New Deal Europe Weekly Update on Tourism to the Balkan Region, Week 49

New Deal Europe
16 min readAug 6, 2021

Sports Tourism - Operator from Slovenia

This week, as the Olympics take place in Tokyo, it seems appropriate that we should turn our attention to the world of Sports Tourism. We were lucky to grab some time with Rok Bulc, founder of Slovenian sports tour organiser, PasSport Europe, in what was a busy week for him. In this in depth interview we look at different aspects of sports tourism, and find out why Slovenia and the Balkans are great destinations for active and sport based trips. We also get an insight into Rok’s previous career as a professional sportsman and find out about his close encounter with the Olympics.

‘Regarding inbound travel, my focus is on bringing foreign sportsmen to Slovenia and the region for their perfect training camps.’ (Football pitch overlooking town of Piran and the Adriatic Sea in Slovenia, photo: Dražen Štader for Slovenia.info)

NDE: Hi Rok. Thanks for joining us this week when sport is the main item on the news everywhere. I’m sure it is a very busy time for you. Can we begin by finding out about you and your company, and how a top sportsman became a tour operator?

RB: Absolutely. During my 15 years’ sports career as a professional handball player on the top level I was that crazy fighter who always fought for every ball and every goal: never surrender but respect your fellow sportsmen and always play fair. When I entered the tourism industry more than 12 years ago that winning philosophy stayed with me: always play fair and fight for your teammate…or your business partner! PasSport Europe’s mission is to share this philosophy with you, so we cooperate with the best sports centres and professionals in the region, providing superb training conditions for a wide variety of sports. The team of dedicated ex-sportsmen we have assembled at PasSport Europe has been there and done everything, so I can say that we know exactly what an athlete needs to maximise their training results. All my personal experience of 15 years in professional sport definitely helps a lot when sourcing superb training conditions for a wide variety of sports.

Each ‘preparation camp’ trip receives all the technical support necessary, including individual trainings and friendly games with adequate teams from the region. Every project is tailor made according to your needs and the specifics of your sport, and we are there with you for the whole time of your stay. We cover all key training aspects thereby boosting the results of your training to the maximum level possible. The sweat and determination is yours. The towels to wipe it off your face — leave it us!

‘We are the official travel partner of the Slovenian Handball Federation, FC Olimpija and some other sports clubs, so right now I am arranging all their outbound travel around the world.’ (Photo R Bulc Facebook)

NDE: That’s a great motto. Do you do both inbound and outbound sports travel, and what does that involve?

RB: We do MICE and special interest tours, but we are focusing more and more on sports, as this has always been my goal. We are the official travel partner of the Slovenian Handball Federation, FC Olimpija Ljubljana and some other sports clubs, so right now we are arranging all their outbound travel around the world — championships, qualifiers, friendly games and so on. At the same time we arrange the players’ individual arrivals and returns to the training camps organised at home and abroad.

Every project is tailor made according to your needs and the specifics of your sport, and we are there with you for the whole time of your stay.

Regarding inbound travel, our focus is on bringing foreign sportsmen to Slovenia and the region for their perfect training camps. A good example is the camp for the Japanese Women’s Handball Team which we organised in Ljubljana in 2019. We also organise one of the biggest youth football events — The Champions Trophy for Under 13. Held in Koper in the beginning of June this amazing event hosts 48 teams from all over the world. Top teams like Juventus, Atletico Madrid, Olympique Marseille, Sporting Lisbon etc. compete for the big trophy, but even more important is bringing the youngsters together with social events helping them to make new friendships.

‘A good example [of our work] is the camp for the Japanese Women’s Handball Team which we organised in Ljubljana in 2019.’ (Photo: Rok Bulc)

NDE: Rok this youth football event is amazing. Has it already happened or is this next year?

RB: Sad to say, Covid forced us to postpone the tournament in 2020 and 2021, but we strongly believe our third try will be a pure success in June 2022. It’s definitely an amazing event, as you say, that will bring young football players, their families and supporters to the Slovenian Adriatic coast. We see it not only as a superb sports competition but also a social highlight for all the young sportsmen gathering with fellow footballers from all over the world. On top of that competing against Juventus, Atletico Madrid, Chelsea, Olympique Marseille and other big clubs is of course a dream of every kid training football in their local club. The best thing is that the event will be held on the first weekend of June every year, so even the clubs from the North will have a chance to enjoy the sun and sea, making it fun also off the pitch. I remember myself as a kid, travelling to similar handball tournaments in Sweden, Prague, Italy, Germany and so on. It was an absolute highlight of the year for all of us and we talked about it at every training before and after the event, giving us new energy and expectations to train even harder for similar travels.

NDE: These youngsters are the travellers of the future, and you have given your country a world stage with this event. What did they all think of Slovenia?

