Experiences of an American woman who was married to a Serb.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Weird Twists of Fate: Serbia vs Croatia and the Tourism Industry

Just heard from a behind-the-scenes source that the Globetrekker TV series will be shooting an episode in Serbia this August. Between late night, raft-bar parties on the banks of Belgrade's rivers and the Guca festival, not to mention Belgrade's book fair, I can imagine it will be a heck of a fun episode both to film and to watch.

Serbia in the summertime reminds me a lot of (pre-hurricane) New Orleans -- great music, steamy weather, serious partying, a relaxed attitude, and open arms to all visitors.

The funny thing is, of all the countries to be split from the former Yugoslavia, Croatia got the would-be-tourism motherload. Sun, islands, olive trees, the Adriatic, homemade wine ... how could you beat that? In the 1970s when Yugoslavia relaxed her borders, thousands of Germans, Austrians and Italians streamed to the Croatian sea-side for cheap Balkan holidays. These days, with new super-cheap flights from Germany, Italy and the UK, plus new super-highways built specifically to whisk vacationers from the inland to the sea, Croatia's tourism board is issuing proclamations about how many billions in tourism revenues it can expect shortly.

I strongly doubt progress will be as easy as they expect. Because (and this is a broad generalization but at heart, I think, a fairly true one) Croatians don't like strangers. They're just not a warm and welcoming people to anyone except for other Croatians, and even then, you often won't see true warmth unless you're a member of the family. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that ... unless you expect to make billions from tourism.

Serbia has none of the advantages of Croatia. No seaside. Far fewer flights. Fairly crappy highways. Physically it doesn't look much different from most of Central Europe aside from a sprinkling of Orthodox churches, a smattering of badly run-down hotspring spas, and random wildlife centers in between countryside damaged by too much chemical fertilizer and everyday pollution. (My husband told me not to post my photographs of main roadsides in southern Serbia here because they are so utterly depressing due to kilometer after kilometer of waste from badly positioned, open-pit, town dumps... such as thickly shredded layers of plastic adorning river banks.)

And yet Serbia has what it takes to be a tourist mecca -- it's just plain fun to be there. People (again a broad generalization, but again I think warranted) are happy to meet new people. People are happy to sing, smile, philosophize, dance and drink with strangers. There's a quality of friendly welcome and good-hearted appreciation of life itself.

Sometimes I think the Gods or Fates must have a strange sense of humor. Witness when they stuck the Serbs inland and the Croats on the Adriatic. Because if positions were reversed, the Croatian coast in the hands of the Serbs would be nearly too much fun to bear. Summer holiday heaven. And the Serbian farmlands and administration in the hands of the Croats would in all fairness, probably be better managed. Belgrade's business would be booming, and the countryside would be more tidy.

But the fates did not so dispose. Which is why Zagreb is a financially healthier yet horribly staid, middle class city, and Belgrade is one big, slightly disheveled, party packed with artists, poets, visionaries and musicians. Which would you rather visit for vacation?*

*Disclaimer: I'm unusually lucky, I get to visit both as we have family, friends and flats in both countries.


Viktor said...

Situation will turn at the point when an average tourist starts prefering adventure and fun over peacefull holiday. Only somehow, I don't see an average tourist doing that twist in a near future.

Still, on the other hand, until that happens, this precious little adventure tourists over here in Serbia will get to enjoy the royal treatmant :)

Dejan said...

My dear, you forgot about Exit festival :)) among the other attractions, and not just Belgrade, it seems to be spreading to other towns aswell.

Ryan said...

I COMPLETELY agree Rosemary! I recently travelled alone for 6 months and by far the highlight of my trip was the time I spent in Serbia. I had recently come from Spain and was a little disappointed with friendliness of the people there. Immediately after arriving in Serbia it was as if the language barrier was a non-issue. I met wonderful locals and fellow travellers, got to attend Exit and Guca music festivals as well as some Saint's day celebrations called 'slavas'. So to all travellers, after extensively travelling Europe, I can't recommend Serbia enough! Oh, and of course the Greek Islands, which were a whole nother story.