Global warming seems to have had a double impact on Serbia in the recent years. On one hand temperatures have literally risen in the previous five years so much that the assumption is that the until-now moderate climate throughout Serbia is to become Mediterranean in a couple of years. Additionally, the heated political climate, filled with wars, political instability and poverty has made life around here almost unbearable for most of the population. Vacation - a rather normal, and throughout the year much anticipated event in any stable part of the world - only brings about more nightmares to many Serbs.

15/08/2001 -  Mihailo Antović


The Serbian media are flooded with offers to spend a week or two at the seaside this summer. There seems to be something for everybody - whether you want exclusive places, such as Spain or the islands in the Pacific, or, if you are not a "new-age businessman" (i.e. a mobster) and therefore more moderate in demands (and funds) - Turkey, Greece, Montenegro are offered. Web sites of famous travel agencies are full of possibilities - e.g. the Argus agency based at the heart of Belgrade offers bus or air lines from Novi Sad and Belgrade to places in Turkey, such as Kushadasi, and to Greek sites, such as Tassos at reasonable prices. Reasonable only for some. A ten-day stay in Turkey in the middle of the summer season costs about 600 DEM and another 100 DEM payable in dinars. A similar stay in Greece, in cheaper hotels and with bus travel costs around 400 DEM and another 50 DEM in dinars. Montenegro is only a portion cheaper, whereas the cheapest, "student" arrangements cover a bus fare and a 10-day stay in Bulgaria for less than 300 DEM. Below this figure, one can only find some private accommodation in the unattractive seaside villages of Montenegro - and that is exactly the amount most Serbs are capable of paying, and therefore the choice most have to opt for.


These prices may seem more than reasonable to a Western ear, but putting the whole story into a more general framework should make some common Serbian concerns clearer. The average monthly salary here is around 150 DEM. If we suppose that both parents in a four-person family, this means 300 DEM a month. This equals the price of a moderate vacation for a single person. Even if both parents give up their vacation for their children's sake, the cost of travel and hotel rooms for them will equal two monthly salaries for the entire family. Furthermore, at least as much money must be given to their children if their vacation is to look like a vacation at all - in Montenegro, every single service is charged, including hammocks for the beach, using a hotel swimming pool (although you already paid for hotel accommodation!), using the beach etc. Food and drink prices are also substantially higher than in Serbia. In addition, everything is charged in German marks. This practically means that a modest vacation for two is impossible without some 500 - 600 DEM. This amounts to four times average Serbian monthly salary. Upon their return home, the two children will generally be unleashed and they will be going out every night and visit local cafes, retelling the stories from the seaside or running after girlfriends or boyfriends or whatever. The summer means no school and going out every night - which in turn means more expenses for the dismayed parents. The total figures summed up in late August are, from the local point of view, catastrophic. And the books, notebooks and accessories for the next school year have not even been bought yet.

Nevertheless, the beaches are full of Serbian tourists. Even more so - roads are jammed, since many travel by cars. "Petrol is like water here! Where do people get the money?" one often hears in the street. This is a complex question. On one hand, many Serbs, especially younger ones, have taken up additional jobs to supplement their low monthly salaries. Some work in the country, some smuggle at local flea markets, whereas intellectuals with foreign language proficiency often work for foreign NGOs, growing in Serbia like mushrooms. Moreover, it seems that home-based supplies of some foreign currency saved and put aside some ten years ago are still not completely empty, and many choose to spend a couple of hundred on a decent vacation. Excessive pride, dominant in most Serbs, also makes many choose going to the seaside at any cost - even if it means virtual starvation in a couple of months to come. But for those people, poverty is not to be displayed publicly under any circumstances. Finally, in the middle of the entire mess, those poorest locals and refugees and IDPs simply stay where they are - far away from the eyes of the public, and no one even cares for the fact they do not go on vacation. The silent always remain unheard.

Political situation still a problem

Political problems have hindered tourism here for years. Even in the changing conditions of the democratic Yugoslavia, foreign tourists are relatively rare in Montenegro, at least compared to their numbers in the late eighties. Travel routes have also changed this year, due to the increasingly alarming situation in Macedonia. Most central and western Europeans are now willing to transit through Yugoslavia (the Belgrade - Nis motroway is virtually flooded with foreign cars after so many years), and the federal government has decided to jump at the opportunity to charge them for petrol, on-the-road accommodation and pay tolls. So this year EU residents and Americans were allowed to use our country for transit without a visa - they were only to fill out a form and pick up a receipt at one of the border crossings with Hungary. Upon their arrival to Nis, however, many decided to continue east, and arrive in Greece via Bulgaria, instead of Macedonia. This meant considerably worse roads, and about a 3 hours more travelling, but safety comes first. Serbs going to Greece, on the other hand, went freely through Macedonia. It remains unclear whether this is just bravery or a consequence of the recent history in which war was seen as a relatively normal side effect of everyday life and nothing to get too excited about. For political reasons, Croatia is still not an option for Serbian tourists. Rare visitors to Croatia from these areas claim nationalism is still widespread, especially in the Dalmatian seaside, most attractive to tourists. In contrast, northwest parts of Croatia, such as the Istra peninsula, are open to foreigners, Serbs included, but then again these areas are too far away to be seriously considered when vacations approach.

Emigrants' Tourism

Among the cars with foreign licence plates on the roads, many belong to Yugoslav citizens temporarily working abroad. These people are here labeled "Gastarbeiter", which in German literally means "guest workers". In Serbia it is a rather pejorative term for labourers who have spent many years hard working abroad, especially in Germany, and who like to return to their impoverished fatherland every summer to see the relatives and show off their fortune a little bit. These people are really relatively rich, especially compared with their peers at home, so they often spend foreign currency on more expensive vacations in the summer. They are generally known as being of the nagging type, especially when they complain to the locals that "being abroad means hard work" and that "money does not grow on trees in the West" (quite true), or that many of us here "are doing quite well off considering how little we work" (less true, here they suffer pangs of consciousness, so they defend themselves a little bit too much). But they are at their worst when they start shouting that they "would have made a much brighter choice if they had gone to Palma de Mallorca this year instead of coming to Serbia to see their relatives who just care for money and presents". Material welfare aside, these people really work hard in places far away from home, whereas their poor compatriots around here at least live in an environment which is friendly by default. In the end it is rather difficult, if not impossible, to judge on whose position is actually better.

The Future

Finally, the prospects for tourism in Serbia itself seem to be better, or at least less grim than in previous years. Transit tourism has reappeared this year, and this will probably be the most profitable summer activity in Serbia, especially on the main highway through the country. Some of the lakes and mountains in the country might become attractive to foreign tourists again (such as mount Kopaonik which has had a number of British tourists coming every winter despite the political situation). Meetings and conferences can also contribute to foreigners coming to Serbia. In July there was a two-week summer school in Linguistics at the University of Nis. There were about 250 foreigners from Europe, America and Asia who, contrary to all their expectations, had a great time around here. They mainly expected a war-torn city so poor that hardly anyone could be seen walking in the streets at night. And they ended up in a town teeming with energy day and night, not so different from any similar place in Europe. The conclusion is, in terms of tourism, Serbia has a chance. Things are getting better. However, in order for everybody to afford a decent holiday, many years will pass.

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