RB: These kids will all travel when they grow up and hopefully, just like me returning to Prague, Gothenburg and Rome.. many more times, I am 100% sure these youngsters will be our tourists in the future. That’s why we also invited the Slovenian Tourist Board to be part of this, giving us full support to present Slovenia as an amazing holiday and sports destination to all the participants who we hope will share good stories about us in their home countries after returning from Koper.

‘We organise sports events and trainings of all kinds at whatever level is requested. This can mean an easy trekking with rafting and zipline in the Soča Valley or a hard professional training with one of our ex Pro Tour cyclists revealing the secrets of success while climbing Vršič mountain pass.’ (Photo of Rok Bulc at the Vrsic Pass in Slovenia from R Bulc Facebook)

NDE: That’s great. I have to ask though, is it only professional sports people you work with?

RB: No. Our big target is recreational sports events and trainings, and the specialised active sports programmes put together by the sports sections of big companies all over the world. We organise sports events and trainings of all kinds at whatever level is requested. This can mean an easy trekking with rafting and zipline in the Soča Valley or a hard professional training with one of our ex Pro Tour cyclists revealing the secrets of success while climbing Vršič mountain pass. We also organize tennis tournaments for closed groups, veterans’ tournaments in various different sports and much more. The whole idea is to gather people to have fun and be active at the same time. Apart from that we arrange ski packages for organised groups and public ski-weekends in Slovenia and Italy. Our specialty is powder-skiing in Georgia, Turkey and other hidden destinations which we are gradually introducing to our clients.

NDE: We know that elite sports people have been able to travel throughout the pandemic, due to regular testing and international agreements. Was your company able to benefit from this?

RB: Well, while we are all facing the big shock of Covid19 in the tourism industry, sports tourism has partially avoided the total lockdown, although for a long time only professional teams were allowed to travel. PasSport Europe, as the official partner of the Slovenian Handball federation, FC Olimpija and some other sports partners in Slovenia was always ready to adapt quickly to whatever the current situation was, and, being flexible and having great experience and personal connections, we managed to cater to all the needs of our partners , even during the most difficult times. In December 2020 we managed to arrange for both the Slovenian and Croatian national handball teams to travel smoothly to the World Championships in Egypt, organizing a special “bubble charter” both ways. Later, in April 2021 we organised flights to Eskisehir (Turkey) and Opole (Poland), flying the teams to the destinations directly using the local military airports which most of the other teams were not able to do. When talking about professional sports, it’s all about making the travel element as short as possible and giving the sportsmen the chance to think only about their job — winning. That includes fast PCR testing on the spot, avoiding mixing with other crowds, arranging special dining areas, etc. It was a big challenge and lots of work, but at the same time it was also a great stress-test to see how flexible and capable we are. We passed the test, to the great satisfaction of all our clients, and that gives us additional energy for all future projects. Right after this interview I’m flying with FC Olimpija Ljubljana to the Azores, after having successfully brought them to Malta, winning in the 2nd round of the UEFA Conference Cup. Every win of our clients is a big win also for us and being ex-professional sportsmen we share this winning mentality with all of our clients.

‘In December 2020 we managed to arrange for both the Slovenian and Croatian national handball teams to travel smoothly to the World Championships in Egypt, organizing a special “bubble charter” both ways.’ (Photo: Rok Bulc)

NDE: Aside from elite sports people, you are dealing with travellers who have an interest in active holidays. How has the last 18 months been in terms of working though the pandemic?

RB: That’s where we have suffered the most. Recreational sportsmen and people interested in active holidays and mass competitions don’t come under the category of professional sportsmen, so most of them haven’t been able to travel for the last 18 months. As well as the 1,000 young football players and their UEFA sponsored Champions Trophy football tournament in Koper, we had a group of 35 Ducati-bikers from the Philippines, some Scandinavian youth sports groups, many marathon runners for the Ljubljana Marathon (we are official travel partners by the way!), and some other projects confirmed and ready for 2020 and 2021, but they all had to be cancelled or postponed. Corona killed it all. We struggled a lot due to these cancellations, but being used to fighting on the sports field since we were kids, we know better times will be coming back sooner or later, so we look forward to welcoming all these positive-orientated people to be our guests in the future. The desire to get out of the apartments and travel abroad is growing with every day of the pandemic. People are suddenly aware that being active and spending time in the nature is more important than earning money closed in home offices, so we believe lots of great projects are coming our way in the future.

We struggled a lot….but being used to fighting on the sports field since we were kids, we know better times will be coming back sooner or later.

NDE: So if that’s the case, and I believe it is, how do you market your services to capture this potential new business?

