of Rail in 2021 with the Connecting Europe Express, a train that started its journey in Lisbon on 2 September and will conclude it in Paris on 7 October.
With its journey through 26 countries, the train aims to raise awareness about the benefits of rail transport and the challenges still to be overcome. On its path through Slovenia, it is scheduled to stop in Celje and Maribor as well.
STA, 14 September 2021 - Slovenia has been recording solid tourism figures this year but the sector is not expected to bounce back before 2023 or, more likely, 2024, Economy Ministry State Secretary Simon Zajc said on Tuesday.
Asian guests are unlikely to return before 2023. However, the digital Covid pass will make travel easier for European tourists in that it removes uncertainty in the crossing of borders, Zajc said.
Slovenian Tourist Board (STO) figures show tourist arrivals rose by 28% year-on-year in July and August combined, but this is still 28% below 2019 figures.
In the first seven months of the year, arrivals were down 19% on the year before and 61% lower than before the Covid-19 pandemic.
The projections for autumn are positive and whole-year arrivals are expected to rise by 11% over the year before, mostly due to the return of foreign guests, according to STO director Maja Pak.
The figures were presented at the Slovenia Incoming Workshop, the biggest event for tour organisers in the country. A total of 193 tour organisers are participating, of which 82 from abroad.
STA, 13 September 2021 - The Postojna Cave, one of Slovenia's main natural landmarks, which reopened for visitors in June after the longest closure in its history due to Covid-19 restrictions, expects to have around 220,000 visitors this year. The head of the company operating the cave, Marjan Batagelj, expects the pre-pandemic figures to be reached in ten years.
"If normality in tourism is measured by the number of visitors, nights and revenue, the post-pandemic normality will be reached in ten years," said Batagelj, CEO of Postojnska Jama.
After 307 days of full closure, the company expects around 220,000 visitors this year if no new lockdown is imposed.
Batagelj said this was close to figures recorded about ten years ago. "However, today we are in a much better shape than we were then," he said, adding that comparisons with the pre-pandemic 2019 were not possible.
Postojnska Jama revenue topped EUR 8.4 million at the end of 2020, which means a loss of almost EUR 2.6 million.
Batagelj expects this year's revenue to reach about EUR 10 million, which is comparable to 2010.
The pandemic has also affected the structure of guests.
While in 2019, a third of visitors came from non-European countries, 24% were from neighbouring countries, 22% from big European countries and 7% Slovenians, this year (between June and the end of August), Slovenian guests accounted for 22% of the visitors, 21% were from neighbouring countries, 46% from the main European markets, 8% from other European countries and only 3% were non-Europeans.
Next year, some 429,000 visitors are expected at the Postojna Cave, of whom 11% Slovenians and 18% larger groups.
Slovenians spent EUR 318,000 in tourist vouchers at the Postojna Cave, and this year the figure is to double.
Batagelj expects tourist vouchers to be used also around Christmas holidays, when the living nativity scene is to be set up again after a one-year break.
During the closure due to the pandemic, several major projects were carried out, including a full renovation of the walking path, which cost over EUR 4 million. The renovation of the walking path to Predjama Castle is still under way.
Postojnska Jama also welcomed its 40-millionth visitor today. The figure was expected to be reached last spring, but due to Covid-19 the 40-millionth ticket was sold this year, to Hungarian Barbara Csecsei.
If visitor numbers continue to rise as expected, Batagelj hopes the 50-millionth visitor will be greeted in 2036.
STA, 7 September 2021 - The Kranj Parish has renovated the bell tower of the local St. Cantianus Church, the most recognisable feature in Kranj's townscape, which was declared a cultural monument of national importance this year. Visitors are now able to climb the bell tower's 163 steps to enjoy panoramic views.
The 60-metre bell tower reopened yesterday after renovation works started in late 2019. Apart from breath-taking views of the northern town, the visitors can also admire the Alps from a viewing platform at 40 metres of elevation.
Moreover, they can take a look at the bells in the belfry and learn more about the church that dates almost 600 years back.
The renovation cost some EUR 300,000 and had been delayed due to the epidemic, but its aim to preserve the church's heritage for future generations has been achieved, Kranj Parish priest Andrej Naglič told the press conference, which was held on the occasion of the reopening.
Kranj Mayor Matjaž Rakovec believes the new tourist attraction will be a great success. He also noted the historical heritage of the 15th century late Gothic church.
During the renovation of the interior, a 100-year-old beer bottle and a newspaper were found and have been put on display, Naglič said, adding that the renovation of the exterior would start in October.
The bell tower will be open for tours every day from 9am to 5pm.
Since February, the St. Cantianus Church has been known for the carillon or so-called Glockenspiel in its belfry, which plays church and folk tunes in what is the first such tourist attraction in the country.
"Such bells are common in Central and Western Europe and their installation brings us closer in a cultural sense to the area in which Kranj has always been embedded," Naglič said, adding that the carillon with its ten small bronze bells was another charming cultural attraction of the town.
STA, 31 August 2021 - Slovenia will significantly expand subsidised public transportation starting on 1 September in an effort to boost ridership and limit the use of cars.
Students with subsidised transport passes will no longer be limited to the home-to-school route, they will be able to travel on all routes in Slovenia year-round.
The cost will remain the same, at EUR 25 for a monthly pass and EUR 200 for an annual pass that will now be valid for the whole year, not just the duration of the school year.
