Responsible tourism in North Macedonia

Nikola Gruevski ordered the restoration of Skopje with all the panache and style of Del Boy on acid. A few fake Doric columns here; giant warrior monuments there; a baroque-style ferris wheel over the Goce Delcev bridge, fountains in the Vardar River, shiny new office blocks, international hotel chains, and neoclassical facades on practically every other building in the entire city.

Yes, Skopje’s brutalist, modernist communist-era architecture could have done with a new lease of life but the makeover it received under Gruevski in 2014 may well have left an even more devastating legacy. Coupled with pollution from antiquated factories and domestic heating, poverty in urban and rural communities, and inadequate waste disposal facilities; if more time had been spent helping the poor and less time spending over €670million on the Skopje nationalist vanity project, maybe North Macedonia wouldn’t have quite as many social and environmental issues as it has today.

Find out more about the issues facing one of Europe’s poorest countries and what you can do to help.


North Macedonia’s rubbish

Unfortunately, Wombles aren’t from North Macedonia. Litter aligns the avtopats (auto roads) and city streets from central Skopje to the shores of Lake Ohrid. Even in national parks like Pelister, along the walking trails, you’ll find rubbish liberally discarded or left to pile up against bins. There are also more than 1,000 illegal dumpsites where rural communities and villages dispose of their waste.
It used to be that Yugoslavian era prisoners in bright orange jump suits would work in chain gangs to clear the highways and streets of rubbish. This no longer happens, but it seems no one had the foresight to tell North Macedonians. This is a poor country, unquestionably, and there’s a real lack of infrastructure. There are also very few fines or penalties imposed if you’re caught littering. But that should have nothing to do with keeping it clean.
Trying to change local people’s collective conscience when it comes to clearing up, recycling and being accountable for their own rubbish, is an area where tourism can help to make a difference. Goran Janevski has been working in partnership with our Macedonia small group tour experts, Explore, for more than 20 years: “Tourism is helping to educate people and change attitudes to picking up trash. Our guides often organise rubbish clear ups, especially in the national parks and along the walking trails. We very publicly campaign to have better facilities in place. For example, if there were more designated picnic spots in national parks with adequate rubbish bins, then people would make use of them rather than just eating wherever they chose. We try to work with our guesthouse owners too, and with the service stations and food courts where we stop when travelling across the country. We explain that people won’t come back if they see rubbish all over the place. It’s that simple.”
Plastic waste is another area where North Macedonia hasn’t been at the front of the queue for modern thinking. The irony is that drinking water from taps is available all over the country and the spring water that you’ll find in the mountains is unbelievably fresh and pure. The trouble is that groups of travellers often arrive without their own refillable water bottles. Local guides are often left with no other alternative than to offer water in plastic bottles. Yes, you can reuse it once you’ve got it but what happens when you leave? The majority of tourists aren’t going to want to take their rubbish home with them, especially not a battered old plastic water bottle.

Small pockets of local people are trying to make a difference and change attitudes; but the Macedonian government really needs to step up and take control of the country’s waste disposal problems themselves. Perhaps if they stopped spending money on turning Skopje into a kitsch nationalist tourist attraction then they might turn their attention to keeping streets clean.

“Look at Croatia who had a ten year media campaign to change people’s minds to clearing up rubbish. You can see how far they’ve come in that time. North Macedonia’s government has done nothing as significant. It’s NGOs, ecological activists and small tour companies like us that are trying to change the public conscious. We help to organise large clear ups around Lake Ohrid, for instance, but we have to do it ourselves. There is no help from officials. We have to fight to make ecological issues a big topic of conversation across the country.”- Goran Janevski

What you can do to help
Bring a reusable fold-up shopping bag. Plastic bags do cost money in Macedonia but bringing your own is one way to stop plastic getting into the system. Bring your own refillable water bottle too. Filling up at a guesthouse or from a mountain spring is the best way to keep hydrated without contributing to plastic problems. Find out what your tour operator does to combat litter in rural and urban areas. Do they organise clear ups, challenge the local government and spend time in the community working on educational recycling and waste awareness programmes? The best holiday companies care about clear ups and will work with local people to try and make a difference.

What’s in a name?

The former Yugoslav state of Macedonia was renamed North Macedonia in February 2019. This was so the country could become part of NATO and the EU and also to end the decades-old border dispute with Greece. North Macedonia constitutes the northern third of ancient Macedonia. The remaining two thirds in the south are the Greek region of Macedonia.

The subject is still highly contentious, particularly on the Greek side. The majority of Greeks consider North Macedonia to be part of Greece. North Macedonians, on the other hand, see the name change as an opportunity to cement their independence and bring together ethnic Slav and Albanian communities. The historical hero, Alexander the Great, has also got caught up in the Macedonian mix with Greece and North Macedonia claiming him for themselves. Suffice to say, keeping your opinions to yourself is probably best advisable, particularly if you’re crossing the border south.

