"...Tourist flows lead to the successful renewal of ties among countries that emerged from the former Yugoslavia...the situation is much better but it requires hard, constant and persistent work to achieve relatively small progress on the grassroots level, which then becomes easily threatened by the activities on the high level."
Jovan Popesku is a Professor at the Department of Tourism and Hospitality of Singidunum University, Belgrade, Serbia and President of the Centre for Responsible and Sustainable Tourism Development. Formerly, he headed the National Tourism Organization of Serbia during the turbulent 1990s as its first CEO. Professor Popesku's field of research includes tourism marketing, tourism destination management and sustainable tourism management. He has authored three university textbooks and over 80 journal articles and conference papers and led more than twenty domestic and international projects related to tourism destination management, tourism marketing and sustainable tourism development. Professor Popesku is committed to sustainable tourism and cooperates to this end with various European and global organisations. He is a Member of the International Association of Scientific Experts in Tourism (AIEST), of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC), and a member of the Managing Board of the Serbian Marketing Association (SEMA).
Ecoclub.com: You led the Serbian National Tourism Organisation during a very difficult period for your country, let alone its Tourism. What are the main lessons learned from that period, in terms of tourism crisis management and the resilience of Tourism?
Jovan Popesku: It was an extremely unusual period for the normal functioning of any National Tourism Organisation (NTO). The main issue was how to attract tourists while the country was under almost absolute economic sanctions, which meant a cut off from the world and a prevailing animosity of public opinion towards Serbia. While I was a director of the NTO of Serbia (NTOS) since 1995 the sanctions were first gradually decreasing after the signing of the peace agreement related to Bosnia and Herzegovina, but they were completely restored since 1998 due to the events in Kosovo. Therefore the activities of the NTOS on the international market in that period were aimed to maximise the introduction of Serbia’s main tourist attractions on the key markets and to create a basis for the gradual increase of the international tourist flows once the sanctions were abolished. There were, for example, promotional activities performed to support the return of Thomson Ski to Serbia with the inclusion of Kopaonik as a ski destination in its brochures in 1997. It is important to emphasise that NTOS and its employees did not have any obstacles for the normal functioning such as participation at tourism exhibitions and advertising, with the exception of those that were applicable for the country as a whole like non-functioning of foreign payments and lack of funds. Furthermore, it could be said that there was understanding of the public and private sector in the Western European countries for the NTOS activities in promoting the cultural and natural values of Serbia. Having in mind the complexity and uniqueness of Serbia’s position during the economic sanctions it is difficult to draw main lessons learned. In such circumstances, an NTO should strive to perform any possible activities to maintain the awareness of the existence of a tourist destination and to prepare the basis for the gradual return on the tourism market once the causes that led to the abnormal situation are not in place any longer. This return for NTOS started in October 2000 and was in place until March 2001 while I was a director, and of course continued afterwards in the increasingly normalised circumstances. On the other hand, despite the catastrophic impacts, Serbian tourism as a whole demonstrated high toughness and resilience based predominantly on the domestic tourist flows. For me it was very important that after my term in NTOS was over I came back in the full capacity to my work with students, something which I was still doing during my term in the NTOS and which I am also occupied with now as a full professor at the Singidunum University Department of Tourism and Hospitality Management. This Department is the leading university institution in tourism and hospitality field in Serbia, with a UNWTO.TedQual-certified Bachelor and Master programs as well as with significant cooperation with similar institutions in Europe and other parts of the world.
Ecoclub.com: The peace-building abilities of Tourism have been more frequently praised than proven. What is the case, in your view, within and between the countries of the former Yugoslavia, both at the grassroots and the high level? Have tourism flows resumed?
