One must question how organic the choice to engage with war is when it remains one of the few viable sources of income in a country where youth unemployment rates have reached 57.5%
Between 2010 and 2013, there was a 240% increase in tourist visits to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). This trend has been reflected across the country and has only ceased due the pandemic’s restrictions.
Many Westerners have only heard of BiH because of its recent history. From 1992 to 1995, BiH endured a brutal conflict and an appalling genocide, sparked by the break-up of Yugoslavia combined with pre-existing ethnic tensions. As the country is still reconstructing its post-war identity, it bears shockingly visible scars of the horrors of 30 years past.
With such a landscape, the new rush of visitors echoes a wider global trend of ‘dark tourism’. For similar reasons as they travel to Chernobyl, visitors have flocked to BiH because they are “places [that are] historically associated with death and tragedy”.
The ethics of dark tourism are not straightforward. On the one hand, dark tourism is a profitable business, allowing locals to share their history with ignorant Westerners. On the other, the true intentions of visitors are often unclear, even to themselves. The ‘thrill’ factor sparked by dark tourism’s pursuits denotes an unsavoury sense of voyeurism.
Whatsmore, the result of such tourism for BiH is obvious: the country is pigeonholed asragic, war-torn and violent, on the map purely for the entertainment of Westerners. Although no simple answers can be given to the polemic of how to visualise and visit a nation, it’s urgent that the tension between the tourist gaze and lived experiences in BiH is brought to light.
This article was inspired by our own travels through BiH and Croatia and the reflection of our own role as visitors to the country. The pictures are our own and were taken in July 2019 in Mostar, BiH.
BiH’s call for independence in 1992 led to a brutal four-year conflict between the ethnic majorities: Bosniaks, Bosnian Serbs, and Bosnian Croats. The once-multicultural heartland of Yugoslavia became inordinately complicated. 100,000 died and 2.2 million people were forced to flee their homes. Media outlets broadcast images and videos of war-torn BiH to a global audience.
Finally, in 1995 a highly unusual post-war peace agreement (the DPA) was enacted, splitting the nation into two entities: the Federation of BiH and Republika Srpska, with (amazingly) three separate rotating presidencies. Although intended as a temporary strategy to end the worst of the violence, it continues to dictate the country’s politics 25 years on.
Comparison with Croatia
Unlike its neighbour Croatia, which was also entangled in a post-Yugoslav conflict, BiH remains a nation characterised by its brutal past. BiH’s experience was both more protracted and far more brutal than Croatia’s. Major economic and political instability have hindered BiH’s recovery from the war. The DPA installed a highly fragmented government which has exacerbated divisions. Subsequently, wealth acquired by BiH in the form of aid and investment is often highly contested by factional governments, leading to high rates of corruption, nepotism and neglect. Divisions across ethnic and religious lines subsist and this has impeded the development of a coherent strategy for tourism. Mostar, a major city, is a microclimate of such issues. Daily life there is fraught with division: ‘schools, universities, jobs, basic amenities, and even mobile phone companies are chosen or allocated on the basis of ethnicity.’
Croatia has created a far more popular reputation through its monetised, Mediterranean image in the West, both thanks to its extensive coastline and dance music scene. Croatia, has been able to “replace memory” and “phase out the past”. In contrast, BiH can neither finance the reconstruction of its buildings or erase negative legacies from the conflict. Thus, engagement with dark tourism has been born out of necessity rather than choice.
Considering its border with Croatia, BiH could easily become a ‘next stop’ for travellers. This is already happening to a limited extent, with many Croatian tourist agencies offering excursions to cities such as Mostar. However, this comes with its own complications. In 2018, tourist agency ‘Adriatic Travel’ published a photograph of Mostar on its website in which two mosques (Hadži-Kurt and Nezir-agina) were edited out and replaced by bell towers of Franciscan churches and cathedrals with Christian Crosses. Croatian interest in promoting tourism in BiH is often confined to regions with majority Bosnian-Croat populations or to Catholic sites of worship (e.g. Međugorje).
