Dark Tourism in Bosnia and Herzegovina: an Exploration

Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) has seen a marked increase in tourism in the past decade. Sarajevo, its capital, saw an increase of 240% more tourist visits from 2010 to 2013.[i] With conflict only ending in 1995, the country is still reconstructing a new identity beyond war. This new tourism has been situated within the trend of ‘Dark Tourism’ that has become synonymous with BiH.[ii] Dark Tourism is described as ‘travel to places historically associated with death and tragedy’- examples including Cheronybl in Ukraine and the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland.[iii]

We seek to explore the tension between the tourist gaze and lived experiences in BiH, particularly surrounding its perceived imaginaries formed from notions of war and destruction. This focuses not only on the emerging tourist industry but questions who is controlling the image of BiH that it projects, on what grounds, and for whose benefit. This exploration creates a complicated picture in regards to reconstruction and the psychological impact of war’s reimagining and historicisation. It provides no simple answer. On one hand, dark tourism is a profitable business, often providing a platform for locals to narrate their own history. Yet, whilst locals may wish to educate tourist outsiders, the intentions of those visiting these sites are often unclear. The ‘thrill’ factor attached to dark tourism’s popularity denotes a voyeuristic approach- one that reinforces an imagination of BiH as a nation defined by bloodshed and conflict. We define voyeurism as those visiting dark tourist sites intent on showing off or entertaining a sense of morbid curiosity. This research was inspired by our own travels through BiH and Croatia, reflecting on our own role as visitors to the country. The pictures are our own and taken in July 2019 in Mostar, BiH.

Historical Context

Bosnia and Herzegovina once formed part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, established in 1946 and ruled by Josip Broz Tito. Under the Yugoslav maxim ‘brotherhood and unity’, BiH (the most ethnically and religiously diverse of the entities) lived in relative peace and prosperity. Tito’s death in 1980, economic crises, and growing animosity among the newly semi-autonomous republics laid the foundations for Yugoslavia’s dissolution. BiH called for independence from Yugoslavia in 1992, a decision that led to a four-year brutal conflict (1992-1995) between the ethnic majorities- Bosniaks, Bosnian Serbs, and Bosnian Croats. The once multicultural heartland of Yugoslavia became a complicated and unprotected space from the objectives of various actors. Vested interests in the future of BiH led to overwhelming loss of life, population displacement, and societal destruction. The end of the conflict was marked by the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement (DPA) in 1995. The DPA separated the nation into two entities (Federation of BiH and Republika Srpska), with three separate, rotating presidencies. While the DPA had initially been only a temporary strategy, it continues to dictate BiH politics and still forms part of the country’s constitution.

In the wake of the conflict, BiH has had to forge a new national identity within which tourism has proved integral. During the 1990s, the media presented images and videos of a war-torn BiH to a global audience. This has placed it within the modern lexicon of ‘Dark Tourism’. This tension between reconstruction and imaginary, between residents and tourists, has remained a significant difficulty in the creation of a new identity for BiH, beyond its experience of the 1990s.

Unintended BiH ‘Imaginary’

Unlike its neighbour Croatia, which endured a simultaneous period of conflict, BiH remains a nation characterised by its brutal past. The states have thus followed different trajectories in their construction of a national ‘image’. For one, the conflict in BiH was both longer and more brutal than in Croatia. Economic and political instability are therefore major factors hindering BiH’s recovery from the war. The DPA installed a highly fragmented government which has solidified divisions and complicated political engagement for its citizens. This has meant that influxes of wealth into BiH such as aid and investment (and social needs more generally) are often highly contested between factional governments, leading to high rates of corruption, nepotism, and neglect. Divisions across ethnic and religious lines subsist and this has impeded the possibility of a coherent strategy for tourism. Mostar, as will be discussed later, offers a microclimate of such notions. Daily life there is fraught with division: ‘schools, universities, jobs, basic amenities, and even mobile phone companies are chosen or allocated on the basis of ethnicity.’[iv] 

