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Bosnia-Herzegovina: Government Launches Bid To Attract Tourists

  • Jeffrey Donovan --> Bosnia-Herzegovina has launched a bid to improve its tattered image and try to attract foreign tourists. It hopes to mirror the success of neighboring Croatia, but Bosnia's pitch is hardly aimed at the beachcombing set. Instead, it is seeking adventurers who want to experience its exotic mix of cultures and natural beauty -- and who are perhaps unfazed by the notion of a few stray landmines.

Prague, 4 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- For most people, the words "Bosnia-Herzegovina" conjure up a clear mental picture. And it's not a positive one.

The Bosnian wars that destroyed the former Yugoslavia may have ended in 1995. Yet weeping in Sarajevo's outdoor market -- whose bombing in 1994 killed 64 people -- is just one of many brutal images that persist of a conflict in which more than 200,000 people perished.

But Bosnian and United Nations officials in Sarajevo, the country's still charming and culturally diverse capital, have launched a new campaign to change that image.
For Hajric, Bosnia should be thought of as an exciting place -- rich in natural beauty and cultural diversity that together spell one word: "Balkan."

Recently, Bosnian officials together with Paddy Ashdown, the UN high representative to Bosnia, toured major capitals in Europe to kick off a public relations campaign aimed at persuading tourists there's more to see in the former Yugoslavia than the islands of Croatia.

Kerry Sullivan, a spokesman for Ashdown, spoke to RFE/RL from Sarajevo: "We know very well that although Bosnia-Herzegovina has moved on decisively from the tragedy of the early 1990s, many people in Europe still view the country through the prism of old newsreel footage of the war," Sullivan said. "And in fact, the reality is very, very different. So the basic object of this tour was to get people in other parts of Europe to think of Bosnia-Herzegovina differently."

The U.S. State Department would appear to disagree. It recently renewed a travel warning to Bosnia, saying that occasional political violence, some 500,000 land mines, and unexploded ordnance remain a risk to visitors. It also cited a rise in crime in Sarajevo and other cities.

But all that is exaggerated, according to Mirza Hajric, the head of an agency working to attract foreign investors to Bosnia. For Hajric, Bosnia should be thought of as an exciting place -- rich in natural beauty and cultural diversity that together spell one word: "Balkan."

Hajric's agency is working to repair the tourism infrastructure that was damaged during the war. This includes hotels and ski lifts in the Bjelasnica-Igman Mountains, which hosted several competitions during the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo. Hajric said despite the need for repairs, there's plenty of great skiing to be had in Bosnia.

"Coming for one week to Sarajevo, which is [a half-hour] drive to any of the three Olympic mountains, sounds like good fun because you can, in the evening, enjoy the life of [large] European capital. And then, [the next day], half-an-hour drive from there, you can have wonderful skiing on really exciting terrain," Haric said.

Terrain, in fact, is a big part of Bosnia's marketing pitch. Which is ironic, considering that the country is unlikely to be considered fully land-mine-safe until sometime next year, according to the UN.

Hajric said Bosnia realizes it won't attract the kind of tourists that to head to the beaches of neighboring Croatia, which now earns up to $9 billion a year from tourism following a long lull after the wars. Instead, Hajric said Bosnia has a twofold strategy, aimed at both bringing back tourists who visited before the wars and attracting a younger generation of adventurers keen on discovering a still-mysterious land. He said Bosnia is perfect for activities like mountain biking, trekking, and paragliding.

The UN's Sullivan added that Bosnia's mix of Eastern and Western cultures is unique in Europe, and a major reason for a visit. "For hundreds of years, the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina have been a model for the rest of Europe in living together in harmony. And their culture reflects that, where you have one of the great fault lines in European civilization and history, both in terms of music and literature. And also in terms of cuisine and day-to-day culture," Sullivan said.

Meanwhile, one of the country's oldest attractions, the bridge at Mostar, has finally been rebuilt after being destroyed in the war. Completed in 1566, the bridge linked the city's Croatian and Muslim districts for 400 years before being felled by tank rounds in 1993. The bridge is set to officially reopen in July in a ceremony to be attended by heads of state from 50 nations. Hajric hopes the bridge will not only attract visitors, but also become a symbol of peace and reconciliation.

To be sure, Bosnia's image makeover won't happen overnight. But Hajric said once visitors get a taste of Bosnia -- whether in the mountain villages or the cafes of Sarajevo -- they're bound to start coming back.