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.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Until recently, residents of this central Bosnian town never gave Visocica hill much thought.

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.

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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.

"There is no tourism strategy, and nobody communicates with anybody else," says Tim Clancy, a cofounder of Green Visions, a Sarajevo-based nonprofit that promotes and provides sustainable tourism programs. "This is not a masstourism destination like Croatia, so we need to focus on quality, not quantity. We need to protect and attract people to this natural wonderland."

Bosnia also has an image problem, as it is still widely associated with ethnic cleansing, atrocities against civilians, and the siege of Sarajevo. While Sarajevo and other cities have been largely repaired and rebuilt, war-damaged buildings are still a common sight, as are red skull-and-crossbones signs warning of the presence of mine fields.

Many Western tourists visiting Bosnia come because of the war, notes guide Zijad Jusufovic, whose "Mission: Impossible" tour of Sarajevo's wartime sites is by far and away the most popular of his excursions. "I started with historic walking tours of the city, but more and more people kept asking about the war and the siege," he says.

"They are impressed with how close the fronts were to the city and how many mine fields exist," adds Mr. Jusufovic, who lived through the Bosnian Serbs' three-year siege of the city. "Usually, by the end, they understand that everybody lost in this conflict and why it's so difficult to just forgive and forget."

The country's most famous tourist symbol – an arched 16th-century bridge in Mostar – was destroyed by Bosnian Croats in 1993 but has since been rebuilt with international aid. The Bjelasnica ski resort, site of the women's downhill competition in the 1984 Winter Olympics, has also been rebuilt, though skiers are cautioned not to wander into the woods on account of mines.

Concerns about archaeological dig

Visoko's "pyramids" drew as many as 5,000 people a day last summer, including many foreigners, according to their purported discoverer, Semir Osmanagic, a Bosnian-born amateur historian and metal shop owner in Houston. The digs at the alleged pyramids – which Mr. Osmanagic claims are larger and older than the

Great Pyramids of Egypt – have upset many academics, not least because of fears they may damage Neolithic, Roman, and medieval sites scattered through the valley.

"People have offered to pay me to take them to Visoko, but I refuse to go," says Jusufovic. "I'm trying to be a serious tour guide. I intend to talk about facts and dates and history, but the pyramids are another thing altogether."

Others fear the country may squander some of its most valuable assets – wild rivers, pristine lakes, and breathtaking mountain scenery – in the rush to exploit its natural resources. The Croat-Bosniak Federation government is building five new hydroelectric dams, which threaten to flood the spectacular Neretva Canyon and a 15th-century monastery.

"Bosnia-Herzegovina already has extra energy, but the EU is drooling over the chance to get power without damning its own rivers," says Mr. Clancy, whose group opposes the project. "It would be unbelievably unwise if these dams are built without considering future effects on the environment and ecotourism."

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