Croatia, while experiencing the same conflict, has been able to reinforce its image within a monetised, Mediterranean imaginary to the West, boasting a coastline and a dance music scene. It has appeared on television shows such as ‘Below Deck’, ‘Made in Chelsea’, and ‘Game of Thrones’, indicative of luxury, fantasy, and consumer enjoyment. Croatia, as Wise (2001) argues, has been able to ‘replace memory’ and ‘phase out the past’, focusing instead on the future. BiH, just as it cannot finance the rebuilding of sniper holes in its buildings, cannot ‘erase negative legacies from the conflict.’[v] We question whether this engagement with Dark Tourism is a choice or a necessity.

Slow economic growth since the end of the conflict has stunted the rebuilding process in BiH- particularly with infrastructure. Remnants of the war are very much visible, even in larger cities such as Sarajevo and Mostar. Although some buildings have been retained in an act of remembrance, insufficient funding for the regeneration of towns and cities remains a key factor. Recent investment has, however, supported an influx of financing for religious sites, both old and new. While rebuilding such sites holds symbolic weight for religious groups- establishing them en masse, with donations from countries like Serbia, Croatia and Turkey, places political intention at the forefront. Diversifying investment methods would perhaps provide a greater opportunity to implement the structural change necessary for BiH to prosper.

Considering its border with Croatia, BiH could become a ‘next stop’ for travellers. This is already true to an extent, with many Croatian tourist agencies offering day trips and excursions to cities such as Mostar. However, this is not without its own complications. In 2018, tourist agency ‘Adriatic Travel’ published a photograph of Mostar on its website in which two mosques (Hadži-Kurt and Nezir-agina) were edited out and replaced by bell towers of Franciscan churches and cathedrals, with Christian Crosses.[vi] It seems Croatia’s interest in promoting tourism in BiH is often confined to regions with majority Bosnian-Croat populations or to Catholic sites of worship (e.g. Međugorje). Similar patterns emerge between Serbia and BiH in terms of day excursions and bus routes. Therefore, attempts to boost BiH’s tourism by neighbouring states are limited.

Dark Tourism – Voyeurism or understanding?

A variety of factors have thus cemented BiH’s position within the tourism industry.  It has always had a lot to offer visitors in terms of its rich history, stunning landscapes, and cuisine. Yet travellers are ‘presented directly with their preconceived imagination of the place that has been constructed by the media’, one in which ‘the scars of war are hard to miss’.[vii] This interest has led to an industry created around tourists who seek an alternative experience, one focused on Bosnian trauma. With the inability to transgress past the image of a war-torn state, BiH is placed as a dark tourist ‘hotspot’. Sarajevo’s profile on www.dark-tourism.com ranks 8* and Mostar 7* on the ‘dark-o-meter.’[viii] In fact, Sirćo (2020), reinforces that ‘war is mentioned in almost all travel stories about the Balkans by foreign journalists.’[ix] This raises a question of whether the citizens of BiH have any autonomy over their own narrative, in addition to whether this narrative is productive for its people.

For BiH, it has been hard to reconcile outsiders with other notions of its identity. This association Kamber (2018) suggests, is tied up with exposure to a conflict whose horrors were transmitted through colour television, planting a preconceived image ‘long before their decision to visit.’[x]  This relationship is demonstrated in The Japan Times (1999) telling travellers that ‘although many museums have been damaged or destroyed, you should see the large open-air museum that is Sarajevo.’[xi] This (re)creates Sarajevo as an imaginary space to the tourist gaze, one that reinforces preconceived notions of war and little else. Ryan (2009) has recognised the ‘importance of Western imaginary construction of the Balkans’ in creating ‘power-knowledge complexes that legitimise their subordination”.[xii]

An ‘other’ is created under the guise of ‘Balkanism’. The Balkans have often served as ‘a repository of negative characteristics upon which a positive and self-congratulatory image of the ‘European’ has been built.’[xiii] This relation is then arguably consistent with the trend of Dark Tourism- most popular with tourists from western countries, denoting an underlying ‘look at them’ and ‘look what they are capable of’ attitude. Intrigue to such sites often creates an excitement revolving around individualistic desires or ‘bragging rights’.[xiv]