Jovan Popesku: Very often, when speaking at conferences dedicated to achieving peace through tourism, I use the opportunity to cite the example of the consequences that armed conflict in the former Yugoslavia had on tourism and about the restoration of tourist flows afterwards. An example of this is the foreign tourist traffic to Serbia, where the most of the former Yugoslavia countries in 2016 and in the years before were in the top 10 number of overnight stays (in 2016 the first was Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro was 2nd, 4th and 6th were Croatia and Slovenia while the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia was in 12th position. Also, tourists from Serbia made up a significant part of the tourist traffic in the former Yugoslavia, particularly in Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina. This testifies that tourist flows lead to the successful renewal of ties among countries that emerged from the former Yugoslavia. Of course, there are still some challenges, especially concerning the situation in Kosovo, that burden the possibility for the free movement of passengers in that part of the former Yugoslavia. Certain events in each of the former Yugoslavia republics also have consequences on making tourists’ decisions about travelling to other countries of the former Yugoslavia, which particularly stands for the relationship between Serbia and Croatia. However, the situation is much better but it requires hard, constant and persistent work to achieve relatively small progress on the grassroots level, which then becomes easily threatened by the activities on the high level. We'll see how the situation in this regard will continue to unfold, particularly in a view of the significant changes in the world political scene.
Ecoclub.com: International Tourism arrivals are reportedly growing rapidly in Serbia, but the sector still accounts for a small share of GDP (2.2%?). What key points should be born in mind by the government and all stakeholders so that it may continue growing yet in an environmentally & socially sustainable way?
Jovan Popesku: According to the Strategy of Tourism Development in Serbia 2016-2025, direct tourism share of GDP was 2.2% in 2015, but it was estimated that the total tourism share of GDP was 6.4%. In the same year, tourism investment made up 4.1% of the total investment. In the 2007-2015 period, the foreign tourism income grew by the average annual percentage of 3,3% (in Euros). It is obvious that these data do not show particularly impressive evidence of the importance that tourism have had for the economic and overall development of Serbia. In line with the above-mentioned Strategy, the goal is to double the direct contribution of tourism to GDP by 2025, to reach 4.4%. The Strategy especially emphasises the importance of the tourism development management in the protected natural areas as well as the overall influence that tourism development has on cultural and natural heritage. All these goals are supported by the appropriate measures, which are expected to ensure that development will be managed in environmentally & socially sustainable way. Of course this will not be easy to achieve having in mind that in the same period there will also be a contradictions between a strive to secure that type of development and the other one that will even sacrifice sustainable tourism development goals in order to provide numerous much desired economic benefits – employment, especially of youth, more balanced regional development, increased foreign tourism income.
Ecoclub.com: According to a Reuters report (May 2016), Environmental issues in Serbia, and in particular mining-related pollution, are so complicated and costly to fix that they may delay membership of the European Union. Do you see Tourism replacing mining in those areas and providing solutions, in particular, rural jobs to support a transition to a greener economic model?
Jovan Popesku: Environmental issues will be for sure among the most challenging issues in the process of joining Serbia to the EU. The current situation in this field is caused by many factors and definitely has a strong influence on the tourism industry. One group of issues that are closely connected to tourism are related to the negative impacts of tourism as well as to the inadequate space management in the protected natural areas, especially in the national parks (for example national park Kopaonik), while the other group of issues is related to the inappropriate environmental conditions in certain parts of Serbia, like for example Eastern Serbia (region of Bor). The Strategy of Tourism Development in Serbia envisages the creation of the adequate planning documentation for the needs of tourism development in the Republic of Serbia, which will make development entities responsible to undertake in each case assessment of the impacts of tourism development/implementation of tourist projects on the environment and cultural assets, in accordance with the legitimate protection regimes and practices of the institutions in charge of protection of natural and cultural heritage.
Ecoclub.com: Serbia is gradually attracting considerable foreign direct investment including in Tourism, the most visible example being Air Serbia, where Etihad has acquired a 49% stake. Is such foreign investment generally welcomed, or are there fears that it may create economic leakages and dependencies?
