Actors, Discourses and Interfaces
of Rural Tourism Development at the Local Community Level in
Slovenia: Social and Political Dimensions of the Rural Tourism
by Alenka Verbole
This paper addresses the policy and politics of the development
of rural tourism at the local level in Slovenia and attempts
to relate it to the issue of sustainability. Since gaining its
independence in 1991, Slovenia has been actively creating a
niche for itself in the new Europe. The government has been
formulating policies on all aspects of national life, including
the development of tourism and rural development. Some of the
new national policies approach tourism in the countryside as
a potential source of income generation that will enhance the
viability of rural communities (Ministry for Agriculture, Forestry
and Food, 1993), while others view the rural landscape and the
human and cultural capital of the local communities as potential
tourism products (Ministry of Economic Affairs, 1995).
Using an actor perspective this paper focuses on the different
local social actors who are trying to ‘transform’ rural tourism
development to fit their perceptions, needs, values and agendas.
It also evaluates the gap between the rhetoric of national planning
and policy concerning the development of tourism in rural areas,
and what actually happens on the ground at the local community
level. Rural tourism does not develop in a vacuum but is embedded
in a given social, political and historical context. In Slovenia,
although this implies taking account of the new political reality,
the old hierarchies and structures cannot be ignored as attitudes
do not change as quickly as events (Verbole, 1999: 257).
It is often argued that sustainable rural tourism development
cannot be achieved without the full support of the rural community
that it will affect. However, who really decides and who participates
(and at the end who benefits and who loses) in rural tourism
development are questions that need to be raised as such ‘communities’
are not homogeneous entities. Neither are local people just
passive recipients of externally tailored developmental plans
and their impacts. From the case study it can be observed that
rural tourism development in Slovenia, as elsewhere, is a negotiated
process, as different actors involved in the on-going development
process see it from genuinely different perspectives. Consequently,
it is argued that any assessment of sustainability is relative
and socially constructed.
From a negative end outcome, this paper stresses that the development
and implementation of policies and options for the sustainable
development of rural tourismshould not only include an evaluation
of which tourism assets need to be sustained and how. It should
also embrace an evaluation of the various interests of the social
actors, their organising practices and strategies, the power
relations, the different discourses andmanifested in the process
of development and decision- making and how these reflect upon
the development of rural tourism. In short, this paper argues
that any assessment of sustainable (tourism) development should
take into consideration its political dimension.
During the last two decades the European countryside and rural
communities have been affected by profound changes. In the mid-1980s,
many countries, including Slovenia, began to look for alternative
and (it was hoped) more profitable economic activities to help
revitalise the countryside and its rural communities, as it
became obvious that the agricultural sector alone did not hold
the key to rural development.
One of the main strategies of this search was to identify ways
of encouraging the diversification of rural economic activities.
This process brought with it the notion that tourism could be
used to help revitalise rural environments and communities.
But, as Long (1989) has suggested, there is often a large gap
between the rhetoric of national planning and policy concerning
the development of tourism in rural areas and the reality of
what happens at the local community level. The outcomes of the
intervention may differ substantially from those planned. In
this context, the concept of intervention is primarily used
to refer to state policy and its implementation by government
and development institutions, including research bodies. Planned
intervention (i.e.measurements and policies) can be ‘top-down’
or externally organised. However, intervention can also be initiated
‘bottom-up’, aiming to advance local interests and thereby reshape
state policy actions (Long, 1984: 177–179).
The rural tourism development process involves many social actors
who continually reshape and transform plans and policy through
interaction and negotiation. Local people are not passive recipients
of the consequences of rural tourism development policy, but
are instead capable of making themost out of a given situation
(i.e. initiating a developmental project through the bottom-up
It is of vital importance to understand the sociopolitical dynamics
of the process taking place within the local communities as
rural tourism develops. This is necessary to ensure that the
development of rural tourism is sustainable, including allowing
for the participation of the local community in the development,
as well as for participation of all the members in the given
community. Therefore, several questions need to be asked. Who
initiates the development process? How are the terms of development
negotiated? Who gets to participate in the process? Who decides?
And who actually benefits or loses from the development process?
The insights into the rural tourism development process presented
in this paper were drawn from an actor-oriented perspective
(Long, 1989, 1992, 1997; Long & van der Ploeg, 1989; Villarreal,
1992; Verbole, 1999). The actor-oriented approach allows us
to conceptualise rural tourism development as a dynamic, on-going
process that is shaped and reshaped by social actors. This actor-oriented
approach, to the ethnographic exploration of the social realities
of rural development processes was conducted in Pišece, a small
rural community of some 1200 inhabitants in south-eastern Slovenia.
