Škocjan Caves (Slovenia)


Ecosystems and beneficiaries

The Škocjan Caves are located in the Kraski Landscape Park, Slovenia, and the World Heritage site extends over 413 ha (UNESCO, 2014). It includes four deep and picturesque chasms as well as the Mahorcic cave, which has several underground lakes and cascades. Habitats corresponding to the floras of Central Europe, the Mediterranean, Sub-Mediterranean, Ilyrian and Alpine, are all present, side by side, in the area. Large numbers of five species of wintering bat roost in the caves. Archaeological finds indicate that the site has been occupied for more than 10,000 years. The grotto system has been considered important since the first scientific studies were carried out in the 19th century (and is Europe's largest underground canyon). Whilst the total population in the area is only 400 people (present in three villages), around 100,000 people visit the Škocjan Caves each year. Local people are involved in the management of the World Heritage property.

The local economy

Despite having a very low local population, the park is very accessible. The caves are just 2km from the Ljubljana-Koper expressway, only 15km from Italy, and accessible by train (Slovenian Tourist Board, 2014). The park is considered the main tourism attraction in the area and provides opportunities for sustainable development. As such it attracts external investment for tourism infrastructure development, for example €1.4 million provided by the EU in 2013 (MEDT, 2013).  Tourism-related income and employment includes working as a tour guide, local restaurants, the Škocjan Caves Information Centre, as well as provision of tourist accommodation (i.e. apartments as well as Bed & Breakfast in private dwellings) (Slovenian Tourist Board, 2014). According to the national authorities, fifteen years of the protected area has significantly contributed to local development (UNESCO, 2014, 2). Over the last decade visitor numbers have doubled and there are concerns that tourist carrying capacity could be exceeded on some days in the summer, especially during August (Jurinčič & Balažič, 2010). Therefore, measures to spread visitor numbers over less busy times of the year, or other areas within the park, will continue to be required (Jurinčič & Balažič, 2010).

Type of economic analysis undertaken

The study (Actum, 2011) of the Škocjan Caves Regional Park was carried out in 2011 and attempts to produce a monetary valuation estimate for the ecosystem services delivered by the park. As some ecosystem services originating in the park are delivered outside of the protected area, a buffer zone of activity was also included in the analysis. A workshop of experts and stakeholders was convened to identify the main ecosystem services being delivered at the site. Data on local salaries as well as visitor numbers was collated from existing studies. An additional survey of summer visitors (n=512) was implemented, in order to help determine future potential values if tourism was expanded by opening additional caves to visitors and marketing local products. Other data on economic activities was collected through interviews with local residents and other stakeholders. In order to establish the economic value of all of the ecosystem services provided by the park, a variety of economic techniques were used (mainly market prices, but also avoided damage cost, travel cost method, and a descriptive approach). Values for eight ecosystem services related to natural habitats were estimated (see Table 6).

Main findings from the study

Table 6 highlights the value of the main ecosystem services and benefits (in original 2011 € values as well as 2013 US$ values) delivered by the site.

Table 6. Total value of ecosystem services and benefits from the Škocjan Caves. Source: Actum, 2011


Ecosystem service categories    € (2011) total current use value    US$ (2013) total current use
Recreation/tourism                          10,993,764                                           15,498,081
Water supply                                      427,076                                                 602,056
Cultural (education only)                 100,540                                                 141,733
Fibre/fuel                                            48,559                                                     68,454
Food production                               13,586                                                     19,152
Climate regulation                           4,720                                                        6,654
Ornamental                                       2,610                                                        3,679
Air quality                                           538                                                            758

The total value of ecosystem service provided by the Škocjan Caves Regional Park in 2011 is estimated at €12.85 million, of which tourism accounts for almost 90%. With a discount rate of 5 %, the net present value over 30 years is estimated at around €216 million. Some estimates in the study could only be made descriptively, and others could not be calculated for various reasons (so the full benefits received by society are likely to be higher than the above figure). The study also estimated that if the tourism potential was further exploited then the 2011 value was estimated at €14.77 million, and net present value estimated at just over €253 million. This increase in value is largely derived from guided tours to additional caves as well as a new Tourist Information Centre. The importance of this tourism income can be clearly understood when considering that the average per capita income of rural households in Slovenia has been estimated at less than €4,000 a year (Möllers  et al, 2008).

General conclusions from the case study

The first point to note is the difficulty of using values for a wider area to indicate a value for a smaller protected area located within it (ideally a bespoke study is required). The approach used (mostly) existing data to derive current use values for ecosystem services based on market prices. The advantage of this is that existing data can be used without the need for new surveys, but this can only be an option in areas where data collection is relatively well developed. Whilst the full range of ecosystem services were explored in the study it was noted that for many ecosystem services it was not possible to estimate an accurate monetary value. Market prices also underestimate the total value to society. Thus the figures reported should be taken as a lower bound estimate. Nevertheless, even where market prices are of little use, awareness of the full value of the site can be increased, as evidenced by the approach the study adopted. This was done by engaging with stakeholders to identify ecosystem services and then attempting to quantify in a non-monetary way, or at least describe, the ecosystem services being delivered by the site. Such an approach – using market prices where available and a description where they are not – is attractive for site managers from a budgetary point of view since it avoids commissioning costly non-market valuation studies. ‘Real' money figures also sometimes gain more traction with decision-makers than hypothetical economic valuation estimates. The risk, though, is that the figures subsequently used to demonstrate the value of ecosystem services are significant underestimates of true worth to society.