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Western travel writers are hooked on Balkan war stories. Local voices could be the answer

Western travel writers are hooked on Balkan war stories. Local voices could be the answer

Foreign travel writers in the Balkans often find themselves falling back on wartime tropes. But 25 years on from the Yugoslav conflict, such comparisons no longer hold up to scrutiny. Alex Crevar looks at why its time for reporters to look a little harder — both at the region, and themselves.

Type “Bosnia and Herzegovina travel articles” into Google, and the results will take you to a land where “East meets West”: Ottoman bazaars, ancient stone bridges, lost-in-time mountain villages, and thick black coffee. Often, however, those stories are also tempered with something else: descriptions of war, destruction, siege, and the implosion of Yugoslavia. War in Bosnia may have ended some 25 years ago, but the connection between the country and past bloodshed remains deeply entwined — even in otherwise idyllic stories of Bosnian discovery.

“War is mentioned in almost all travel stories about the Balkans by foreign journalists,” says Sabina Sirćo. “Probably the goal is to make them more dramatic.” Sirćo grew up in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s capital, and started her blog, The Wild One, five years ago to promote the country’s adventure and culture tourism. “By overexploiting the topic of war in the Balkans, [tourists] often think it is not safe to travel to this region. I believe locals can convey a story about their home country more profoundly and truthfully … there will always be a bigger picture and details a foreign travel writer won’t know.”

That conflict remains prominent in articles about Bosnia and Herzegovina — and the Western Balkans generally — begs a wider question: is it foreign or domestic writers who define a country’s image? A closer inspection of the above web search reveals all of the stories on Google’s first two pages link back to sites based in the United States or United Kingdom. Tourism may be increasingly important as a nation’s international calling card — b­ut the implications of foreign-dominated narratives often translate to cultural mischaracterisation at best and, at worst, sensationalism at the expense of a country’s long-term reputation.

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Full disclosure: I am one of those foreign writers. For two decades, I have been a part-time resident in the Western Balkans (Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo, North Macedonia, and Albania), reporting for travel publications based in the UK and the United States, where I am from. Over that period, I have referred to the war in stories. It took years to understand that no matter how well-meaning an article appeared, it was all for naught if it cemented negative messages for the sake of lazy and superfluous drama.

When I look back at my own reporting, I can track the evolution. In the early- and mid-2000s, my articles regularly rested upon a leitmotif of recovery and resilience. Although I avoided press trips, I knew magazines and newspapers would more readily assign built-in storylines. Over the years, my pieces shed such theatrics, becoming more respectful and developing empathy. Still, I am aware my voice will never be local.

“Without a strong local perspective, real stories about ordinary people and hidden places are missed,” says Gordana Radovanović, a tour guide, storyteller, and Slow Food Convivium leader from Trebinje, Bosnia and Herzegovina. “Journalists are lazy to 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.”

There are practical reasons why local writers haven’t played a larger role in telling the region’s story. A lack of Western industry contacts can be a stumbling block, as well as language. As Sirćo states: “There are a number of Balkan travel bloggers, but they all write mostly in their native language. If you ask me to name writers who write primarily in English, it would be tough. I don’t know anyone except me.”

“The situation has many layers,” says Aleksandar Donev, the former director of North Macedonia’s Agency for Promotion and Support of Tourism. “We don’t have a culture of producing travel journalists so, to a degree, we have to take what we get. On one hand, we in the Balkans want publicity from foreign travel media. And, a foreigner has fresh eyes that may be closer to the actual audience. The problem is when that’s the only perspective — especially in a complicated region that has been misrepresented for centuries.”

Donev, who is also a travel magazine photographer and the founding director of Mustseedonia, an NGO that promotes sustainable adventure tourism, explained that many journalists come to the region on short press trips (sponsored junkets) and leave when the tour’s itinerary is over. “If you stay just long enough to justify pre-established opinions, then you miss out on what makes this an authentic and interesting place for what it has now…instead of repeating stories from decades ago with no bearing on tourists anyway. This superficial reporting then, unfortunately, becomes the marketing and PR the world associates with us.”

Some organisations and countries are now looking for solutions. This spring, I received an invite to teach a number of travel journalism workshops, in order to amplify domestic voices. By this time, the coronavirus pandemic had already decimated global travel. Nearly everyone in the industry — from guides to national tourism officials — scrambled to rejig priorities. Among the challenges for small-market countries, like those in the Balkans, was how to counterbalance the misfortune of missing a year (or more) of promotion. The pandemic instantly laid bare the region’s dependence on visiting journalists, who were now restricted from travel, in order to get stories out there.

“The best storytelling is only possible by hiring the right people for the job. Every destination deserves the opportunity to tell its own story”

“Before Covid, emerging destinations such as North Macedonia were mainly relying on foreign travel writers promoting the country to international travellers,” says Tanja Georgievska, who helped to organise the workshops. She’s currently Business Services Lead for the Swiss-funded Increasing Market Employability project, which focuses on sustainable employment in several areas, including adventure tourism. “Training local voices to be a part of a country’s travel narrative adds value, especially in the current pandemic, when travel is limited to domestic and regional tourists. Increasing local knowledge about storytelling is also more sustainable in the long run, as it helps the country better promote its tourism offerings and creates a better link with the regional market.”

During a series of four-hour lectures with 15 Macedonian journalists, I taught travel journalism basics. The sessions took writers through idea development, pitching editors, and storytelling. Over the years, I’ve taught similar workshops throughout the region. Regardless of the locale, war or danger were never mentioned as potential story topics among the budding travel journalists. Instead, attendees proposed ideas accumulated over lifetimes: hikes to secret waterfalls; off-the-radar cafes; favourite restaurants; traditional music; festivals; and theatre openings.

Experts hope that even after the challenge of Covid-19 fades, these local writers will be better poised not only to help the region shed its post-conflict image, but also embrace Millennial and Gen Z travel trends, where profound experiences are valued over more standard tourist pursuits.

“Let’s face it, rare is the travel writer these days who can spend more than a limited amount of time in a destination and really embrace the local life or have a transformative experience,” says Brana Vladisavljevic, who grew up in Serbia, Yugoslavia, and then lived in Australia and the UK for 18 years. During her time abroad, she was a Lonely Planet’s destination editor for Eastern and Southeastern Europe. “I’d argue the best stories happen when you really care about a place or it’s touched you in a profound way — which is obviously much more the case with local writers.”

Any profound change will take both more work and more long-term investment in the Balkans itself. When asked how to increase the number of local writers, Vladisavljevic says employing a number of tactics would help: specialised university journalism classes; increased quality of regional travel media; and translation of local articles into English. “National tourism organisations should also invite local writers rather than focusing on working with foreign ‘influencers,’” she states. “Similarly, foreign-sponsored development programs could support local travel journalism as part of sustainable marketing efforts.”

But the question of power dynamics in travel writing is a global problem, not a regional one. Real change will also demand a change in mindset from the Western travel editors and readers that Balkan PR agencies are often so keen to win over.

Christine Bednarz, formerly with National Geographic Travel, believes magazines, newspapers, and websites are indebted to the places that provide them with the material from which they profit. “Travel publications have a responsibility to give readers accurate, current, and unbiased information about destinations,” says Bednarz. “Too often, as the media industry faces cutbacks and many other pressures, editors turn to the contributors they already know, rather than pushing to discover and cultivate new talent on the ground. When covering often-misunderstood places such as the Western Balkans — or any other region around the world — the best storytelling is only possible by hiring the right people for the job. Every destination deserves the opportunity to tell its own story.”

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