Landlocked Serbia plays nature card to woo tourists

A little over two years ago Ljuba Simic packed in his job driving trucks for a local cement factory for a new life - as a pioneer of rural tourism in Serbia's lush Fruska Gora region.

"I told myself it would be good to profit from what we have: the Danube river, the Fruska Gora hills and their pristine nature," the dynamic 51-year old told AFP.

Together with a business partner he turned a traditional Vojvodina farmhouse into a rural inn in the picturesque village of Cerevic, on the north side of Fruska Gora where the hills meet the banks of the Danube.

With tourism heavyweights Croatia and Montenegro and their sun-kissed Adriatic coast just next door, landlocked Serbia is bidding to turn its vast, unspoilt countryside into an asset for green tourism.

The industry is still a fledgling: last year revenues from tourism made up barely 2.5 percent of Serbia's gross domestic product, according to the economy ministry.

But spurred on by the success of countries like Hungary, Bulgaria or Romania, Serbia has high hopes for the sector, and its trade and tourism ministry aims to establish a viable market for nature tourism by 2015.

Guests staying at Simic's inn, which opened in 2008 with 40 beds, can go hiking, visit the area's famous Orthodox monasteries, take a boat trip on the river or simply relax with a drink in the farmhouse's calm gardens.

Octogenarian Ratko Tatalovic came to Cerevic to beat the summer heat in Serbia's capital Belgrade.

"The beauty of our country deserves to be highlighted, and this kind of tourism is an excellent way to do it," he said.

Jagoda Jovicevic, of the government's tourism organisation TOS, says "the state is actively supporting the development of rural tourism and has been giving subsidies and loans with favourable conditions for four years now."

She says the country is managing to transform its lack of industrial development into an economic advantage.

"We are turning something around that used to be considered a failing."

Simic is now one of around 4,000 people working in the growing sector, which so far counts some 5,000 tourist beds.

The economic downturn gave rural tourism an added boost, since many young people were forced to move back from the big cities to their native villages - where tourism suddenly seemed a way out, Jovicevic said.

"They used what they had at their disposal. The houses - which do often have to be refurbished - and the untouched natural beauty that surrounds them," she said.

In Indjija, a town some 40 kilometres (24 miles) outside Belgrade, the transformation kicked off almost a decade ago, after many people got laid off in the big cities in the 1990s and returned home.

A handful of the returnees saw the potential of the town, close to the capital and the Fruska Gora park, and turned a dozen of old farms known as Salasi into restaurants and guest housing, making the town and its surroundings a popular weekend outing from Belgrade.

But despite the government's efforts to promote tourism, there is still plenty to be done in terms of "infrastructure and educating people who work in the tourism sector," Jovicevic added.

Serbia also has something of an image problem. Despite the fact most of it was untouched by the 1990s wars, many foreigners still have images of the 1999 NATO bombing campaign against Serbia in mind when they think of the country.

In addition, economic development was stunted by years of sanctions over Belgrade's key role in backing Serb fighters in the bloody wars in Bosnia and Croatia - sanctions that were only lifted after the fall of strongman Slobodan Milosevic in 2000.

But Serbia is determined to market itself as a hub for southeastern Europe, boasting untamed nature and famed Balkans hospitality. Its latest tourism slogan is "Life in the rhythm of the heartbeat".

While Serbia's neighbours across the Western Balkans share the same natural beauty, few have yet tapped their potential for rural tourism, with the sector only just emerging in Bosnia or Macedonia.

In Croatia, despite the highly developed tourism industry on the Adriatic coast, tourist nights spent in rural hotels and bed and breakfasts make up only one percent of the total in the country.

Montenegro's tourist industry has also sprung up mainly on its coast, with rural activities such as rafting, hiking or fishing in the mountainous north making up only three percent of all tourism revenues.

Likewise Albania - still largely undiscovered by tourists after decades of isolation under communism - is also focusing mainly on its coast, with poor roads combined and an often deserted countryside hobbling the prospects for rural tourism.

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