Bosnia’s popularity within ‘dark tourism’ has been recently reinforced in the BBC show ‘The Misadventures Of Romesh Ranganathan’(2019).[xv] Comedian Ranganathan introduces the travel episode admitting that ‘all you think about when you hear Bosnia is the horrific things we’ve seen on the news in recent years… war-torn I guess.’[xvi] Despite voicing an intent to present BiH in a different light, his travels are overwhelmingly dominated by war tropes alongside an ironic stance on anything else. It seems that when visiting BiH, you almost cannot escape the allure of war tourism. At one point he claims ‘I asked to see something unrelated to the war, a request I instantly regretted’. Radovanović, a Trebinje tour guide challenges this interpretation from a local perspective: ‘journalists are lazy and 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.’[xvii]

Local perspectives

Yet local responses to Dark Tourism complicate the understanding of outsider actors as those creating the narrative. Many people from BiH want to draw tourists to the war in order to tell their story. Sarajevo’s War Hostel or ‘A Glimpse of the War’ is currently rated #14 out of #104 ‘sites in Sarajevo’ on Tripadvisor.[xviii] It offers paying guests a war ‘experience’; guests are given no electricity and only rations to eat whilst sleeping on sponge mats with artificial sounds of gunfire and explosions on repeat.[xix] It recreates the 1,425-day-long siege for a tourist price. Whilst this synthetic environment is arguably uncomfortable and could be deemed western voyeurism, it is owned by a native Bosnian, whose memories inspired its existence. Owner Kurbastic states his intention to ‘avoid giving subjective impressions’ otherwise ‘you’re just talking pain’ and ‘not talking education’.[xx] Ryan (2009) reflects this in speaking to Adnan, a local, who purports the ‘real Mostar’ of his photographs against the ‘glossy Mostar’ of the guidebooks. His is characterised by ‘graffiti, graves, and shell damage’.[xxi] For some, denying dark tourism presents an inauthentic image of their country.

This paradox is one many experience in contemporary BiH; a negotiation. Between understanding and voyeurism, education and sensationalism, stagnation and progression. Just as Ryan recognises for Adnan, the complication lies in ‘what he thinks Mostar is; what he wants it to be; what he thinks others think it is, especially tourists, and what he would have them think about it.’[xxii]

Whilst local voices clearly intend to educate, the motivation to partake that tourists display is often more questionable. Tripadvisor reviews for the War Hostel complicate this ‘educational’ picture. The top comment reads ‘I dare you to go to this’… ‘We learned everything we wanted to, we experienced amazing feelings’.[xxiii] This points to positive gain from others’ trauma (‘amazing feelings’) and denotes a fetishisation of pain. ‘I dare you’, has an underpinning of excitement, the thrill of a roller coaster and not a contemplation of war. Moreover, to give war ‘5 stars’ as 94 out of 102 reviewers have, raises moral questions.[xxiv] What does framing this paid ‘experience’ as an individualistic journey of self-discovery mean for locals who want to move beyond their own trauma?

Kurbastic, (the owner) demonstrates in his reasoning for starting the hostel ‘I decided to give people [tourists] what they wanted’, he says of the young travellers from Europe, Australia, and the United States.[xxv] He is reacting directly to the needs and economic implications of outsiders to feel their own proximity to pain. ‘Locals are definitely not interested,’ he continued.[xxvi]

Dark Tourism has also provided ample opportunity for locals to profit from ‘an industry built around visitors who go to see the sites of Europe’s bloodiest conflict since World War II’.[xxvii] The War Hostel, for instance, is a thriving business, fully booked during summer months. An article in The Daily Telegraph (2007) claims that ‘the war has given BiH new materials to work with’… with locals now offering ‘finely engraved shell casings and bullets ingeniously turned into ballpoint pens.’[xxviii] One must question how symptomatic this choice to engage with war is, when it remains one of the few viable options for financial incentive in a country where youth unemployment rates had reached 57.5% in 2014, one of the world’s highest (although this figure has now declined significantly).[xxix] If there is economic demand in stories of the war, alongside dwindling opportunities in other sectors, we must question how autonomous this freedom to narrate one’s own past is. The key point appears to be balance- BiH’s tourism industry should be able to offer diverse experiences.

