Visitors often glide blissfully through a destination without knowing much about the inner workings of the country they're travelling through. In trying to grasp the essence of a place, though, it can help to feel like you have your finger on the pulse. Some big-picture topics Slovenes are discussing these days include the uncertain future of the country’s politics, environmental sustainability, overtourism, and, yes, the fact the food is getting better.

Uncertain Political Times

To travellers not well versed in the ins and outs of Slovenian politics, such a well-run country must appear to be the epitome of consensus. A closer look, though, reveals a society going through a turbulent political period.

In March 2018 Prime Minister Miro Cerar resigned in protest after the country’s high court ruled against a railway project he had supported. The resignation prompted early parliamentary elections, in June 2018, that revealed wide societal divisions. The right-leaning Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS), led by former two-time Prime Minister Janez Janša, won the most votes. He had run on a broadly anti-immigrant platform, promising supporters he would not allow a repeat of 2015 and 2016, when half a million refugees travelled through the country on their way north. SDS, however, took just 25% of the vote, ending up short of a majority needed to form a government in the 90-seat National Assembly and presaging the possibility of a coalition government or yet another election. Eight other parties won parliamentary seats, though none received more than 13% support.

The election took place amid an ongoing territorial disagreement with Croatia that showed no sign of abating. At the crux is a southern part of Piran Bay used by fishermen of both countries. Slovenia accepted a delimitation ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in June 2017, but Croatia refused the ruling and accused Slovenia of influencing a member of the arbitration board. As a result, there are occasional stand-offs in the bay, which is monitored by police of both countries.

Keeping Things Sustainable

Slovenia is widely recognised for its pristine environment. Forests cover approximately 58% of the country’s land mass, the air is clean and the drinking water is some of the purest in the world. In fact, in 2016 parliament added to the country's constitution its citizens' right to drinkable water.

In 2016 the European Commission awarded Ljubljana the title of European Green Capital in recognition of the pedestrianisation of much of the city centre, the promotion of environmentally friendly transport, such as cycling, and the provision of free drinking fountains to discourage people from buying bottled water.

Ljubljana also became the first EU capital to adopt a zero-waste strategy, which promotes recycling and aims to reduce the amount of waste sent to landfill sites and incinerators to zero. Under this plan, the capital, by 2025, promises to increase the percentage of waste that is separated from its current 60% to a target of over 75%. Other initiatives include promoting composting and encouraging more ecofriendly packaging.

Slovenia started recycling waste in 2001, but progress has accelerated in recent years. The country’s leader in recycling efforts is the town of Vrhnika, 21km from the capital. Residents there already recycle 76% of their waste and have pledged to increase this to more than 80% by 2020.

A Culinary Revival

Slovenia made culinary headlines in 2017 when ‘The World's 50 Best Restaurants’ recognised Ana Roš of Kobarid’s Hišo Franko as the ‘World’s Best Female Chef’. Roš, who taught herself to cook, was hailed for reviving the use of locally grown produce in her recipes. A year later, the group recognised Hišo Franko itself as one of the world’s 50 best places to eat.

Roš represents the tip of a nationwide trend towards using farm-fresh and locally sourced ingredients. Though a Slovenian restaurant is yet to win a Michelin star, the feeling is it's just a matter of time.

Slovenes are also undergoing a revived interest in their own culinary heritage. Over the past decade Slovenia has succeeded in gaining protected status within the EU for several regional and national dishes, including in 2015 for the Carniolan sausage (Kranjska klobasa). The trend has been underpinned by the Slovenian Tourist Board, which has launched a campaign to identify and support uniquely Slovenian dishes as part of the country’s bid to win designation as a European Gastronomic Region in 2021.

A parallel to developments in food can be seen in both wine and beer. In winemaking, the emphasis is shifting towards greater production of organic wines, using sustainable farming and production techniques, and towards smaller, family-owned wineries. A growing craft beer movement is rejecting industrial-scale brewing in favour of smaller producers and traditional beer-making methods.

Booming Tourism

The secret is out that Slovenia is a beautiful country and tourism is growing rapidly. The number of tourist arrivals in 2017 reached 4.7 million, a 13% increase from the previous year. The year 2018 was on track for another record.

The increase in tourist arrivals outpaced Europe as a whole, where tourism grew by around 8% in 2017, and exceeded Croatia, where the number of arrivals in 2017 increased by 12%. Though admittedly Slovenia is starting from a smaller base.

Most people head to Lake Bled, the coastal resorts and Ljubljana, and these areas can certainly feel very crowded during August. Comparatively, though, Slovenia is still below levels of overtourism seen in some other parts of Europe. The Slovenian Tourist Board is aware of the potential for overtoursim and officials say they intend to focus on promoting smaller-scale ‘boutique tourism’. Visitors can avoid crowds by focusing on less high-profile parts of the country.