Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand

Shaping Identities for Peace through Tourism in Bosnia & Herzegovina

20367_323482631919_5067399_nBosnia and Herzegovina is an extraordinary country with an abundant heritage of cultural and natural treasures, as well as ethnic particularities and charms due to its geographical position and history which have given shape to a distinct community setting at present day.  Yet, it is this particular setting that continuously presents with a challenge of overcoming conflict and ethnic divisions among its communities.  The most recent episode of war (1992-1995) has left the country torn apart socially, politically and economically, leading to over two decades of fragile coexistence in a country that is now heavily dependable on external factors with all its changing facets.  However tangible or intangible the barriers today, the internal divisions of the country still existing are severely diminishing the prospects of social cohesion, economic growth and political stability leaving generations of its citizens feeling dissatisfied, isolated and impoverished.  There is a perceived absence of shared identity among local communities, and it is a very dangerous state of nation.  Such by no means should be interpreted as an actual nonexistence of a shared identity in this case – people in Bosnia and Herzegovina have and always will have a set of (very complicated but) strong shared experiences, resources and hopes.  It is rather a case of an existence of purposely created dynamics to omit the historical memory of coexistence among its people.  As in many other post-conflict societies, the wounded community identities among people in Bosnia and Herzegovina are purposely directed to feed into the story of ‘us vs. them’ based on vastly destructive highlights of trauma, fear and existential struggles.  Fragmentation of community identity in Bosnia and Herzegovina has through history been used as a tool for staying afloat by the heavily corrupted political elites.  This intentional fragmentation of community identity needs to be seen as a serious obstacle to building and sustaining peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Unless suitably addressed, the non-reinforced or weak community ties will continue to impose negatively on the perspectives for sustainable peace and further development of the country, and the region itself.

This is particularly felt among the younger generations in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  The youth in a post-conflict society grew charged with social tensions, domestic traumas, and absence of perceivable perspectives for a happy future.  In addition, these generations have no  positive shared memory or experience of the ‘other’ to call upon in breaking the ‘us vs. them’ myth that would translate into the understanding that it is togetherness rather than division that will help our community heal to sustainable peace for generations to come.  Many of them never got the chance to genuinely interact with their peers and/or find themselves engaged in neighboring communities on ‘the other side’, which has given rise to a set of damaging prejudices and fear fed by perpetuate misunderstanding and lack of knowledge of their own, collective identity.  This subsequently translates to practices of discrimination, abhorrence and violence in the wider social structures severely affecting the quality of livelihoods and social stability.

69669_10101387354307874_1018134003_nSo how is community identity shaped?  Community identity (re)shaping and consolidation is an extremely complex issue. It is a sensitive mishmash of shared and individual experiences, inherited ones as well as those newly acquired.  In post-conflict society where the positive experiences have been overridden by negative ones, such as those of conflict and violence, it is extremely important to intentionally construct new, shared positive experiences.  Shaping of positive, strong community identities requires shaping of shared positive experiences, finding of common spaces and joint interests.  And it is a where something as simple as taking a trip to a neighboring city, visiting sites of shared cultural and natural heritage, places of joint community memory or in return welcoming someone to see and learn about our own community, can become a giant stride.  Traveling and welcoming travelers, whether domestic or abroad, requires an aperture of mind and a process of learning leading to uphold of values of our own as well as those being introduced to us.  In order to have someone learn about our customs, our way of life and our communities, we ourselves need to know them well enough to be able to present them.  Each visitor has the potential of bringing his knowledge and insights of its own to the community it visits, and taking some new ones away with him.  Purposely structured, the exchange and forming of experiences through tourism give rise to a number of opportunities for individual and community identity shaping.

Tourism potential in shaping identities thrives on the principle of social and cultural value sharing among travelers.  When properly and purposely managed it can serve to strengthen self-awareness of community identities without being exclusive to those of others, in turn creating a positive identity milieu feeding into a larger community identity.  Greatly so, well managed tourism can also serve to increase income in communities that have suffered destruction and have ever-since struggled due to communal mistrust, rampant corruption, and extremely high unemployment rates.  Raising inequalities, in what was once a socialist state, are significantly interlinked with the changing identity of the local communities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, quite negatively so, only leading to wider deepening of its post-conflict identity crisis.  Creating income generating opportunities through sustainable tourism development can serve to empower local communities, forming healthier and self-sustained livelihoods.  Well managed tourism development requires attention to uphold of cultural and natural environments, conceivably encouraging communities to take better care of their traditions, wildlife and landscapes.  Such in turn has the potential to translate into more stable and healthier identities as communities would see themselves as productive and with stronger sense of self-worth – both very important factors in identity shaping at individual as well as communal level.  It can be stated that sustainable tourism can serve in part as a method of self-care for local communities, shaping more sustainable and stronger community identities.

19748_317732831919_1520128_nAlthough still a marginalized economic branch, tourism in Bosnia and Herzegovina has proven its high growth potential through which cultural, natural and historical attractions could be upheld sustainably as a foundation for development.  And there is an abundance of sites currently left to ruin perceptively symbolizing the unfortunate loss of cultural identity pride and heritage in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Not only that, but also a loss of opportunities for peace consolidation and income generation for the local communities.  These sites can and should be as well as used as places for learning, dialogue and reconciliation, examination of the past and creation of a better future.  It is also an activity that betters country’s image overall.  The Mostar’s Old (New) Bridge, today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a great example of how (re)creation of cultural heritage with prospects for tourism development can lead to an entirely new era – it is an image that has resonated positively around the world and has attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors to Bosnia and Herzegovina.  In great part due to the regions tourism activity, Bosnia and Herzegovina has noted highest growth in tourism in Europe for the past few years.

Development of tourism (domestic, urban, rural, coastal, mountain, sports, ecotourism, etc.) can be used to support the country’s growth into a sphere of prosperous and peaceful coexistence.  But barriers to its growth, corruption, unhealthy competition and lack of understanding of the values inherited need to be overcome first.  This should and can be done by raising awareness and actively engaging youth to take the lead.  Empowerment of youth is to take place through education and appraisal of conflict management skills, creation of awareness of trauma and its impacts, as well as a review of personal experiences and observations.  This being said, learning needs not and must not be restricted to classroom teachings.  Travel domestically and engagement in welcoming of foreign visitors to Bosnia and Herzegovina also have an enormous learning potential, allowing one to grow and learn about oneself while learning from others.

Raising awareness about the potential value of tourism in shaping healthy identities and strengthening coexistence in post-conflict communities would make an important contribution to sustainable peace.  In Bosnia and Herzegovina this is becoming more apparent and continuing to embrace sustainable tourism growth will not only lead to shaping of healthier community identity, but also a discovery of a beautiful destination for travelers from across the globe.

Jelena Novakovic, Bosnia & Herzegovina
Rotary Peace Fellow
January 2015 Session

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