The Sniper Tower, Mostar

Here, the themes raised by Dark Tourism will be exemplified through Mostar’s ‘Sniper Tower’. We seek to understand the contradiction between its (re)production as an unhealthy tourist obsession with the dark and ‘thrilling’, or as a space where transformative meaning is taking place for locals.

The ‘Sniper Tower’ (Picture 1) is located by the ‘Bulevar’ road in Mostar which unofficially divides the city along ethnic and religious lines. Initially constructed as a bank in 1992, it was a towering monument to the city’s regeneration.  Its unfinished concrete structure, however, became an ideal spot for Bosnian-Croat snipers during the Bosnian War. Now, it remains a concrete shell, covered in youthful graffiti, and in recent years transformed into an unofficial ‘dark tourist’ monument. Described by ‘Atlas Obscura’ as a ‘secret graffiti art gallery’ it has gained a following amongst backpackers who climb inside it and explore.[xxx] Mentioned in Trip Advisor and a litany of other western travel blogs and vlogs as the ‘sniper tower’, a place to visit for the adventurous adrenaline seekers. Instead known by locals just as ‘staklena banka’ (glass bank) or ‘stara banka’ (old bank), it serves as a contested place by those who experience it and a complicated reminder of Mostar’s history.

The question remains- whose thrill, and to what outcome? For tourists, the ‘sniper tower’ has become a ‘must-see’ destination- a means to ‘experience’ the horrors of conflict. This is indicated in numerous travel websites and youtube travel vlogs. Atlas Obscura describes Mostar as a city with ‘no shortage of abandoned, bullet-riddled buildings’ and the tower as one for ‘those brave enough to enter the derelict structure.’[xxxi] Tripadvisor reviews from different visitors characterise the place as “an experience”; “for the adventurous” or “for a great view and adrenaline rush”.[xxxii]  The tower is not an official memorial – it lacks any form of historical information within the site and is usually barricaded to prevent trespassing. This gives way to outsiders to make what they want from it, without being confronted with any real indication of the past. This too, leaves one questioning the supposed educational purpose of visiting the site, pointing instead to a more voyeuristic intention, that of an encounter with the unknown. The comments, for instance, denote little more than personal gain in the economy of ‘experiences’ to take home and tell others. Is this exploration without any form of regulation a positive or negative outcome for the inhabitants of the city?

Without local involvement in guiding tourists around the site, visitors break into a building that ultimately symbolises bloodshed to those who remember it. This freedom to ‘gain from’ the tower, to ‘experience’ it, disregards its significance as a site of collective memory for the local population- one that they might not want others to go into or inspect without their ability to control how it is received. On inspecting the site, it was apparent that authorities are now regularly clearing out the tower despite its prohibited entry. This speaks to an almost unwilling acceptance of the popularity of the tower amongst tourists and even of dark tourism more generally.

Whilst the tower is not an official museum, a historical narrative has been inscribed by the local population in other ways. The tower is covered with art from Mostar’s blossoming street art community, who have scrawled their stories onto its concrete walls. As we see in Picture 2, bullet holes have been redrawn to become creatures of flight, wings taking them to a different place. Redefining this space reflects a momentum for change from Mostar’s local population, to connect to a past they and their parents experienced but with energy to recycle its meaning for a new identity beyond war. It has provided a canvas to exhibit their stories that tourists will be exposed to without the input of authorities. Picture 3 reads “ovde religija nema nikakve veze sa Bogom” translated as ‘here, religion has no relation to God.’ The tower, in an area largely left out of the reconstructive efforts of ‘Stari Most’ (bridge), creates a space where new meaning has breathed life into the walls of a destructive past. Whilst these efforts have been made by locals with a new imagination of BiH as diverse and future-looking, there is no certainty that backpackers will recognise this.

