Responsible tourism in the Balkans

The Balkans region is sometimes referred to as ‘the land of blood and honey’. Honey, naturally, as you’ll find pots of the stuff by roadsides everywhere, local beekeepers selling their produce to passing travelers – be sure and pick up a pot or two. And blood because this is a land that has endured more than its fair share of war and suffering over the centuries. The wounds are very fresh in some places – many buildings in cities such as Sarajevo are still pock-marked with bullet holes, while not all of Mostar has been rebuilt, so you’ll see the bombed-out shells of houses now and again.

Travelers should have some sensitivity around raising discussion of the Yugoslav Wars, which only ended in 2001. The tensions that caused them still linger in some Balkan countries, especially where there are minority populations, and many people will have had relatives who died in the conflicts.

In recent years, all of the Balkan countries have either joined the European Union or made moves in that direction, and close economic ties have naturally led to greater stability. Tourism, because the industry depends on stable political systems, can also help with this, but the income needs to be equitably spread. Over the last few decades, Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast, and particularly Dubrovnik, has seen massive growth in visitor numbers, but it’s not sustainable.

In particular, huge cruise ships unload thousands of people daily into Dubrovnik’s beautiful Old Town every day in summer, but beyond the odd pizza lunch in a few lucky restaurants and souvenir fridge magnets sold, they bring few financial benefits. Montenegro’s Kotor Bay is at risk of going down the same route if cruise tourism is not curtailed. Foreign-owned all-inclusive resorts and hotels, too, see profits leaving the country with very little reaching the local economy.

Rural and remote areas of the Balkans are being affected by depopulation, as people head to the cities in search of better employment opportunities, leaving behind ‘ghost towns’. Responsible tourism in the Balkans seeks to spread the benefits more evenly – getting you out of overcrowded destinations into lesser-known areas, staying in locally owned hotels, and eating in locally owned restaurants.

None of that means you shouldn’t visit Dubrovnik – frankly, everyone should have a chance to see Dubrovnik; it’s a knock-out. But visiting responsibly could mean going outside peak season, staying longer in a small, independent hotel, and if you love to cruise, then opting for a smaller, less obtrusive and polluting vessel instead.

Environment & wildlife

Cruise out of control

We’ve campaigned against the plague of overtourism in Dubrovnik for years now. The causes and symptoms are well understood, and we see the same issues in Barcelona and Venice. The cruise industry is not solely at fault, but it plays an oversized role. Now, Montenegro’s Kotor Bay faces the same threat, with these mammoth floating hotels anchoring up and flooding the tiny ancient town with day-trippers who contribute little financially to the town’s economy.

A few restaurants, bars and shops become successful (but dependent on the cruise ships continuing), while places deemed too far of a walk away from the port are neglected. And the lives of residents in summer can be miserable, with crowds everywhere making it hard to get around.

On top of this, big cruise ships are terrible for the environment, polluting with their fuel and waste, and noisy to boot when they come into port. Reliance on the summer cruising crowd means that it’s ‘feast or famine’ for destinations when the ships aren’t arriving, and those businesses that do manage to make money from the industry see sharp drops in income outside peak season.

What you can do

Whether Montenegro, Croatia or anywhere else, the only cruise vacations we sell use small ships, which limit passenger numbers to no more than 250 or so. And sometimes, such as on a gulet cruise of the Adriatic, far fewer. That means less pollution and less crowding. Small ship cruises also mean a better experience for you, as you the ships can reach areas that large vessels cannot, and you don’t need to wait ages to get ashore. Explore away from the popular spots. The Balkan region as a whole is marvellously under-visited outside the hotspots. The mountains of Albania, for instance, are idyllic for hiking. There are pristine national parks, small medieval towns and beautiful lakes all over the place to explore either on foot, by bike, or as part of a small group tour traveling overland between countries.