Dark Tourism – Voyeurism or Understanding?
BiH has always had a lot to offer visitors in terms of its rich history, stunning landscapes and appealing cuisine. Yet travellers are “presented directly with their preconceived imagination of the place that has been constructed by the media”, one in which “the scars of war are hard to miss”. Unable to transgress the image of a war-torn state, BiH is placed as a dark tourism ‘hotspot’. Sarajevo’s profile on www.dark-tourism.com ranks 8* and Mostar 7* on the “dark-o-meter”. In fact, “war is mentioned in almost all travel stories about the Balkans by foreign journalists”. This raises the question of whether the citizens of BiH have any autonomy over their own narrative.
This association is tied up with exposure to a conflict whose horrors were transmitted through colour television, planting a preconceived image “long before their decision to visit”. The Japan Times (1999) tells travellers that “although many museums have been damaged or destroyed, you should see the large open-air museum that is Sarajevo”. This paints Sarajevo as an imaginary space created for the tourist gaze, reinforcing preconceived notions of war. The “importance of Western imaginary construction of the Balkans’ in creating ‘power-knowledge complexes that legitimise their subordination” is clear.
An ‘other’ is created under the guise of ‘Balkanism’. The Balkans have often served as “a repository of negative characteristics upon which a positive and self-congratulatory image of the ‘European’ has been built”. This relation mirrors the trend of dark tourism.
Bosnia’s popularity within ‘dark tourism’ has been recently reinforced in the BBC show ‘The Misadventures Of Romesh Ranganathan’ (2019). Ranganathan introduces the episode stating “all you think about when you hear Bosnia is the horrific things we’ve seen on the news in recent years… war-torn I guess”. Despite voicing an intent to present BiH in a different light, his travels are overwhelmingly dominated by war tropes. At one point he claims “I asked to see something unrelated to the war, a request I instantly regretted”. Radovanović, a Trebinje tour guide challenges this interpretation from a local perspective: “journalists are lazy and go for a cheap entrance ticket [using the 1990s war]”. People here “would rather read a story about the old lady producing cheese using traditional methods from a thousand years ago”.
However, many BiH citizens want to draw tourists to the war in order to tell their personal stories. Sarajevo’s War Hostel or ‘A Glimpse of the War’ is currently rated #14 out of #104 ‘sites in Sarajevo’ on Tripadvisor. It offers paying guests a war ‘experience’; guests are given no electricity and only rations to eat whilst sleeping on sponge mats with artificial sounds of gunfire and explosions on repeat. It is intended to recreate the 1,425-day-long siege for a tourist price. Whilst this synthetic environment is arguably uncomfortable and could be deemed as Western voyeurism, it is owned by a native Bosnian, whose war experience inspired its creation. The owner states his intention as to “avoid giving subjective impressions’ otherwise “you’re just talking pain” and “not talking education”. Ryan (2009) reflects this in speaking to Adnan, a local, who claims to show the “real Mostar” in his photographs, not the “glossy Mostar” of the guidebooks. His images are characterised by “graffiti, graves, and shell damage”. For some, denying dark tourism would present an inauthentic image of their country.
Despite a local intention revolving around education, the motivations of tourists are far murkier. Tripadvisor reviews for the ‘War Hostel’ present a challenge to its supposedly educational function. The top comment reads “I dare you to go to this […] We learned everything we wanted to, we experienced amazing feelings”. This points to positive gain from others’ trauma (‘amazing feelings’) and denotes a fetishisation of pain. “I dare you”, has an underpinning of excitement, the thrill of a rollercoaster and not a contemplation of war. Moreover, to give a war experience “five stars” - as 94 out of 102 reviewers have, feels problematic to say the least. What does framing this paid ‘experience’ as an individual journey of self-discovery mean for locals who want to move on from their trauma?