Tourism is key to aiding Bosnia and Herzegovina’s recovery from the war. Structural stability and a boost in investment would offer BiH the autonomy to define their tourism industry in more cohesive and productive ways. Until then, tourists will continue to crave and invest in Dark Tourism. War should always be remembered. Yet an overwhelming emphasis on a conflict so fresh, with tourists almost demanding stories and experiences, is perhaps not the best option for its residents. Offering tourists war experiences must be done by locals and with a balance of alternative experiences, outside of the ‘dark tourism’ market. It is clear to see that local agency in the definition of BiH’s history, whether it be within ‘dark tourism’ or not, is the key to making sense of a productive narrative for all. Without this, a stagnant imagination is at risk of being replicated by future tourist audiences, visiting to merely reinforce the notions of BiH that they have already seen, instead of learning new ones.


[i] F. Mizra, ‘Recreating death for a living: Inside Bosnia’s War Hostel’ Aljazeera, 2018, [website], <https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2018/4/28/recreating-death-for-a-living-inside-bosnias-war-hostel>

[ii] M. Kamber, quoted in F. Mizra, ‘Recreating death for a living: Inside Bosnia’s War Hostel’, Aljazeera. 28th April 2018, [website], <https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2018/4/28/recreating-death-for-a-living-inside-bosnias-war-hostel>

[iii] S. Usbourne, ‘Dark tourism: When tragedy meets tourism’, National Geographic. 9th April 2019, [website], <https://www.nationalgeographic.co.uk/travel/2018/02/dark-tourism-when-tragedy-meets-tourism>

[iv] E. Ryan, ‘The view from the old bridge: How Mostar is (re)constructed by tourists and for tourists in the post conflict present’, The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology, Vol. 29, No.1, 2009, pp. 26-59. P.28

[v] N. Wise, ‘Post-war tourism and the imaginative geographies of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Croatia’, European Journal of Tourism Research, Vol. 4, No. 1, 2011, pp.5-24.

[vi] L. Simmonds, ‘Croatian Tourist Agency Replaces Mosques with Churches on Mostar Photo’, Total Croatia News, 23rd December 2018, [website], <https://www.total-croatia-news.com/lifestyle/33196-croatian-tourist-agency>

[vii] N. Wise, ‘Post-war tourism and the imaginative geographies of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Croatia’, European Journal of Tourism Research, Vol. 4, No. 1, 2011, pp.5-24.

[viii] BOSNIA & HERZEGOVINA, Dark Tourism. [website], <http://www.dark-tourism.com/index.php/bosnia-and-herzegovina/>

[ix] M. Crevar, ‘Western travel writers are hooked on Balkan war stories. Local voices could be the answer’, Calvert Journal. 23rd September 2020, [website], <https://www.calvertjournal.com/articles/show/12160/problem-balkan-travel-writing-local-voices-yugoslav-war-covid-19>

[x] M. Kamber, quoted in F. Mizra,  ‘Recreating death for a living: Inside Bosnia’s War Hostel’, Aljazeera. 28th April 2018, [website], <https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2018/4/28/recreating-death-for-a-living-inside-bosnias-war-hostel>

[xi] N. Wise, ‘Post-war tourism and the imaginative geographies of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Croatia’, European Journal of Tourism Research, Vol. 4, No. 1, 2011, pp.5-24., p.5

[xii] E. Ryan, ‘The view from the old bridge: How Mostar is (re)constructed by tourists and for tourists in the post conflict present’, The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology, Vol. 29, No.1, 2009, pp. 26-59. P.26

[xiii] M. Todorova, Imagining the Balkans. Oxford University Press, 2009

[xiv] S. Usbourne, ‘Dark tourism: When tragedy meets tourism’, National Geographic, 9th April 2019, [website], <https://www.nationalgeographic.co.uk/travel/2018/02/dark-tourism-when-tragedy-meets-tourism>

[xv] The Misadventures of Romesh Ranganathan, Series 2: 3. Bosnia and Herzegovina, 11th August 2019, BBC Three. [website], <https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m0007mns/the-misadventures-of-romesh-ranganathan-series-2-3-bosnia-and-herzegovina>

[xvi] ibid.

