The global economic crisis and constraints of modern lifestyle are changing the face of tourism in the Balkans.
By Maria Paravantes for Southeast European Times in Athens -- 13/06/12
Around 800,000 tourists annually visit the village of Stanisic, near Bijeljina, northeast BiH. [Bedrana Kaletovic/SETimes]
From Greece to Romania, municipalities in Southeast Europe are capitalising on growing interest among travellers to eschew traditional vacation spots in favour of pristine small communities and villages for environmentally-friendly getaways.
The trend, known as ecotourism, promotes socially responsible travel and environmental sustainability. Visitors hope to get a rich taste of how residents live and keep the region as undeveloped as it was when they arrived.
It's also gaining popularity as the region endures difficult financial times. In view of the recent economic downturn, eco-tourism offers sustainable tourism development, paving the way for the growth of local communities by supporting local economies and job creation.
"There are people out there with environmental concerns, keen on learning more about the local way of life," Tasos Gourgouras, a co-owner of the Milia Mountain Retreat on the island of Crete, told SETimes.
There are countless opportunities throughout the region, as many nations are promoting the trend – the Greek Cycladic island of Kea; small villages throughout Serbia, the traditional Galicnic weddings in the Macedonian villages of Ohrid-Prespa and Berovo; the unique blend of Albanian heritage and Serbian Orthodox in the Kosovo communities of Prizren, Gjakova, Peja, and Decan; and the hostels of Bistrita in Moldova, on the edge of the Eastern Carpathians.
"Last year we had guests from five European countries that enjoyed staying in our village," said Nebojsa Strahinjic from the Vrmdza in Serbia, which has been renovated and designed with tourism revenue. Ecotourism contributed 100m euros to Serbia's economy in 2010 -- about 16% of all tourism revenue.
Serbia has identified ecotourism as a potential source for economic growth, regional development, increased employment, possibly improving the country's overall image, said Economy and Regional Development Minister Nebojsa Ciric.
"More than 1,000 households are involved in ecotourism in 70 municipalities, [and] generate the profit of 1,000 small factories," Ciric told SETimes.
Macedonia's most significant ecotourism site is the town of Krusevo, which is open in July and August of every year. It hosts the Ilinden historic event re-enactment, in which the entire town participates and tourists are invited to take part and wear period costumes.
Ranko Petrovic, Krusevo project manager, said the event brought the town back to life.
"Up until a few years ago, real estate was priced extremely low, around 5,000 euros -- but today, thanks to the development, as a result of the project, house prices are ten times higher," Petrovic told SETimes.
Romania has 3,000 private hostels that are members of the National Association of Ecologic and Cultural Rural Tourism. Maria Stoian, the association's president, said more are joining, despite the challenges that small businesses face.
"There are hurdles all over the place, just like in any other activity. Excessive bureaucracy in getting all the necessary documents, poorly developed infrastructure -- access roads, sewage system, power or gas connection and excessive taxes," she said.
But the rewards outweigh the risks for many.
Olaf Anderson, a teacher from Sweden, visited Kosovo with his students, and told SETimes that the ethno-tourist potential is significant in attracting international visitors.
"I am amazed with Kosovo's culture and heritage. It is rare that in such a small country … you find traditional heritage combined with Ottoman, Muslim, Slavic and Albanian elements. Kosovo has the potential to attract a good number of investors by promoting its cultural heritage and traditions," Anderson said.
Correspondents Biljana Pekusic in Belgrade, Bedrana Kaletovic in Sarajevo, Muhamet Brajshori in Pristina, Misko Taleski in Skopje and Paul Ciocoiu in Budapest contributed to this report.