"The simplification of the subsidised pass system will therefore benefit particularly those who live at multiple addresses or attend two universities. The process of purchasing tickets will also be simplified," Infrastructure Minister Jernej Vrtovec explained recently.
Tickets can be bought online and with little input of personal data since the system will pull all the data automatically from official records.
"A key benefit is that the whole process from applying for a subsidised ticket to the actual purchase has been digitalised. This is the first step," said Vrtovec.
There are also family passes for travel during public holidays. The aim is to encourage the use of public transport and to enable families or groups with children to go on trips and holidays more cheaply than by using cars.
The Infrastructure Ministry has also reached an agreement with the municipalities of Ljubljana and Maribor to provide free bus transport for pensioners aged 65 and over. It will be available from the beginning of October.
After already enjoying free regional and intercity transport, pensioners over 65, disabled people and war veterans are now eligible for free transport on city buses as well.
Now that Ljubljana and Maribor are on board, the ministry will engage in talks with other municipalities which have mass transit.
STA, 20 August 2021 - Passengers transiting through Slovenia are not required to produce a Covid certificate only until 29 August, the government decided on Friday, extending its previous decision regarding transit passengers by a week.
To enter Slovenia without having to quarantine for ten days, the recovered-vaccinated-tested rule continues to apply.
Transit passengers, hauliers in international transport, children below 15 years of age, property owners on both sides of the border, and people who daily cross the border for work are exempted.
To prove the exemption applies, a passenger has to produce documentation proving their status to police officers on the border, or else they are ordered to quarantine.
If a foreigner does not have residence in Slovenia, they are allowed to enter only if they unequivocally prove they have a place to quarantine, the government said after its session.
STA, 20 August 2021 - British Airways is relaunching flights between Ljubljana and London's largest airport Heathrow today, the operation of the Ljubljana Jože Pučnik Airport said on Friday.
Passengers will be at first able to fly to Heathrow on Fridays and Sunday, with another two weekly flights added at the end of August, on Mondays and Wednesdays.
Janez Krašnja, head of airline management at Fraport Slovenija, is happy that "one of the most popular routes among Slovenian air passengers is returning to Ljubljana".
He welcomed "a stronger tourist and economic connection between Slovenia and Great Britain", hoping flights will become more frequent once the Covid situation improves.
Low-cost airline Easyjet is meanwhile planning to introduce a Ljubljana-London route on 8 September, with two weekly flights to Gatwick airport.
Flydubai is another airline expected to fly from Ljubljana airport next month, expectedly on 24 September, offering direct flights to Dubai.
Despite a slow lifting of coronavirus restrictions for global travel, the number of airlines and destinations at Ljubljana airport is growing.
By the end of October, a total of 15 scheduled routes are expected to be operated.
Fraport Slovenija finds it encouraging that the number of flights on the existing routes is constantly growing, while the winter season is also expected to be promising.
Compared to the last season, charter flights also increased this season, with Greek islands, Turkey's Antalya, Djerba in Tunisia, Egypt's Sharm-El-Sheikh and Hurgada among the most popular destinations.
A return to pre-coronavirus level in Europe is however impeded by the current health situation, with crossing borders being burdened with a number of restrictions.
Still, Fraport Slovenija is optimistic as demand for air travel is recovering. "It is encouraging that Ljubljana airport recorded more than 66,500 passengers in July as this year's busiest month, a rise of 211% compared to July 2020."
STA, 19 August 2021 - The SeaDream II, a luxury yacht-style cruise ship, will dock in Koper on Friday, the first cruise ship to visit Slovenia's largest coastal city since 2019. The Sea Dream will bring around 50 [ed. even without COVID, it can only carry a maximum of 112 guests] passengers to Koper, mostly from the US and England.
The Sea Dream will arrive in the morning and stay in the city until 10pm, and then sail on to Venice. Named the best ship in the luxury cruise ship category in 2015, it will return to Koper on 2 September, according to the Koper Institute for Youth, Culture and Tourism.
Another cruise ship named Mein Schiff is currently scheduled to arrive in Koper at the end of September, and several other cruise ships arrivals are scheduled for October.
In Koper, more than 50 cruise ship arrivals were originally scheduled for this year, but due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the cruise operators kept cancelling them.
The Municipality of Koper and the Tourism Institute remain optimistic. They hope that the scheduled arrivals will help revive tourism in the city.
A total of 26 more ships with 37,000 passengers on board are expected in Koper until the end of this season, compared to the originally announced 88 ships and 130,000 passengers, the Port of Koper explained to STA. However, the list of arrivals changes on a daily basis.
STA, 14 August - The government decided on Friday that passengers transiting through Slovenia will not be required to produce a Covid certificate only until 22 August. "As of 23 August, transit will no longer be possible without meeting the recovered-vaccinated-tested rule (PCT) rule," the government said.
If they want to avoid being ordered to quarantine for ten days in Slovenia, transit passengers will have to produce a certificate proving that they have either recovered from Covid-19, tested or vaccinated.
So far, there were certain exceptions for quarantine, including for transit passengers who leave Slovenia within 12 hours after entering it.
However, the decree adopted by the government yesterday evening says that this exception will be in force only until 22 August.
If a person who has residence in Slovenia enters the country, this is not considered as transit, but entry with the intention to go home, the government said.
For now, the exceptions apply to children younger than 15 accompanied by persons who meet the PCT rule, owners or renters of property on both sides of the borders, cross-border workers and persons performing international transport services.