Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Bosnia bets big on tourism

Perched on the rocky southern ridges of Mount Bjelasnica, the Bosnian village of Umoljani is both new and ancient. Destroyed during the 1992-95 war, its stone-and-wood huts have been rebuilt, as good as old. Its welcoming people, handmade artefacts and organic food are a window into the past, and a hit with tourists seeking a different sort of holiday.

Bosnia’s tourist arrivals in the first four months of 2007 were almost 20% higher than the same period last year, and the World Tourism Organisation study predicted the Balkan nation would have the third highest growth rate in the world by 2020. The pristine landscape around Umoljani is one of the many natural gems featured in a new series of adverts promoting Bosnia as a travel destination under the slogan ‘Enjoy Life’.

The television spots are infused with a feeling of serenity and laid-back, unassuming fun. Tanned young people ride horses, kayak in the great outdoors, eat and drink in the shadow of ancient monuments under clear blue skies. The images challenge western perceptions of a war-ravaged, brutal and hostile land, projecting instead peaceful beauty and generous hospitality.

“The ‘Enjoy Life’ campaign is already giving results and one of its main achievements is that people do not associate Bosnia with the war any more,” said Haris Basic, the head of Foreign Investment Promotion Agency which stands behind the campaign. When he opened his Umoljani guesthouse in 2005, Emin Fatic did not expect to begin turning a profit for a couple of years.

Instead, within three months, the money was rolling in, as hundreds of nature-lovers began arriving, some from as far away as Australia and New Zealand. “My idea was not to have a hotel or restaurant but rather to keep in touch with the traditional life and promote our natural beauty,” he said.

Bosnia’s central bank said tourism generated close to 900 million Bosnian marka ($625 million) last year, when according to official statistics 5,00,000 tourists visited the country. The foreign trade chamber said tourism’s share of 2006 GDP was 1.3%. Life in Umoljani, some 1,300 metres up Mount Bjelasnica is deeply connected to the traditional pursuits of farming and sheep-breeding. Several households grow organic produce while women sell woollen socks and jumpers, bragging their knitting talent is unmatched.

The wild beauty around the village is striking. Steep hiking tracks, accessible only on snow shoes in the winter, lead to the remnants of ancient settlements, and medieval tombstones, called stecci, are perched on the rugged, high mountain ridges characteristic of the Dinaric Alps. In the valley below, the Studeni creek zigzags through the fields, ending up in a large waterfall in the Rakitnica canyon.

Tim Clansy, who runs eco-tourism group Green Visions, said Umoljani could serve as an example of how a Bosnian village can make a living without betraying tradition. “But Bosnia is not a destination for mass tourism, for those seeking luxury and five star hotels. It’s the right place for active tourists, for the middle class, for professionals eager to hike and see something new, something interesting.”
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