Datawere gathered during three years of qualitative field research
(1994–1997) using informal and semi-structured interviews, (extended)
case studies (Mitchell, 1983), life histories (Long & Roberts,
1984), participatory observation (Bernard, 1988) and situational
analysis (Long, 1992).
Opting for a qualitative and non-positivist inquiry highlighted
the dynamic processes of social change. Among others, Strauss
and Corbin (1990) contend that studying issues of change should
involve in-depth investigation and the incorporation of [social]
action/interaction, as this varies over time in response to
changes in conditions. Using an actor-oriented approach, it
was important to identify the problems and concepts as perceived
and presented by the social actors themselves, and to look for
similarities and/or differences in their social interpretations
and to investigate the types and content of the social relationships
among them. This implied an investigation into social configurations,
i.e. the patterns of social order and organisation and their
fragility or fluidity (Verbole, 1999: 64–74). Hence a number
of contrasting social settings – bars, the community centre,
administrative bodies, voluntary associations, societies and
clubs – were chosen specifically to seek out the different actors’
points of view and to learn more about the differing discourses.
The author travelled to the fieldwork area ten times for different
lengths of time, returning every three to five months, and occasionally
the schedule was adjusted to catch the ‘momentum’ of the occasion
(e.g. a local meeting).
The ethnographic data were collected according to the grounded
theory approach (Strauss & Corbin, 1990) and the theoretical
approach sought to uncover the various layers of Pišece’s reality
that emerged from the negotiations and struggles between the
Brief Background to Rural Tourism
Some rural areas of Slovenia, such as Gorenjska and the Upper
Savinja Valley, have a long tradition of rural tourism, or more
correctly of agritourism, going back to the nineteenth century
and which by the 1930s was well established. After the Second
World War tourismin rural areas stagnated as efforts were redirected
to the development of tourist resorts in coastal and mountainous
areas. A real boom in agritourism occurred in the late 1970s,
fuelled in part by the government’s growing concern to secure
additional income for mountain farmers – related to the small
size of the farms, limited production conditions and continuing
depopulation trends – and helped along by the public agricultural
advisory service, which trained special advisors for supplementary
activities andwork for farm families (Verbole, 1997).
Over the last 25 years, various forms of agritourism have expanded
slowly across Slovenia, primarily to provide a secondary source
of income for farm-family households (Verbole, 1997). These
include stationary agritourism, with farms offering full board,
half board or bed and breakfast arrangements, and guests staying
either with the farm family or in a guest house; and excursion
agritourism revolving around ‘open-door farms’, where tourists
could eat and explore farm-life for a few hours, and the recent
phenomenon of ‘camping on the farm’. However, despite much investment
– significant sums in special loans and grants provided to promote
the development – agritourism did not provide the hoped-for
benefits. For example, many farmers and farm-women found tourists
too demanding, for example, wanting luxuriously furnished rooms
they were unable to provide and food that was rarely served
at the farmers’ own table. Farm-women complained that catering
for tourists put too much extra pressure on them. Farmers reported
that tourists damaged the farmland and mistreated the farm animals
(Verbole, 1995, 1998).
The interest in agritourism and in other forms of rural tourism
increased as the socioeconomic situation in Slovenia changed
in the late-1980s, owing to the political, economic and social
transformations at that time (Verbole, 1999: 212–222). Privatisation,
for example, provided the foundations for economic restructuring,
including the development of alternative forms of rural tourism,
recreational enterprises and attractions and different forms
of accommodation. The newly emerging private rural enterprises
developed rapidly, providing various activities which include
rafting andmountain biking, and they began to compete with family
farms for the available resources and income.
To be able to follow up the demands and meet the needs of the
changing situation in Slovenia’s countryside, the Ministry of
Agriculture, Forestry and Food established a Centre for Rural
Development and Village Revitalisation (CRPOV) in 1991. Subsequently,
the CRPOV has promoted the development of rural areas through
specific projects in which rural tourismis often given an important
role (Ministry for Agriculture, Forestry and Food, 1993).
Pišece: Complexities of the Transformation
Process of Rural Tourism Development at the Local Level
Many local communities became interested in getting involved
with the CRPOV programme and in developing rural tourism. Some
members of Pišece’s local community adopted various strategies
to enable their local community and themselves to be enrolled
in such a project.
