Putting Post-Conflict Countries on Tourist Map

In spring 2014, while still holding the function of CEO of the National Tourism Organization of Serbia, I was invited to be a speaker at the panel “Beyond Economics: A New Message for Travel and Tourism” at the Global Summit of the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC). WTTC is the only global body that brings together all major corporate stakeholders in the Travel and Tourism sector, enabling them to speak with One Voice to governments and international bodies. WTTC works to raise awareness of Travel and Tourism as one of the world’s largest economic sectors, supporting 292 million jobs and generating 10.2% of global GDP.

Held annually, the Global Summit in Hainan gathered more than 1000 participants from all over the world, though on this occasion they were predominantly from Southeast Asia. BBC was the global media partner.

Speaking at this panel together with three other panelists from Cambodia (State Secretary in the Ministry of Tourism), Ireland (Minister of Tourism), and South Africa (CEO of National Tourism Board), was not only a privilege for me, but an extraordinary challenge to speak on the topic of tackling post-conflict procedures in repositioning of tourism destinations and regaining the positive image.

It was indeed a unique opportunity to learn more about all four destination examples. As opposed to the other three panelists who followed the recommendation of BBC moderator Nick Ross to speak about the success in repositioning of the destination in post conflict times, I thought that I should describe the consequences of the period of UN sanctions from 1992 – 2000 and the NATO intervention in 1999. The imposed UN embargo to Serbia and Montenegro resulted with severe economic difficulties, but above all with a visa ban, and travel and trade limitations.

The epilogue of almost three months of NATO intervention was:

  • Loss of human lives
  • Physical and psychological injuries and traumas
  • Destroyed infrastructure
  • Exclusion from exchange of information
  • Unemployment and brain drain – many left the country
  • Negative image

Where we stood in 2000, after the political changes:

  • Human lives were lost for good
  • UN sanctions were lifted
  • Accessibility eased (air transport, travel/visa regime had been relaxed)
  • Development of Internet that enhanced information flow
  • The process of reconstruction and rebuilding of infrastructure started together with foreign investments
  • Intercultural and tourism exchange intensified together with efforts to build up a positive image
  •  Increase of employment but “brain drain” continues to this day

Repositioning Serbia as a tourism destination remains a missionary work in regaining a positive image through the creation of an attractive tourism offer – which also includes thematic transnational products. Strategic thinking and setting priorities have been based on:

  • Membership in international organizations: UNWTO, ETC, Institute of Cultural Routes of the Council of Europe, ICCA (International Congress and Convention Association), 16 central and south east European countries and China
  • Stronger cooperation with international development agencies such as USAID (helped the establishment of the Serbian Convention Bureau), GIZ (helped the establishment of the Danube Competence Center), ADA (helped the reconstruction of the Golubac medieval fortress on the Danube and the development of the Danube in Serbia marketing strategy), JICA (helped education and the training of young people employed in the tourism sector, and enhanced the initiative for the establishment of the Western Balkans joined promotion in Japan)

The mentioned activities resulted not only in tourism growth with a number of conventions and conferences, as well as tourists, but also demonstrated the readiness to cooperate at an international/regional level. The latter ultimately contributed not only to tourism progress, but also to image change.

Participation and development in EU projects led to new tourism products as the integral part of thematic culture routes that raised awareness of the region and enriched its tourism offer. The awareness of cultural heritage led to different investment activities in preservation of the sites and introduction to new models of presentation (digitization).

The growing number of tourists influenced new investments:

  • New hotels (both boutiques and international chains)
  • National air carrier
  • Road network
  • Private entrepreneurship (boosting the employment rate)
  • Overall design thinking in creating promotion (joined and exhibiting with neighboring countries in overseas markets)
  • Video production and social media presentation
  • Thematic routes (for example, the Roman Emperors Routes and the Danube Wine Route)
  • Cultural and traditional events
  • Gastronomy, wine, and other segmented models of tourism products, such as nature and nature-related active holidays

Presenting the Serbian Tourism Case was indeed an interesting experience which has confirmed that we still have a long way ahead of us to cover, where building confidence is one of the major aims in:

  • Regional (neighboring countries) tourism cooperation
  • Transnational tourism offer
  • Public-private tourism partnership
  • Further participation in development of regional macro strategies
  • Joined models of promotion
  • Design of new tourism brands

The lesson learned in the past almost 30 years of converting from former country (Yugoslavia) to the new one (Serbia) will hopefully result in the ultimate success of tourism development and regaining of a positive destination image. This model could, at the same time, serve other countries in conflict regions as the best practice example.

Gordana Plamenac
President of the Board
Danube Competence Center (DCC)