Alongside Slav, Albanian and Turkish ethnic groups living in North Macedonia, Roma communities make up 2.7 percent of the population. However, it’s estimated that some 300,000 Roma people – 15 percent of Macedonia’s population – are living there illegally. Huge communities, such as the 5,000 Roma people living on the outskirts of Prilep, are without any access to essentials such as water, electricity and education. Although they’re in no fear of having their homes torn down, they aren’t able to apply for social security, healthcare and an official government recognised identity card.

Pollution and waste build up are both by-products of Roma communities living without the infrastructure in place to deal with the day to day demands of life. NGOs and charity organisations, such as Roma SOS and Habitat for Humanity, have been set up to allow Roma people the chance to have no interest loans to help them make their homes more habitable and safe for their families. Without the loans for home renovations and help to become legally recognised people, Roma communities in Macedonia face a bleak future and will only add to the problems related to other members of Macedonia’s poorest communities.

What you can do to help
Do your history homework and form your own opinions by all means, but just be sensitive to the views of local people living on both sides of the border. Visiting the archaeological sites of Aigai, Thessaloniki and Pella with a local guide is a great way to learn more about the ancient kingdom of Macedonia. Just remember that claims on Alexander the Great and North Macedonia are still raw issues with many Greeks so probably subjects best avoided if you’re planning on keeping up diplomatic relations.

Don't ignore North Macedonia’s poorest communities and pretend they don't exist. Ask your tour guide how you can help or simply donate online to organisations such as Habitat for Humanity.


Absolutely Ohrid

From 2004 to 2014 it was illegal to fish for trout on the Macedonian side of Lake Ohrid. Natural stocks had got so low that almost every single trout had gone. Thankfully, the pause gave the population a chance to replenish; and the introduction of trout farms began to provide a sustainable source to lakeside restaurants. On the Albanian side of the lake, there hasn’t been a blanket ban on trout fishing but they have stopped fishing during the spawning season from December to March.
Thanks to these efforts, on both sides of the border, endemic fish stocks are much healthier. However, trout and the other animals living in Lake Ohrid, face a much greater problem – pollution.
Waste water, agricultural fertilisers and raw sewage have all created a negative impact on the lake’s marine ecosystems and water quality. Around Ohrid’s once clear shores you’ll find floating plastic bags and piles of rubbish. Despite being a UNESCO site since 1979, the Macedonian government has done very little to preserve the lake’s natural and historic integrity. High rise hotels and subsidised charter flights have led to Ohrid being overrun with tourists in the summer. This, in turn, has led to a lack of available local food. More imported produce is being shipped in to cope with demand.
Goran Janevski has been working in partnership with our Macedonia small group tour experts, Explore, for more than 20 years: “Mass tourism is also a problem around Lake Ohrid. Big hotels cater for huge numbers of guests which means they have to import food and store it rather than buying locally and serving fresh. The Macedonian government, in an attempt to attract more tourists, has increased the number of cheap charter flights to the closest airport – St Paul. Flights in high season – May to Oct – land twice a day and are subsidised by the government. This has resulted in a twisted energy in our travel industry. There is no longer an emphasis on high quality or our unique culture, it is more to do with mass tourism at any price, which is driving down quality and resulting in more environmental issues.”

What you can do to help
We recommend avoiding any restaurant with Ohrid trout on the menu unless you know it has come from a sustainable local fish farm. Visiting the area outside of July and August is another way that you can experience Lake Ohrid without impacting on the environment. Staying at small independent hotels and guesthouses will not only give you a much better understanding of North Macedonia but you also won’t be contributing on the waste associated with larger hotels.

Air pollution

Air pollution, particularly in winter, is another massive problem in North Macedonia. Emissions from communist era power plants, industrial factories and domestic heating sources account for a huge percentage of respiratory, lung and heart problems in residents living in urban areas. This is particularly worrying for the poorest communities and the younger generation who have no other choice than to live with the long term effects of poor air quality.
Many North Macedonian households, particularly Roma communities, are living in poverty. A lack of maintenance on dilapidated old houses has led to awful living conditions and low temperatures and polluted air in winter. Skopje, for instance, has long flirted with the title of Europe’s most polluted city.
“The authorities once tried to stop us making ajvar in public places. We could only do it in our own yards. This was a big problem for people living in blocks of flats as they had no outside space other than communal gardens or outside their garages. Pollution in the cities from furnaces, factories, chemicals, pharmaceuticals and unfiltered industrial chimneys, especially in the winter, should be what the government should ban – not people cooking ajvar.” - Goran Janevski
Whatever you encounter when visiting North Macedonia, just remember that this is a country trying to find its identity after years of social and political isolation. By staying with local people and avoiding international hotel chains and restaurants you will be making a difference. Your presence is a small part of a positive long term project that will, hopefully, see North Macedonia's government cleaning up its act and helping some of Europe's poorest and least fortunate communities.
Written by Chris Owen
Photo credits: [Page banner: Marjan Lazarevski] [Rubbish: Jason Rogers] [Absolutely Ohrid: Albinfo] [Air pollution: Antti T. Nissinen]