Come see the pyramids ... in Bosnia?
Still recovering from civil war, the European nation lures tourists with skiing, 'siege tours,' and land formations of dubious heritage.
Until recently, residents of this central Bosnian town never gave Visocica hill much thought.Skip to next paragraph
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Roughly pyramid-shaped and covered in woods, Visocica loomed 720 feet above the town. Occasionally, tourists or picnic parties would drive up the track on the back side to take in the scenery or to poke about the ruins of the medieval castle on its summit. Most of the time it was left to the sheep.
But over the past year and a half, this sleepy town of 12,000 has become one of Bosnia's busiest tourist destinations, with thousands of daily visitors coming in summer to see what is purported to be the world's largest pyramid. Four more purported pyramids are scattered around Visoko, disguised as hills.
Foreign geological experts who have visited the site report that it is a natural hill, and Bosnia's archaeological community has condemned ongoing digs here as a waste of the nation's limited resources and a threat to real sites. But for many Bosnians, it's a tourism dream come true.
"It's a big affirmation for the town, because everyone hears the name Visoko," says Mayor Munib Alibegovic. "Suddenly we have economic movement and lots of tourists coming here."
Twelve years after the end of the 1992-95 war, Bosnia's tourism industry is slowly coming back to life, and not only in Visoko. Sarajevo and Mostar have become popular summer side trips for the throngs of Italian, French, and German tourists who spend their holidays on Croatia's Adriatic coast. Serbs, Croats, and Montenegrins crowd the slopes of the country's ski resorts.
In the Croat-Bosniak Federation (one of the country's two states within a state), hotel stays by foreign tourists have increased by 69 percent since 2003. The other half of the country, Republika Srpska, has seen more modest growth, in part because it suffered less physical damage during the war and, thus, began attracting visitors earlier, many of them from neighboring Serbia.
"For a long time after the war we had humanitarian workers and consultants, but now it's mostly tourists," says Valida Vilic, who runs the Halvat Guesthouse in the oldest part of Sarajevo, called Bascarsija, whose Ottoman-era mosques, squares, and market hall are popular with visitors. "Unfortunately, they don't stay long: usually just a day or two."
Bosnia's leaders hope that tourism will bring jobs to this war-ravaged country, where the official unemployment rate exceeds 40 percent. An advertising campaign on CNN International urges viewers to "Enjoy Bosnia and Herzegovina," while glossy new brochures from the national tourist board invite people to visit the historic towns and untrammeled nature in the "Heart Shaped Land."
"Tourism can be the key to transforming Bosnia and Herzegovina," the senior international official here, High Representative Christian Schwarz-Schilling, wrote in a Sarajevo newspaper editorial recently. But he warned that a great deal needed to be done before the country will "evolve into the tourist paradise portrayed in the CNN advertisements."
Central strategy for tourists is lacking
As with most things in Bosnia, there is no national strategy for tourism, but rather 11 of them: one for Republika Srpska and one for each of the Croat-Bosniak Feder-ation's 10 cantons. There is little trust among the country's Serb, Croat, and Bosniak (or "Bosnian Muslim") politicians, complicating efforts to create a national strategy for tourism promotion, planning, and infrastructure improvements.