Air pollution

Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovenia have serious issues with air pollution. The cause is coal factories, many of them foreign-owned, and there is a growing backlash against the myriad health problems they cause. While it’s worse in industrial areas where few tourists go, Belgrade gets very smoggy in winter, when the fumes from residents heating their homes using inexpensive firewood and coal combines with those of diesel vehicles in the streets. Skopje in North Macedonia has similar issues, where during winter factories belch out smoke and the air is pretty unpleasant.

What you can do

Give cities such as Skopje and Belgrade a miss during winter, especially if you have any existing breathing issues. Join the movement to switch away from coal and keep fossil fuels in the ground where they belong. In cities, get around on foot or by public transport whenever possible.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Balkans or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

People & culture

The land of blood & honey

In some Balkan countries such as Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, even though the conflict is over, the peace remains fragile. In fact, we now have the term ‘Balkanisation’ – the fragmentation of regions and states often hostile towards each other. The entire region is so mixed up in terms of ethnicity, culture, religion and loyalty to political factions that it’s hardly surprising such tensions exist.

War tourism or ‘dark tourism’ is a growing trend in parts of the Balkans. And when done respectfully – see Ypres and Somme, Normandy – there’s nothing wrong with that, however ethical issues do crop up. For instance, it’s not uncommon to see ornaments made from old ammunition – but doesn’t collecting the stuff put people at risk? Should there be profits made from weapons of death and destruction (outside the fully reputable arms industry, of course)?

What you can do

Read up on the Yugoslavs Wars and treat the subject carefully when speaking with local people. Some may have had relatives who died in the conflict; others may hold very strong views. Be conscious of the many different ethnicities and religions that make up the Balkan peoples, and that what one person may find an innocuous remark, another may find offensive. A local guide is invaluable in explaining the issues with sensitivity.

Overtourism & depopulation

When a destination is affected by overtourism, it has a profoundly negative effect on residents. Rents and home prices go up as properties are converted to short-term vacation lets. Public infrastructure is strained. Levels of waste in the street grow. And it becomes harder to find basics like groceries that people need close by, as traditional businesses and shops are replaced by overpriced cafés, restaurants and souvenir shops. Eventually, people feel forced to move away, and the actual population of a destination dwindles still further in relation to the number of visitors.

This is exactly the kind of process that Dubrovnik has fallen victim to, and it’s also a risk to other locations in the Balkans, some of them also UNESCO-protected, such as the Bay of Kotor in Montenegro, Lake Ohrid in North Macedonia, and Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia.

Depopulation is not always linked to overtourism, however. It is also a result of a lack of economic opportunities nearby. Almost 50 percent of Bosnians and Montenegrins live abroad, around 40 percent of Albanians do, and some 30 percent of Kosovars and Macedonians. The average in the European Union, as a whole, is about 11 percent. This growing Balkan diaspora means that countries are losing many of their youngest and best-educated citizens, and once someone has left it’s difficult to entice them home again.

What you can do

Our responsible vacations frequently explore rural, less-visited areas of the Balkans, making a point of seeking out guest houses, restaurants and farms that are independent and locally run. Tom Wilkinson, from our partner Exodus Travels, believes cycling vacations in the Balkans can help: “It has a lot of potential for local people to set up small businesses. For example, in Bosnia and Herzegovina we visit a few villages that are near deserted, because people have gone to cities looking for work. If we can encourage people to stick around by helping them make an income from tourism, then that can make an important difference in helping rural communities to maintain their traditional lifestyles.” Wherever you’re planning to visit, if you stay local, shop local and eat local, while using local guides, your vacation will have a massive financial benefit to the destination. If you’d like to visit Dubrovnik and Kotor Bay, come outside of summer and stay as long as possible. You can also use CruiseMapper to see when big cruise ships are due in port, so you can try to avoid them.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Boudewijn Boer] [Cruise out of control: Polina Rytova] [Overtourism & depopulation: Ruben Ramirez]