In 1993 a group of Pišece local residents, who later called
themselves the CRPOV Initiative Board (CIB), decided to take
actionas they no longerwanted to live in an ‘underdeveloped’
and slowly dying local community. They voiced the concern felt
by many local people that there was a generally held negative
image of Pišece as an isolated, dying community, with high unemployment,
low income-generation opportunities, lack of appropriate housing
and nothing to keep the younger generation at home. In addition,
the general feeling in Pišece was that the state and municipality
authorities were showing little or no interest in local people’s
problems and needs (Verbole, 1999). Through the efforts of a
student from Pišece, the villagers enlisted assistance from
the University of Ljubljana, and an international workshop on
rural development in peripheral areas was held in 1994 in a
well-known spa resort close to Pišece.
Pišece krajevna skupnost
Pišece krajevna skupnost is situated in the Posavje region in
the south-east of Slovenia, less than 20 km from the border
with Croatia (Figure 1). The term krajevna skupnost (‘local
community’) refers to a sub-municipal administrative area that
is usually made up of several neighbouring settlements. Almost
the whole of the Slovenian–Croatian border region is underdeveloped
and demographically threatened as a result of past development
policies (Gosar and Klemen i , 1994; Ravbar, 1994). The krajevna
skupnost includes five settlements. Pišece villagewith its 400
inhabitants is the administrative seat and the centre of this
‘local community’, with a primary school, church, community
centre, post-office, a few public houses, shops and a bus station.
Set in a picturesque landscape, surrounded with vineyards, Pišece
village appeared to possess the potential to develop as an attractive
tourist destination: a relatively well-developed infrastructure
within the local context, a favourable climate, vineyards andwine
cellars, forests and river naturewalks, cultural and historical
heritage (a blacksmith’s museum, a castle and a church dating
back to the 13th century), hospitable people and good food.
In addition, Pišece is situated close to several health resorts,
which attract thousands of tourists every year who might be
interested in something new – Pišece had another asset, an active
Tourist Society. Tourist societies are local branches of Slovenia’s
Tourist Association, a non-governmental non-political organisation
established in 1905 to stimulate the development of tourism
and to provide links between tourismand local people (Verbole,
1999). Set against these positive aspectswere a lack of accommodation
for tourists and an ageing local population which was relatively
uneducated, both in general terms and with regard to tourism
and tourism-related services (Rus, 1995).
Yet Pišece had a history of tourism dating back to the early
1960s. In that period, hunting became increasingly popular among
Slovenia’s political elite, and business travellers fromother
parts of the then Yugoslavia regularly visited. In the early
1970s foreign hunters followed the local elite and became regular
guests (Verbole, 1999: 142). The local Tourist Society, which
for more than 35 years had been themajor force behind rural
tourismdevelopment, had 30 beds to offer, and Pišece was a popular
day-trip destination for gastronomes from Slovenia and Croatia
who wanted to taste local specialities served in local inns
and also for occasional tourists from the nearby health resort.
The mid-1980s were significant for rural tourism in terms of
the public recognition of Pišece’s achievements in becoming
an attractive tourist destination at the local as well as the
national level: in 1985 Pišece was chosen as the most beautiful
place in the municipality, and a year later it won the same
award in a national context. But tourism also started to decline
As it subsequently emerged, sociopolitical dynamics would play
an important role in determining the success of attempts to
Local and external actors: The
first signs of power asymmetries and local divisions
The 1994 Workshop, organised jointly by the University of Ljubljana
and the University of Klagenfurt, was largely devoted to paper
presentations, most of which dealt with rural development in
peripheral areas, complemented by comparative field trips to
peripheral areas in Slovenia (Pišece) and Austria (Eissenkapel).
During the official session, a group of young villagers from
Pišece participated actively (most of them were members of the
CIB), discussing the problems of their community with the professionals.
Prominent local figures such as the mayor dropped in for a few
minutes each day. However, the official representatives of the
Pišece community were conspicuous by their absence, which triggered
questions about local power relations and dynamics. The concept
of power in this paper relates not only to the ability to influence
others, but also to the strategies and means that the various
actors use to negotiate the most favourable terms for development
(Bernstein, 1978). In addition, power is not seen as something
one can own but as an outcome of negotiation (Clegg, 1989).
The public gathering was a window onto Pišece’s social reality,
which is here defined as being made up of differing cultural
perceptions and social interests and constituted by the past
and on-going social and political struggles that take place
between the social actors involved (Long&van der Ploeg, 1989).
It exposed whatwas in local people’sminds and revealed their
expectations – better roads, an enlarged school building, a
renovated church, enrolment in a CRPOV project, specific benefits
from experts, how to make Pišece more attractive for tourists.
Some key actors were identified during this phase and, in addition
to collective interests, more individual agendas also became
apparent. At this stage, the asymmetries between the formal
authorities of the krajevna skupnost and newly emerging organisational
forms (such as the CIB) could be observed.
