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
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 everyones
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: "
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