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Macedonia: Tourism Industry Collapses In Shadow Of War

After a great year for tourism last year, Macedonian hoteliers and tourist agencies were hoping for even higher profits this year. But RFE/RL correspondent Kitty McKinsey, recently in Macedonia, found that the war in Yugoslavia has devastated tourism to the country.

Ohrid, Macedonia; 4 June 1999 (RFE/RL) - Vinograda Dejkoska sits forlornly at the welcome desk in the Biljana tourist agency office in Macedonia's lakeside town of Ohrid, waiting in vain these days for tourists who never come.

Although Lake Ohrid is surely one of the most beautiful tourist spots in all of Europe, the war in next-door Yugoslavia has killed all tourism to the region for this year.

Journalist Meri Minovska wrote last month in the daily Nova Makedonija, "The tourist season in Macedonia has not started yet, but it can already be proclaimed dead".

Violeta Pop-Janeva, an official in the Macedonian economics ministry in charge of tourism, estimates Macedonia will lose 44 million dollars in tourist revenue this year, a huge sum to a small, poor country.

At the Ohrid tourist agency, Dejkoska says the drastic drop in both foreign and domestic visitors is felt by nearly every resident in Ohrid, a town that lives on tourism. The loss of tourism, she says "is affecting every single family and every single citizen" of the town.

"It is definitely a loss that can be felt in many aspects of the life of Ohrid, because the tourism is involved in almost all the other economic activities in the town of Ohrid. So even the loss of one tourist can be felt everywhere in the economy of our town."

Macedonia, which counts tourism as one of its main industries -- "a factory without a chimney," as one hotelier puts it -- had already suffered a huge blow with the violent breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991. Assiduous marketing had succeeded in making 1998 a successful year for Macedonian tourism -- with the number of foreign visitors up 30 percent. The government and tourism authorities had counted on improving on that performance this year.

Hopes were especially high in Ohrid, Macedonia's prime tourist draw. It is a charming old town of red-roofed houses, sidewalk cafes and rustic fish restaurants surrounding the world's second-deepest lake (after Lake Baikal in Russia).

Rahman Dzemal, chief of reception at the Hotel Palace, one of the biggest in Ohrid, says his hotel had been counting on even better business this year.

"Last year after a long, long period of stagnation, was a year when we had the increase of the tourism in Ohrid and we all hoped that this trend would continue this year, and we were well prepared for that but now we have faced this situation."

Dzemal says that as soon as NATO bombs began falling on Yugoslavia, cancellations began pouring in from groups that had already put a down payment on rooms in his hotel.

After an occupancy rate of 70 percent or better last year, Dzemal says "it's very sad this year to even mention the numbers -- 20 up to 30 percent."

He says the Palace lost 2,000 overnight stays in April and 3,000 in May -- for an estimated loss of 150,000 DM. With losses that big just for his hotel, Dzemal adds that: "I cannot even imagine how big they are for the whole town of Ohrid."

Ohrid Tourist, the company that owns the Palace and several other hotels, has already laid off 500 employees because of the collapse of tourism, a loss that Dzemal says will be felt throughout the town.

"You can imagine the whole situation, how the situation would have been if those 500 people had been able to receive their monthly income, live normally. Now not only do they not receive their income, but they are depending on social welfare."

Those in the Macedonian tourist business acknowledge they have no hopes of improving the situation as long as war rages next door. That is why news of progress this week on the Kosovo diplomatic front has likely sparked new hope in the town about better times ahead.

Slavcko Kalanoski, marketing manager for the Hotel Biser, in Struga at the northern tip of Lake Ohrid, says Western tourists "don't make any distinctions of the different parts of the Balkans. Whenever they see a war taking place in one part of the Balkans, they think the whole Balkans is in the war."

In recent years, Macedonia had increasingly been relying on tourists from Bulgaria to make up the shortfall of tourists from Western Europe. But the Bulgarians too cancelled as soon as the war started, even though they know better than others further away that the war is not actually going on on Macedonian territory.

Pop-Janeva, at the economic ministry, says it is not reasonable to expect tourists -- from Bulgaria or anywhere else -- to spend their holidays in a country overrun with NATO soldiers and refugees.

"If we assume that tourism means spending time without worries or cares in some place, we can understand that. Now we have a different situation in Macedonia. For example, our tourist places are full of NATO soldiers whose number has increased lately. I don't think that tourists who will spend money would like to spend it in that kind of environment."

Pop-Janeva says Macedonia will continue to promote tourism in marketing campaigns abroad as an investment for the future. But neither she nor the Lake Ohrid hoteliers are optimistic that recovery will be swift, even if the war ends soon as is now hoped.

As Kalonoski at Struga's Hotel Biser puts it: "I personally am not very optimistic that we will recover so soon from this situation."

Dzemal at the Hotel Palace is slightly more upbeat: "We have been living on hope for the past several years. But for this year we don't have hopes any more, but we will try to survive at least until the next year, when we hope that it will be the same as it was before for Ohrid."

(Second of two features on the effects of the Kosovo crisis on the economy in neighboring Macedonia.)