By Tracy L. Barnett
For BBC Travel
During the war, American Tim Clancy and Dutchman Thierry Joubert got to know each other in working together in the refugee centers. The two of them were equally inspired by the stunning landscapes of Bosnia’s Dinaric Alps. On a trip to the highland village of Lukomir in 1998, three years after the war had ended, Joubert began to think about starting a tourism organization in the mountains and highland villages; Clancy, it turned out, had been thinking along the same lines.
“To put it into perspective, nobody looked at Bosnia in those days as a tourism destination at all,” recalls Joubert. “Most of the World Bank-type funders were looking at it as a site for heavy industry. But we were saying Bosnia has more in terms of tourism than people realize.”
The other challenge, Joubert said, was to somehow help stem the flow of people leaving the rural areas for better opportunities, and to provide an alternative vision that would keep tat least some of them on the land and connected with their traditional culture. Most villagers made their living through subsistence farming and sheep herding. A steady stream of tourists would provide another way to supplement their income.
In 2000 they launched their first tour with a daytrip to Lukomir. (See related story in BBC Travel)
“The Bosnian population was like, ‘What? Why would we want to go there?’” Tourism or daytrips never existed before the war, he explained; most of the tourism was in the winter because of the Olympics, or there were mountaineering clubs that were limited in scope, and mass buses taking people to the Catholic pilgrimage site of Medjugorje.
But the public responded, both inside of Bosnia and beyond, and Green Visions, a tourism group aimed at showcasing and preserving the best of Bosnian wilderness and culture, was born.
“Now that’s changed completely; people have heard of the highland villages and they go with their families,” said Joubert. The tourism is beginning to revitalize local economies and give people more pride in their rural heritage.
Destinations included Sutjeska National Park, the so-called Yosemite of Southeast Europe, whose historical mystique as the hideout of Tito’s partisans only enhances its stature as one of Europe’s largest old-growth forests; river rafting on beautiful whitewater rivers like the Tara, which flows through Europe’s deepest canyon; King Karadjordjevic’s old hunting trail, and the 98-meter Skavakac Waterfall.
Soon the dream began to grow as the group began reaching out beyond national borders. In 2010 the Via Dinarica was born when Green Visions teamed up with the Montenegrin Center for Sustainable Tourism Initiatives to develop a corridor that connected Sutjeska National Park with that country’s Durmitor National Park. In 2013 they were able to procure funding from the United Nations Development Programme and USAID, which began to fund various Via Dinarica projects in the region.
Now the network of trails has grown to nearly 2,000 kilometers stretching from Slovenia to Albania, and it’s been named “Best New Trail” by Outside Magazine, “One of the world’s best new hikes” by Wanderlust and one of the best adventure holidays in Europe by The Guardian.
Backpackers can choose from a wide menu with vistas that include Croatia’s Adriatic Coast, the emerald glacier lakes of Durmitor, the Valbona Pass through the Albanian Alps and the Byzantine Orthodox monasteries of Macedonia.
Now, with the trail on the global backpackers’ radar screen, more international trekkers have begun to materialize. And their presence has enabled Green Visions to have eyes and ears in the mountains, to support and inform another initiative: Eco Akcija (Eco Action), a group that fights to protect these natural areas from illegal logging, inappropriate development and other destructive actions.
“It’s great to have the Via Dinarica, and it’s great to protect the environment and villages like Lukomir,” said Joubert. “But if we’re talking about tourism there has to be a benefit for the communities, and that can only be given sustainably through local businesses.”
So in the fall of 2014 the Via Dinarica Alliance was born, linking tour groups, adventure companies and other small businesses throughout the region in a sort of cooperative business venture. It’s been interesting, he said, seeing the bonds grow between people of all ethnicities, in a region where Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks tend to move in their own circles, and tension between the groups remains.
“These tours have an impact,” he said. “We’re actually showing people that the world out there is not necessarily bad or horrible or dangerous – and the same goes for people from other ethnic backgrounds. You can have a beer with them enjoy and share experiences with them.”