Jovan Popesku: Tourism in Serbia, and not only tourism, needs substantial investments as the basis for its environmentally, socially and economically sustainable development. Direct foreign investments in tourism are still below the level needed for the improvement of Serbia's competitive position on the international tourism market, which was estimated as insufficiently good (according to WEF TTCI). Also, the research dedicated to the comparison of the foreign tourism investment attractiveness of Serbia in regards to the countries of the competitive set showed that Serbia had weaker position compared to all those countries, having in mind its global competitiveness as well as the important factors that were preconditions for attracting foreign tourism investments. The cause of this, as pointed out in the research, was the fact that Serbia had not yet provided the favourable legal and institutional investment conditions, and this fact along with the underdevelopment of the traffic and communal infrastructure had a significant influence on an insufficient number of direct tourism investments in Serbia. The case of Air Serbia, national air carrier, is an example that can be emphasised as a positive way of attracting direct foreign investments, although there were also some controversies around this project. But the tourist traffic, especially in Belgrade, has shown the importance of this investment and all advantages that this kind of the national air carrier ownership structure has, including spreading of the positive effects of the increase in the number of destinations with which Serbia is connected in this way. There are still not analyses that point out to the fears that foreign direct investment in tourism is creating economic leakages and dependencies, and the reason for this could be the lack of these investments.
Ecoclub.com: There are numerous concurrent initiatives, of various levels of recognition and success, trying to develop or at least to coordinate/homogenise International Sustainable Tourism Criteria. Do you see a need for a national set of criteria, developed by national tourism bodies, adapted to local realities and traditions? And should they be optional or mandatory?
Jovan Popesku: I believe that for Serbia it is very important to adopt and implement international standards in all economic as well as other areas, especially in regards to the process of creating the necessary preconditions for joining the EU. This will be also the kind of certificate, especially for the potential international tourists, that in Serbia they can expect the same level and type of services as in other developed countries, with the special emphasis on the Sustainable Tourism Criteria. These criteria should be particularly respected in the phase of the preparation and implementation of the investments made in accommodation capacities and their environmental and social effects. The criteria should be mandatory, but in the case of some special and limited issues, there should be the possibility to adapt them to local realities and tradition in order to preserve those specifics.
Ecoclub.com: Yugoslavia famously experimented with workers' self-management during the Tito years. Are there any related surviving tourism examples in Serbia and do you believe that workers' self-management (and more broadly economic democracy) are relevant as a model today?
Jovan Popesku: There is no relevant surviving example of workers' self-management in the field of tourism or any other business activities. In the transition period, sometimes perceived as a "wild" capitalism seen in transition economies of former socialist and communist countries, there are not real possibilities for this type of workers' participation in the management. Therefore this cannot be seen as a relevant model at the moment. It is much more important to secure the respect of basic employees' rights and to empower the trade unions, especially in the service sector, because of the numerous endangerments of these rights that were immanent to the era we think is far behind us.
Ecoclub.com: Finally, if you were to choose the most sustainable tourism example in Serbia which one would it be and why.
Jovan Popesku: In Serbia, there is, especially in the last decade, a significant growth in the number of hospitality facilities in rural areas that can be qualified as a combination of eco and 'ethno' facilities. The exact commitment to the sustainable tourism principles in these facilities varies a lot, although all providers strive to use local products and to protect the environment when they construct their object and offer their services. Unfortunately, there is still not labelling of these facilities by using the international quality standards of EuroGites or ECEAT. One of the best examples is Ecovillage Koštunići with various types of accommodation ('ethno' cottages, barrel-shaped cottages and apartments), offering completely natural food from domestic production as well opportunity for different recreational activities for guests. Other examples are Ecovillage Lopatnica, Ethno village Latkovac and Salaš 84. Of course, these are only a few of the remarkable number of sustainable tourism examples regarding Serbian tourism, predominantly in rural areas. This is the evidence that entrepreneurs are convinced that with the combination of products based on the ecotourism principles, or better to say sustainable development principles, they will be able to meet the needs of domestic and international demand, which is looking for the local products and authenticity as the important characteristics of the contemporary tourism development.
Ecoclub.com: Thank you very much. We hope that tourism development, and in particular, ecological, sustainable and equitable forms thereof, guided by experienced visionaries like yourself, will accelerate the peace-building and healing process in Serbia and bring prosperity and quality of life throughout the former Yugoslavia, the Balkans, and the broader region.