After the peace deals are signed, the gawpers arrive. But post- war tourism also has something to be said for it
Sunday 06 June 1999
Poor old Yugoslavia. I visited Belgrade back in the early1980s, when it was still by far the most welcoming of all east European capitals. It was grey and rainy, but the Danube was magnificent and old gentlemen in parks kept doffing their trilbies at me. I have never returned.
Let's face it, Yugoslavia has not been flavour of the month as a tourist destination for quite a long time, despite occasional attempts by its tourist board to invite journalists on press trips. This year, of all years, was supposed to be Montenegro's "Year of Tourism". The once-glamorous Adriatic resort of Sveti Stefan, for example, was to have been relaunched as a playground for the rich and famous. I don't think so.
If the Yugoslavs actually want any tourists right now, I suppose there is always "intrepid tourism" to fall back on. At the end of the Bosnian war, bus-loads of morbid visitors were taken into Sarajevo for the thrill of looking at bombed out buildings and of daring to tread in the footsteps of war reporters.
This is not new. A correspondent for the BBC in war-torn Afghanistan told me how lost and bewildered Australian backpackers were regularly delivered into her care by Kabul police when the shelling got bad. It would not surprise me to learn that there had even been a few backpacking nutters enduring the recent air-raids over Belgrade.
But what kind of tourists, you may ask, would get their kicks from visiting countries on to which one's own bombs have just been raining? I never quite understand how Americans feel about backpacking in Vietnam for example. What do they say to the sweet little old lady serving them a sandwich who lost her son 20 years earlier to one of their country's air-raids? One can rather understand her anger and her bitterness welling up at the mere sight of the American's complacent face.
But before I completely slag off this form of tourism, I have to admit that I have dabbled in it myself, partly - but not solely - for the childish kudos of reaching places popularly perceived as "dangerous".
In fact, I have found it a humbling and enlightening experience. Baghdad in the aftermath of American bombing, for example, turned out to be not a furious maelstrom of flag-waving lunatics, but a sad and gloomy place where lifeless stall-keepers in the tourist souks drank tea with each other rather than with customers, while the silver jewellery, bedouin daggers and carpets that nobody had shown any interest in buying for years, gathered dust on the shelves.
Beirut in 1992 was equally sad. I found the people neither effusively welcoming nor implacably hostile. They were far too tired for that. They merely noted my presence as another sign that the country had embarked on the long road back to normality (a road that is still being travelled - with more recent signs of normality including being featured in a Thomson Holidays brochure).
For this reason, I would not be particularly surprised to see a degree of tourism return to Yugoslavia soon. The people who make it over there won't be in for a fun holiday, but they might have a few deep thoughts on the meaning of life.
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