[xvii]  M. Crevar, ‘Western travel writers are hooked on Balkan war stories. Local voices could be the answer’, Calvert Journal, 23rd September 2020, [website], <https://www.calvertjournal.com/articles/show/12160/problem-balkan-travel-writing-local-voices-yugoslav-war-covid-19>

[xviii] Trip Advisor, ‘A Glimpse of the War’, Sarajevo, [website], <https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/ShowUserReviews-g294450-d6621140-r335905649-A_Glimpse_of_the_War-Sarajevo_Sarajevo_Canton_Federation_of_Bosnia_and_Herzegovi.html>

[xix] F. Mizra, ‘Recreating death for a living: Inside Bosnia’s War Hostel’, Aljazeera, 28th April 2018, [website], <https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2018/4/28/recreating-death-for-a-living-inside-bosnias-war-hostel

[xx]

E. Rose, ‘War Tourism Flourishes in Bosnian Capital’, Balkan Insight, 29th November 2016, [website], <https://balkaninsight.com/2016/11/29/war-tourism-flourishes-in-bosnian-capital-11-28-2016/>

[xxi] E. Ryan, ‘The view from the old bridge: How Mostar is (re)constructed by tourists and for tourists in the post conflict present’, The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology, Vol. 29, No. 1, 2009, pp. 26-59. p. 26

[xxii] ibid.

[xxiii] Trip Advisor, ‘A Glimpse of the War’, Sarajevo, [website], <https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/ShowUserReviews-g294450-d6621140-r335905649-A_Glimpse_of_the_War-Sarajevo_Sarajevo_Canton_Federation_of_Bosnia_and_Herzegovi.html>

[xxiv] R. Schuessler, ‘From Mostar to Sarajevo, Bosnian war sites turn into tourist attractions’, Aljazeera, 18th April 2015, [website], <http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/4/18/turning-bosnian-war-sites-into-tourist-attractions.html>

[xxv] A. Higgins, A (2018) The New York Times ‘No Bed, No Breakfast, but 4-Star Gunfire. Welcome to a War Hostel.’ [website], <https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/28/world/europe/bosnia-war-hostel-sarajevo.html>

[xxvi] ibid.

[xxvii] (sited in Wise, 2014, p.5) N. Wise, ‘Post-war tourism and the imaginative geographies of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Croatia’, European Journal of Tourism Research, Vol. 4, No. 1, 2011, pp.5-24.

[xxviii] S. Velma S. and E. D. Herman, ‘Why Bosnia has the world’s highest youth unemployment rate’, The World, 9th October 2014, [website], <https://www.pri.org/stories/2014-10-09/why-bosnia-has-worlds-highest-youth-unemployment-rate>

[xxix] Trip Advisor, ‘A Glimpse of the War’, Sarajevo, [website], <https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/ShowUserReviews-g294450-d6621140-r335905649-A_Glimpse_of_the_War-Sarajevo_Sarajevo_Canton_Federation_of_Bosnia_and_Herzegovi.html>

[xxx] Savager, ‘Mostar Sniper Tower’, Atlas Obscura, [website], <https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/mostar-sniper-tower>

[xxxi] Savager, ‘Mostar Sniper Tower’, Atlas Obscura,[website], [website], <https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/mostar-sniper-tower>

[xxxii] Trip advisor, Sniper Tower, [website], <https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Attraction_Review-g295388-d12855856-Reviews-Sniper_Tower-Mostar_Herzegovina_Neretva_Canton_Federation_of_Bosnia_and_Herzegov.html>

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