Local and external actors’ involvement
in Pišece’s early attempts to develop rural tourism
The following were identified as key actors in the process of
rural tourism development in Pišece:
- A group of young intellectuals (recent graduates and students).
Their main ‘collective’ objectivewas to ensure that Pišece should
rid itself of its peripheral image and that they (the young
people) should have the opportunity to live and work in Pišece.
They hoped that the 1994Workshop would help them to achieve
their dreams.As the process evolved, five young villagers joined
the CIB, an informal group that initiated the process of change.
- The CIB. Itsmembers belonged to three different generations,
including the five young villagers mentioned earlier, and three
more ‘senior’members – the president of the Tourist Society,
the parish priest and the head-master. The CIB established itself
as the ‘representative’ of Pišece in rural tourism development
as well as in rural development in general. It also acted as
a mediator between the local community and external actors (e.g.
links with the University of Ljubljana), thus establishing a
wide web of linkages to networks beyond the boundaries of the
local community and to their resources and power.
- The Roman Catholic Church and the local priest. The priest
was strongly involved in local matters.Early in the process
he was identified as one of the key actors in Pišece (i.e. a
member of the team that helped to organise the 1994 Workshop,
a member of the CIB, amember of the Tourist Society and the
Sport Club). The fact that, in the past, the church was unlikely
to get involved with community affairs made Father Joe (and
the Catholic Church) a very interesting actor to study. His
active participation may be seen as an indication that an increase
in the influence of the church in secular affairs might be more
acceptable today, as well as an indication of the growing pressure
of the church to become more active and influential beyond strictly
religious matters. Throughout the process, in his attempts to
develop Pišece through rural tourism the parish priest not only
developed horizontal social networks within the local community,
but also lobbied vertically (i.e. with various ministries).
The lobbying had a double effect: it helped Father Jo e to establish
himself as the spokesman of the community at the national level,
while it also gave him more ‘leverage’ among the members of
the local community.
- The local primary school – perceived as the centre of local
cultural life – and its headmaster. Although he did not directly
participate in the 1994 Workshop, afterwards he was anxious
to get as much information as possible to spread to his network
of external actors (i.e. with the University of Klagenfurt in
Austria) and to get various projects to keep the school alive.
His membership of the CIB allowed for participation in local
- Various voluntary associations, societies and clubs through
which local people were able to express their interests and
to participate in the development of their local community.
These associations, societies and clubs represented an important
part of local social life. Sometimes they also filled the ‘void’
in activities that were of less interest to the formal authorities
(i.e. leisure activities, development of handicrafts, preservation
of the local cultural heritage). An examination of the various
voluntary associations, societies and clubs showed how social
ties cut across this small community. In total there were 14
different voluntary associations, clubs and societies, ranging
from the Tourist Society to the Hunter’s Society, and from the
Farm Women’s Association to the Firemen and to the CIB. The
voluntary associations, societies and clubs were important as
they enabled local inhabitants to obtain and exchange information
as well as to push for possible alternative development. Organisations’
expectations and interests in rural tourism development often
had much to do with the expectations and interests of its individual
members or groups of members who pursued the interests of their
clique or group through particular organisational networks (Verbole,
1999: 158). For example, while the common perception was that
the economic aspects of tourism development provided important
benefits (i.e. the creation of new jobs, additional income,
improved infrastructure), several different ideas existed with
regards to the type and extent of rural tourism, ranging from
Pišece as a health and recreational resort, as a pilgrimage
sight or as a satellite village for commuting workers. Some
actors sought to occupy as many key positions as possible in
these organisations in order to increase their room for manoeuvre
in the local webs of power (i.e. as the president, secretary
or treasurer). Although access to voluntary associations, societies
and clubs was available to all members of the local community,
a dominance in various associations, societies and clubs was
observed in terms of two basic social divisions that cut across
the Pišece community. The first of these two divisions was between
a ‘phone’ and a ‘no-phone group’ resulting from a ten-year-old
dispute concerning the installation of telephones in the local
community. The second social division, between ‘reds’ and ‘blacks’,
reflected local philosophical and political allegiances. Local
people tended to end up in a group or an alliance with people
with similar experiences related to the phone dispute or similar
religious or political orientation: ‘reds’ with ‘reds’ and with
the ‘no-phone’ group; and ‘blacks’ with ‘blacks’ and members
of the ‘phone’ group (Verbole, 1999). Thus, in Pišece, the social
group, family clan, clique or network to which the actors belonged
to was important. Membership of a given group influenced a local’s
access to informationand to the decision-making processes. The
actors who did not belong to the ‘right’ social group were,
as suggested by Lukes (1974), actually excluded from participation
in many local activities including those that evolved around
thedevelopment of rural tourism. Social divisions alsomade it
