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Tourism - how to present the beauty of our common home?

Via Dinarica – Connecting Naturally
By Tim Clancy

In a region that is often defined by political ups and downs, both local governments and the international community frequently struggle with which challenges to tackle and in what order. Economic recovery alone will not solve the woes of the Western Balkans, nor will social or political reforms alone. A concerted effort is needed on all fronts. Not an easy task by any means. There is, however, a single common denominator that manages to tick many of the proverbial boxes on our collective wish lists. It is called the Via Dinarica. Let me tell you why.

Photo: by Elma Okic; courtesy of Via Dinarica
Photo: by Elma Okic; courtesy of Via Dinarica

The Via Dinarica is a relatively new concept. It is a mega trail, similar to the Via Alpina and Appalachian Trail concepts, which connects seven countries that encompass the Dinaric Alps mountain range. The Via Dinarica bridges the entire Dinaric Alps chain from Slovenia to northern Albania and western Kosovo* – and everything in between - including the heart of the trail in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Serbia.  It is a tourism product that shares 19 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, 20 National Parks, 240 mountains, 2,000 kilometers of hiking and biking trails, and over 2,200 km of supreme waterways. In short, the Via Dinarica is a world class destination. Or at least has the potential to be one. The challenge is how to transform this enormous potential into a reality that will provide sustainable livelihoods for those living along its path and provide a major boost to both the economy and the image of the region on a whole. Mega Trails, like the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in Peru or the Appalachian Trail in the eastern United States, generate both jobs and income on a grand scale. The Inca Trail alone generates $40 million for the local economy whilst the Appalachian Trail (similar in length and character to the Via Dinarica) welcomes 3-4 million guests annually.

The Via Dinarica box check

  • Locomotive for Sustainable development
  • Creates new and positive image for region
  • Labour intensive industry
  • Reverses depopulation trends in rural areas
  • Youth employment
  • Assists vulnerable populations
  • Cross border cooperation
  • Reconciliation
  • Environmental Protection
  • Promotes and supports organic agriculture
  • Promotes renewable energy use
Via Dinarica Infographic

Although the overall economic situation in southeast Europe is generally weak, tourism is one of the fastest growing sectors. It is estimated that in 2014 travel and tourism directly supported over 300,000 jobs in the seven countries along the Via Dinarica. A fully functional and well promoted Via Dinarica could significantly increase those figures, particularly for the most vulnerable populations – rural and youth.

Over the past few years, the Via Dinarica has emerged as a regional tourism destination that offers world-class hiking, cycling, skiing, fly-fishing, kayaking, rafting, caving, and a plethora of opportunities to explore the unique traditional lifestyles and cuisine. Yet much of the natural and cultural beauty that lies along the Via Dinarica remains untapped as a tourism product. Many of these products are fragmented. International competition for these markets is fierce. Resources needed to adequately develop tourism are limited and many countries in the region lack a coherent strategy for connecting products to businesses and their target markets along the trails. That is why the Via Dinarica is such an important platform. It brings the great products each respective country struggles to promote and sell under one roof by sharing resources, developing regional products that are more competitive and attractive for foreign markets, and linking businesses and other service providers key to the success of this ambitious project. 

The various programs in progress, funded by the UNDP, USAID, and the EU respectively, will map and mark the three major trails – the White, Green, and Blue lines – so tourists can access the trails easily and safely. A new technical platform and content management system is being developed to effectively manage the vast amount of input a mega-trail of this nature requires, from service providers to top quality maps. It will also improve and develop community management systems for infrastructure (roads, trails, and accommodations - ranging from hotels and bed and breakfasts to small remote mountain huts). It will provide business management training for tour operators, providers of nature-based services, producers of local traditional products, and small-scale agricultural producers. The Via Dinarica development project will also establish and reinforce linkages along the trail, such as outdoor adventure packages and regional tours being offered by local ground operators and destination management consultants, between sport recreation clubs, mountaineer and mountain biking associations, rescue services, environmental NGO’s, local development agencies, and organizations for youth, women, and eco-tourism.

The Via Dinarica’s slogan – Connecting Naturally – does exactly that.  It disintegrates political and national borders with ease by recognizing, preserving, and promoting the common natural and cultural heritage the people of the region share.  Its greatest strength, however, is what sets it apart from other destinations. Just as healthy eco-systems are measured by their diversity, so too is the Via Dinarica. It is the unique mélange of natural landscapes, cultural traditions, and exceptionally tasty gastronomy that makes the Via Dinarica, as named by the US’ Outside Magazine, the Best New Trail in the World.

There is no better platform for the region’s political and economic establishments to rally behind. It fairly and honestly promotes the great potential of the region as a whole, while respecting the integrity of each country to define its role and approach to developing the Via Dinarica. It is one of the most inspirational grassroots movements that I have witnessed and participated in over the last 20 years. The bottom-up approach has secured an inclusive, participatory process that integrates a vast range of local stakeholders. It is this important factor – the insistence on local ownership – that will guarantee the success and sustainability of the Via Dinarica. What is needed now is broad based local and national government support for both civil society initiatives and private sector entrepreneurs to unleash the tremendous potential of the Via Dinarica to be the locomotive for sustainable and resilient economic development for the Western Balkans.

