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Adrenaline Tourism in Yugoslavia
Stuart Macdonald

Often what attracts people to a country is its history. The wonder of strolling through the ruined palaces of the kings and queens of bygone empires; or reliving the pain of what people have had to endure in order to survive. However cruel or fantastic, history will always intrigue, fascinate and most importantly, make money. In the case of Yugoslavia, however, the visitor is treated to the unique experience of bearing witness to history in the making.

Unfortunately, there is a price that must be paid for the knowledge that during your two-week stay, the country may have considerably altered in outlook and appearance. Those who, bravely or otherwise, lay down their lives for their beliefs often pay this price; but it is more generally extracted from those who would have no part of the violence and are merely innocent victims, caught up in the course of history. Civil war is a misleading phrase as there is seldom anything in the least bit civil about it. A far worse situation, however, is that of a Holy Civil War, where the only civility to be found is that administered by the church as the last rites.

Sadly for the Balkans, internal unrest and conflict have been recurring themes in their collective past, yet the origin of the problem has invariably been elsewhere. History tells us that expansionary nations have often looked towards the region bordering the eastern shores of the Adriatic with envious eyes, as a result of the Balkans' fertile soils and favourable location with access to the main trade routes to Asia and the Middle East. The Romans, the Ancient Greeks, the Turkish and the Austro-Hungarian Empire all presided over an increasingly disparate population, as the varying religious influences and in-migration polarised regional opinions.

It was therefore not surprising that, when the region was finally free to govern itself, in the aftermath of the First World War in 1918, communist rule developed in the new state of Yugoslavia. When the last gasps of centralised control died away in the latter part of the 20th century, the Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, Muslims, Albanians, Slovenians, Montenegrins and Macedonians who had constituted the former Yugoslavia began to uncompromisingly press for their own interests. The consequences of this have been well documented over recent years and are once again apparent in the current case of Macedonia's ethnic Albanian minority. The present state of affairs has led once more to the extensive involvement of nations external to the conflict, although this time in the role of mediators.

In the current political climate it seems quite ridiculous to talk about any sort of tourism activity in Yugoslavia. The only visitors to the country tend to sport a rather natty line in camouflage gear and carry semi-automatics. Why would anybody want to pay to go somewhere that you quite possibly may not leave? If you do manage to avoid being shot at, attacked, robbed, barricaded in your hotel room, or endure the ignomy of being strip searched simply to enter a restaurant, remember not to go for that enticing walk in the countryside. There are hundres of thousands of land-mines scattered all over the Balkans, as a result of years of civil war - any one of which could curtail any future walking activities entirely.

The locals struggle with their own sense of self awareness, so what chance is there of a visitor unearthing what it is that drives the diverse peoples which make up the current Federal Republic of Yugoslavia? Yet perhaps tourism and the other forms of external acceptance such as trade and investment, are precisely what Yugoslavia and the other Balkan republics need. In their favour, they have some of the most attractive coastal and inland scenery to be found anywhere in Europe and a rich and diverse cultural history, of which the people are fiercely proud. There is the rugged Montenegran coast and the swirling Danube, which has journeyed for many thousands of kilometres just to arrive here - has it been worthwhile?

Tourism was once a quickly growing industry in the Balkans, only to be snuffed out by the continual threat of war. In the rare moments of peace, the capital Belgrade is a thriving hub of cafe culture and political idealism. One can experience dinner on a luxury barge which is afloat in the Danube; or visit the magnificent Kalemegdan Citadel from which the Turks administered their northern territory until the 19th century. In the southwest of the country, in the coastal province of Montenegro, the beaches are soft and largely unspoiled, having been left to the locals since the postwar days of Tito. With the restoration of diplomatic relations with the outside world in November 2000, it is now possible to fly to Belgrade from Gatwick for £80 return (plus about £50 in taxes). On arrival, you may not be greeted by the sophistication which you might expect from other European capital cities, but what you will receive is a raw insight into a city which is undiluted by tourist-traps and pretentious guides. This may not be to everyone’s taste, though it is certainly refreshing after much of the staid offerings of Benidorm or the French Riviera.

The business of tourism is a huge global industry and one which, if properly encouraged, can bring in important reserves of foreign currency. As a consequence, it could well allow the economy to pull itself out of the doldrums and to proceed with the task of rebuilding a shattered infrastructure. It could also help to restore some sense of national pride, which has been badly battered over the past decade. Were Yugoslavia to prove as democratic and fair as they would have the outside world believe, then tourism and investment would add value to the economy. This would give the people something to be proud of once more and a further incentive (if any more were needed) to prevent a return to a violent and destructive past.

On current evidence, however, there are no assurances that any sources of imported wealth would reach the people of Yugoslavia. The lure of valuable foreign reserves of cash is, it seems, too strong for the government to ignore; especially as most visitors are encouraged to pay in Deutschemarks, rather than Yugoslavian New Dinar. The Tourism Ministry requires that any visitors use only accredited guides during their stay. It is also illegal to use unlicensed locals, as this will apparently: "…harm the local tourism industry", according to official guidelines.

Yet why should people wish to visit a region whose own people are so desperate to leave? Out-migration from the Balkans, particularly in ethnic-Albanian areas grows severalfold each year. The United Nations has admitted that they see this as the single most important threat to stability in the region over the coming years. There is a worthy school of thought which argues against the interventionist foreign policies of countries such as the UK and USA. However, when the situation is one of almost perpetual unrest and civil conflict in one form or another, the case for involvement becomes compelling.

As a consequence of its fundamental social schisms, the undoubted beauty and attractions of Yugoslavia remain sadly superficial. Until a lasting peace can be built between Serbs, Muslims and Albanians, the threat of further civil war will hang over the country. History needs to tell us that the mistakes which have been made here have been rectified. Only when this goal of co-operation has been achieved will the vast majority of visitors to Yugoslavia cease to wear the white helmets of the UN and to carry guns.

© Stuart Macdonald 2001


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