RB: When I played professional handball, for me it was very important to win games, championships and titles, but the most important things always were making new life-time friendships, learning languages and getting to know people who I can work with in the future. In my sport I wasn’t able to make a financial fortune, but the fortune of having friends all over the world is priceless and my team and I are using this to grow our sports tourism business in the best possible way. Sportsmen, well we are all a big family, and mouth-to-mouth promotion is extremely important. So mostly it’s about growing a good reputation and using the connections and friendships we have established through our long sports careers. Despite being a young company the reputation of our friendly and professional services has spread around fast and that’s how we have been able capture most of our new business.

Apart from that — in normal times — we visit international tourism fairs and workshops all over the world, presenting Slovenia and The Balkans as the ideal place for sports preparation camps, competitions, sports events and also active holidays. We are aware that we are still very basic in social media, online marketing and other new-age marketing channels, so we see big potential in developing this part of our marketing in the future.

‘In normal times — we visit international tourism fairs and workshops all over the world, presenting Slovenia and The Balkans as the ideal place for sports preparation camps, competitions, sports events and also active holidays.’ (Photo of Rok Bulc at Travel Show in Los Angeles in 2019 by T Murn)

NDE: Is working in sports tourism an individual pursuit or are there associations dedicated to your specialism where you can share ideas, get support and work as a team?

RB: Same as sport itself sports tourism is about fight, dedication and winning. Nobody will do the work for us and we have to be at our best to win the challenges and clients, but coming from a team sport like handball, we know how important it is to work together. Therefore we are connecting with sports associations like Olympic Committees, the World University Sports Association, and companies who work in the same arena. We are well aware that only team work brings success, and with sport being such an amazing tie between people, nations and cultures, we know absolutely no borders in spreading our ties all over the globe. It’s a religion we all believe in, and practicing it with international clients is what fulfils us every day.

NDE: You organise a range of sports trips, from skiing to football. Do you have to be an expert in all of them in order to be able to organise the best experiences for the participants?

RB: It definitely helps to know the sport you’re dealing with, that’s not a secret. Every sport has its own specifics and having our team of passionate sportsmen in many sports is a big advantage. In everyday life — especially during Covid — we play tennis, football, basketball, badminton, and golf with our friends. We cycle, run, swim, ski, do triathlons, climb the mountains and much more — that’s our passion. Knowing the specific of each sport it’s much easier to cater to the specific needs of each particular sports group, so I see this as a big advantage. Of course, we can’t be experts in everything, so when it comes to sports we are not totally familiar with we engage with our friends and professionals who know all the secrets and they help us prepare the best conditions for every possible sport.

‘We cycle, run, swim, ski, do triathlons, climb the mountains and much more — that’s our passion. Knowing the specific of each sport it’s much easier to cater to the specific needs of each particular sports group.’ (Cycling in Soca Valley by TM)

NDE: I am sure you are celebrating the Slovenian gold medals at this year’s Olympics. So far the golds have come in kayaking, climbing and cycling, all sports which, appropriately enough, Slovenia is actively promoting as key activities for visitors to experience. What difference do you think this Olympic success will make to your country and to sports tourism both in and out of Slovenia?

RB: You can’t imagine how proud we Slovenians are of our medallists in Tokyo. Due to the time difference, we haven’t had much sleep since the Olympics started and almost every day we are crying tears of happiness at hearing our national anthem being played for our heroes. It’s also a great promotion of our country in general, not to mention the sports tourism here. As a small nation of 2 million we have won three gold medals, one silver and one bronze so far which makes us one of the most successful countries in medals won per capita. That all speaks to how passionate Slovenians are about sports and active life in our green country and there is no doubt the whole world recognises it and considers Slovenia, together with Croatia, Serbia and the Balkans, as their perfect active destination. This is where the Olympic champions are born and raised, so it will surely reflect in a big demand for coming to train in our countries.

Especially after the pandemic, the magnificent nature, uncrowded hidden places and well developed sports infrastructure we have in our part of Europe will, I believe, be even more in demand. Our Olympians are huge ambassadors for our country and region, and for PasSport Europe, being able to organise trainings with these celebrities is a big magnet for everyone.

‘Especially after the pandemic, the magnificent nature, uncrowded hidden places and well developed sports infrastructure we have in our part of Europe will, I believe, be even more in demand.’ (Boulder climbing in Trenta Valley by Jost Gantar for slovenia.info)

NDE: I have to ask this question now. Were you in the Olympics, Rok?

RB: I was close to competing in the Sydney 2000 Olympics when the Slovenian handball team qualified as the first Slovenian team ever. That was my biggest dream — to stay at the Olympic village and breathe the Olympic spirit with all sportsmen gathered in the same place. Injury prevented it, but talking hours and hours about it with my friends who attended various Olympics I got a pretty good feeling of this impressive event. With my age of 43 I will most probably never compete at the Olympics, but the desire to be a part of it is still very much alive. So it’s no surprise that I am developing my business every day to be able to attend it as a travel organiser of the Olympic Committees, and being dedicated to it I am sure I will see the Olympic fire in person one day. It’s like training hard to qualify — if you’re good you eventually make it.

