Bosnia’s new image as tourist haven

UMOLJANI, Bosnia – 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 percent higher than the same period last year and a World Tourism Organization 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. Wild beauty 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,» said the 52-year-old highlander. «Despite some initial skepticism, it has turned out really well.» Bosnia’s central bank said tourism generated close to 900 million Bosnian marka ($625 million) last year when according to official statistics 500,000 tourists visited the country. The foreign trade chamber said tourism’s share of 2006 GDP was 1.3 percent. Life in Umoljani, some 1,300 meters up Mount Bjelasnica, is deeply connected to the traditional pursuits of farming and sheep-breeding. Several households grow organic produce while local women sell sturdy woolen socks and jumpers, bragging that 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. The worldwide adventure tourism market is estimated in a study by Australia’s Griffith University at some $500 billion a year, and Bosnia’s appeal as an unspoilt, off-the-beaten-track destination could see it claim a sizable slice of that pie. Two travel guides are already on the market with a third on the way, and British Airways has launched flights from Gatwick to Sarajevo three times a week. «Right after the war, British Airways would rather go to the moon than come to Sarajevo,» said British travel reporter John Bell. «Times have changed.» Tim Clansy, an American who runs the eco-tourism group Green Visions, said Umoljani could serve as an example of how a Bosnian village can make a living without betraying tradition. «Bosnia is an outdoor paradise,» said Clansy. «In a very small area, 52,000 square kilometers, there is dramatic change of landscapes providing for a lot of outdoor activities such as hiking, biking, rafting or paragliding.» «Almost half of the country is forest, it has the deepest canyon in Southeastern Europe, the Tara river canyon, both the Mediterranean and Alpine climates… and so much water, which is the key,» Clansy said. «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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