very difficult for actors to shift between the networks and
cliques. This is important, for it shows that simple models
of tourist development can come to nought if local organisations
and their political struggles are not understood and taken into
account in planning and implementing rural tourism development
- The formal authorities of Pišece – the president and secretary
of the krajevna skupnost. Traditionally, in rural Slovenia,
the president had an important role in solving the ‘local community’s’
ongoing problems and in deciding its future direction by formulating
appropriate development strategies (Barbi , 1994). This changed
with the introductionof a new system for local self-government
in 1994 as the role of the krajevna skupnost and its formal
representatives of authority were brought to question. In the
past the krajevna skupnost played an important role in the development
of the ‘local community’. Following the new law on local self-government,
all the powers of the krajevna skupnost were transferred to
the municipality. This meant that there were now fewer opportunities
to pursue ‘local interests’ within the municipality’s development
The welcoming formalities at the 1994 Workshop,which could be
considered to be characteristic of Slovenia’s rural culture
at official or important gatherings, indicated that a new sociopolitical
order was emerging in Pišece. The parish priest was included
in the programme and the president of the krajevna skupnost
was the last to deliver his speech (Verbole, 1999: 93). This
would have been unlikely to happen in the past, when the president
of the krajevna skupnost was one of the most important people
in the community. It was observed in Pišece that, while the
official authorities were not interested in developing the Pišece
area, informal groups (e.g. the CIB) were trying to extend their
room for manoeuvre and wield power to be able to initiate change
through the development of rural tourism.
Reflecting on how the 1994Workshop came about, it may be recalled
that it was initiated by an informal group of villagers, the
CIB, who made contact directly with a research institution,
by-passing the krajevna skupnost and partly also themunicipality.
The event was organisedwith the help of the local community’s
informal networks and was supported by external actors – through
the networks of ‘friends of friends’ (Boissevain, 1974). Local
organisations (i.e. cliques, family clans, voluntary associations,
societies and clubs) played an important role in this process.
The struggle towield power over the rural tourism development
process also brought to the surface the two previouslymentioned
social divisions.These divisions and cleavages were not initially
apparent, but over time proved to be crucial factors in the
decision-making processes and for lines of communication in
the local community. Communication between the ‘blacks’ and
‘phone’ group as opposed to the ‘no-phone’ and ‘reds’ group
was limited and reserved. These lines of communication–which
in Pišece were defined in terms of its history, and the ‘powers’
they represented – regulated access by locals to different networks
and even to social meeting places, such as local bars. It was
also observed that, for senior members of the community, the
two divisions were more marked than for the members of the younger
This study from Slovenia indicates that local communities are
not necessarily homogeneous in terms of their resources, interests,
needs and views on rural tourism development, and neither do
they benefit equally from the development of tourism. In Pišece,
a large segment of the population was indirectly involved in
rural tourism development at a local level, while only a few
local actors had direct influence over the ongoing process.
Among them, there was the strong presence of the voluntary sector
and the Catholic Church. The emergence of the latter reflected
the change to a multi-party democratic system of government
and the liberalisation of culture, suggesting that, in the future,
new players in the local community development process will
have to be reckoned with. Furthermore, it was observed that
local social groups, such as family clans, networks and cliques,were
very important in obtaining and controlling access to the decision-making
process. It was through the family clans, networks and cliques
that various local actors become involved in strategies to promote,
control, reshape and make the most of the internal and external
interventions. The family clans were built explicitly on kinship
ties, while the local networks and cliques were built using
other resources, such as religious orientation, political affiliation,
value systems and links to actors in positions of power in the
local community and to external actors. These factors, importantly,
influenced the exclusion and inclusion of actors from certain
networks and cliques, thus the rural tourism development process
was dominated by the struggles between the various groups and
ended in a stalemate position with no winners and no ‘sustainable
However, the stalemate is only a temporary situation in the
development process. As argued earlier, rural tourism development
is a dynamic and ongoing process, socially constructed and negotiated.
Actors constantly redefine it through their social actions and
inter-relationships. They may modify their views and interests
while new actors may enter the process to accelerate rural tourism
development, resulting in the emergence of new power relationships
and the construction of new values and interests.
Developing and evaluating ‘sustainable rural tourism development’
does not happen in a vacuum, as it is embedded in a given social,
political and historical context. Studies of tourism development
carried out in a specific locational context can contribute
greatly to (a) an understanding of how the many aspects of the
development process are negotiated at the local as well as the
national level; and (b) to the actual development of tourism
that can benefit local communities.
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