NDE: Focusing back on Slovenia, which areas are best for some of the activities you organise?

RB: As mentioned before, sports are in our blood. You can’t walk a park, hike a mountain, drive a road or ride a boat in Slovenia without meeting people jogging, swimming, cycling or walking around you. Take a walk in Ljubljana in the late evening and you will meet groups of organised recreational runners exercising with floodlights in the middle of a rainy foggy winter evening. We literary live sports. A natural consequence is a very developed network of different sports facilities, associations and clubs, resulting in great active programmes all over the country. It’s hard to mention only a few of them, but rafting on the magnificent Soča River, trekking the Julian Alps, cycling the woods of Pokljuka or any of our mountain passes are all things our clients can’t stop talking about. Who doesn’t want to swim, SUP or row on the famous Lakes of Bled and Bohinj, and who can say no to sailing in front of the picturesque town of Piran on the Adriatic coast? What better way is there to learn how to ski than at a family-orientated Slovenian ski resort featuring the best ski schools in the world? The most daring clients are always up for breath taking canyoning, zip lines, adrenaline parks, wild underground coast exploring and so on. We have it all in such a small area and that’s the best thing about our country– small distances, huge diversity and of course top skilled sports trainers, guides and instructors. Add a nice dinner made of local ingredients and a glass of superb Slovenian wine and you get a perfect active vacation.

‘What better way is there to learn how to ski than at a family-orientated Slovenian ski resort featuring the best ski schools in the world?’ (Skiing in Slovenia, photo: Iztok Medja for slovenia.info)

NDE: At NDE we often say that the Balkans is a world leader in sustainable activity tourism? What is your view on this? Does this sustainable tourism element help you to win business over other regions and countries?

RB: I was a scout, living together with nature when I was a kid. It’s where I fell in love with nature and that’s why as a company, we are very much into sustainable products. It’s not for nothing that also the slogan of the Slovenian cycling tour is called “Fight for the Green”. Avoiding mass crowds, doing sports in the pure intact nature, breathing unpolluted air and drinking fresh water from a tap anywhere in Slovenia is all part of our philosophy. Even the most focused professional sports teams of PasSport Europe are encouraged to stay next to the training grounds, walking instead of driving to their trainings, drinking the water from the tap instead of buying plastic bottles, using the same towels for many consecutive days and so on. Being active in the nature itself means respecting it and making sure it stays as it is also for our children, but all these little details whcih we give to our clients help them grow the awareness of how important it is to respect and preserve our nature. We strongly believe they act the same way when they come home after a week or two of realising how much importance we give to sustainability in our packages.

NDE: How do you see the future of tourism in a post pandemic world?

RB: Most of all I want the pandemic to end. For good. Not just because of business that has been struggling a lot since it started, but also because of kids lacking activities and the ability to meet people, and parents being anxious because of working at home. Not only kids, we all belong to the playgrounds and outdoors. We need to socialize and be active. That was realised more than ever before during the last 18 months and I see it as a huge potential for future tourism. Our travel habits will be changed — and change for the better. Instead of polluting the air with long flights to the other side of the globe and lying on the beach for 14 consecutive days we will choose more sustainable ways of travel, destinations closer to home, and finally start using our legs and body again. Coming home fit and in better body shape is way better than fat and hung-over! It’s where I see a big potential and shining future for PasSport Europe.

I was a scout, living together with nature when I was a kid. It’s where I fell in love with nature and that’s why as a company, we are very much into sustainable products.

NDE: Finally Rok, if anyone wants to organise a sporting activity in Slovenia or the Balkan region, how do they get in contact with you, and what do you need from them?

RB: It’s very easy. We base all our cooperation on the fun-to-work-with philosophy, so simply ring our phone or send us an email and we will be glad to take care of all requests, no matter if very basic or the most complex sports event. Everyone is also invited to visit our website (http://www.passport-europe.si) or find the latest news on our Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn profiles. Give us a try and you’ll very soon realize PasSport Europe is your perfect score.

‘In my sport I wasn’t able to make a financial fortune, but the fortune of having friends all over the world is priceless and my team and I are using this to grow our sports tourism business in the best possible way.’ Rok Bulc is the founder and CEO of PasSport Europe agency from Slovenia. (Photo: Rok Bulc)

New Deal Europe is the only travel market platform dedicated to generating business to the Balkan region of Europe, www.newdealeurope.com. Follow us on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/newdealeurope.

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