Tim Clancy is an independent consultant on sustainable development with a specialty in active and nature-based tourism.  He has lived and worked in the Western Balkans region since 1992, working with local governments and international development agencies. Tim currently resides in Sarajevo where he works as an expert on the UNDP and USAID funded ‘Via Dinarica – a platform for sustainable tourism development and local economic growth.’ He has authored 8 travel guides to the region, including the Bradt Travel Guide to Bosnian and Herzegovina (BiH), City Spot guides to Tirana and Sarajevo for Thomas Cook Publishing, and a regional travel guide to Montenegro, Serbia and BiH for Thomas Cook.

Winner of the Round 3, Voice of the Region Competition

“Danubik” on a voyage to the heart of darkness,
Essay by Antoaneta Naydenova, 34 years, Vidin

Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. The region of Southeastern Europe (SEE), geographically mapped around the Balkan mountains, boasts an unique experience deriving from the inextricably mingled tapestry of culture, historical circumstances, natural beauty and, of course, the idiosyncratic Balkan mentality. This mentality born out of the perpetual clashes during different historical times (mostly known as the clashes “them-us”) resulted in the cultivation of certain traits of character among Balkan peoples - ingenuity, hospitality, perseverance, tenacity, strength. The uniqueness of the region comes from the multifaceted experience it offers, the national-psychology of the people who inhabit it, and is perhaps the most intriguing aspect to a foreign tourist. The common aim of the people from the region is for this complexity to finally be justly assessed and positioned as it deserves in the multicultural Europe. To sum it all up  - part of the region’s charm should focus on history, culture and national-psychology.

Mraconia Monastery on Danube coastline
Photo: Mraconia Monastery on Danube coastline

All countries from the region have unequivocally declared their intention to become members of the European and Euro-Atlantic structures. The reform processes within the societies in SEE countries have gradually managed to distract their attention from the old time rivalries and brought a new spirit of belonging and cooperation. However, when it comes to bringing this new spirit to a higher level – a joint project for instance, things become more challenging. In the last few years, particularly in the tourism sector we witness appearance of sporadic tourist locations that do not change the big picture radically. Albania has largely grabbed the attention and has managed to bring many tourists to its coastline, rising as a promising tourist location. Bosnia and Herzegovina has also demonstrated its potential as an adventure tourism destination. Montenegro is also continuing to attract tourists’ attention via offers for mountain + sea tourism packages within one hour distance. Bulgaria is appearing on the tourist map as a destination for spa, camping and sports. When it comes to presenting “our common home”, however, countries encounter many obstacles. Let us list a few of them:

Physical connectivity within the SEE but also between the region and the rest of the world remains a big hurdle. In the absence of a regional airline a joint tourist product involving few countries is not competitive considering this costly and time-consuming service. Despite strong public diplomacy aimed at mobilizing resources for road infrastructure along Pan European Corridors (8,10,4,7) results have not yet become promising. Investment into the railway infrastructure is also poor, although railway tourist arrangements have the potential to encompass the whole scenic beauty of destinations like Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina. According to a recent article in the “Guardian”, comparing destinations in SEE to those in Western Europe that can be reached within 22 hours via railway the results are striking.[i] The lack of proper physical connectivity strongly undermines our potential to develop sustainable tourism that could generate significant national revenue.

Furthermore, in order to present the beauty of our common home via a joint tourist product we need also to invest in the infrastructure around the landmark tourist locations within the countries. Most of these locations look like sporadic beautiful islands starkly contrasted by the surrounding environment. Lack of adequate hotel capacity is also evident. Creating a joint tourist product would also most probably require the establishment of new border crossing points between the countries concerned.

A joint tourist product would be successful if it targeted appropriate audiences. The processes of European and Euro-Atlantic integration of the countries of SEE have largely set out the framework of cooperation. Trade agreements and visa liberalization have undoubtedly set the direction for cooperation. However, diversifying the targeted audience with old time friends should also not be forgotten. South East Asia, Africa, Arab countries could be brought on board as potential tourist customers via active tourist campaigns in the region including tourist fairs, meetings between tourist agencies, media campaign, etc.

Concerning the joint tourist product of the Balkan countries, the first thing that comes to my mind is the river Danube, an everlasting symbol of the continent. The second longest river in Europe has often been branded as an attractive tourist destination. Still, the Danube has not been properly recognized. As a native of Vidin, a Bulgarian town situated along Danube, the river has always been associated with biodiversity, sports events, camping, medieval celebrations along fortress Baba Vida, spring-bridge events, and fisherman’s dream. However, Vidin remains the poorest region in the country, which leads to conclusion that the Danube’s potential has been far from fully exhausted. Ironically the river starts in  Schwartzwald in Germany but if we follow its stream it appears that it descends into the heart of darkness much further downstream. In a unique way, for the curious historians and for the political connoisseurs the different locations on the river also present an opportunity to comprehend how the political landscape of Europe evolved over the time - the transition of SEE countries to democracy, wars in former Yugoslavia, conflict in Ukraine. A cruise along the river could provide a different perspective of looking at Europe, a more interesting one for tourists from other continents. For instance, we could build a ship called “Danubik” in the Danube macro-region. Headlines alike “Danubik” on a voyage to the heart of darkness could generate interest of tourist from other continents!

* This designation is without prejudice to positions on status, and is in line with UNSCR 1244 and the ICJ Opinion on the Kosovo declaration of independence