Kurbastic, (the owner) explains his reasoning for starting the hostel: “I decided to give people [tourists] what they wanted”, he says of the young travellers from Europe, Australia, and the United States. He reacted directly to the desire of foreigners to feel personal proximity to pain: “locals are definitely not interested”, he says.
Dark tourism has also provided ample opportunity for locals to profit from “an industry built around visitors who go to see the sites of Europe’s bloodiest conflict since World War II”. The War Hostel, for instance, is a thriving business, fully-booked during summer months. An article in The Daily Telegraph (2007) claims that ‘the war has given BiH new materials to work with’… with locals now offering “finely engraved shell casings and bullets ingeniously turned into ballpoint pens”.
One must question how organic this choice to engage with war is when it remains one of the few viable sources of income in a country where youth unemployment rates reached 57.5% in 2014, If there is an economic demand for war stories alongside dwindling opportunities in other sectors, this blights BiH’s freedom to shape its narrative.
The Sniper Tower, Mostar
Dark tourism in action can be seen in the building first constructed as a bank in Mostar in 1992. Its unfinished concrete structure made it the ideal spot for Bosnian-Croat snipers when war erupted later that year Almost three decades on, it remains a concrete shell covered in graffiti and has thus become an unofficial dark tourist monument. The building has gained a following amongst adventurous adrenaline seeking backpackers who climb inside to explore. These tourists know it as the ‘Sniper Tower’. Exemplifying the divide between tourists and residents, it is known instead to locals as ‘staklena banka’ (glass bank) or ‘stara banka’ (old bank).
Without local involvement in guiding tourists around the site, visitors break into a building that is a stark reminder of bloodshed to locals. This freedom to ‘gain from’ the tower, to ‘experience’ it, neglects its status as a site of collective memory for the local population. Upon our inspection of the site, it was apparent that authorities are now regularly clearing out the tower despite entry being officially prohibited. Clearly, there is an extent of unwilling acceptance of the usage and popularity of the tower amongst tourists.
The tower is covered with inscriptions from Mostar’s blossoming street art community, arguably a way for the locals to construct their historical narrative without the institution of a museum.
As seen in the picture above, bullet holes have been transformed into creatures of flight, wings taking them to a different place. Redefining this space reflects the impetus for change among Mostar’s local population; to connect to a past that they and their parents experienced, but with the momentum to move on from its meaning to build a new national identity that stretches beyond war. The tower provides a canvas to exhibit stories which tourists will be exposed to, without the input of authorities. Picture 3 (above) reads “ovde religija nema nikakve veze sa Bogom”, “here, religion has no relation to God.” The tower stands in an area which was largely overlooked during reconstruction, which focused instead on the ‘Stari Most’ (bridge). Painting these walls has transformed the space in a meaningful way for locals. But there is no certainty that backpackers will recognise this in the art unassisted.
Tourism is key to aiding Bosnia and Herzegovina’s recovery from the war. Structural stability and a boost in investment would empower BiH with the autonomy to develop their tourism industry in a more cohesive and productive way. Until this point, tourists will continue to crave and invest in dark tourism. War should of course be commemorated, yet the emphasis on war has come to dominate all other meaning and experience that BiH has to offer. War experiences for tourists should be offered by locals and provide just one form amongst a balanced range of experiences outside of the dark tourism market. Respect of local perspectives should be enshrined in the tourism industry. If this occasionally strays into dark tourism, so be it, as long as opinions offered are diverse enough to engender a nuanced portrayal of the nation. Without this approach, a stagnant imagination is at risk of being replicated by future tourist audiences, visiting to merely reinforce the notions of BiH that they already have, instead of forging new ones.
Thank you to Tamara and Isis for this in-depth, thoughtful and urgent article. Is “dark tourism” a phrase you were previously aware of? Have you engaged in it? Would you engage in it? What does it mean to be an ethical tourist? Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org