Mount Bjelašnica is located some 30 kilometers from Sarajevo’s city center. Its beautiful and serene landscape was, until recently, mostly unscathed. Now, dotted with cranes, it is undergoing rapid urbanization: luxury apartments, hotels, and restaurants are mushrooming all over to cater to incoming visitors. Well-off Bosnians who rush to the mountain on weekends to escape the suffocating smog synonymous with winter in Sarajevo, are now having trouble finding parking spots for their SUVs.
This year, in particular Mount Bjelašnica has had a crop of new visitors – from the Gulf. I met a group of them last December. They were sitting on the snow enjoying the blue skies and warm winter sun, sipping their home made cardamom flavored coffee and chit chatting in Arabic. They were from Qatar and, to them, Bosnia was a newly discovered holiday destination. I asked them what attracted them to the war-torn Balkan country with some of the highest regional emigration rates amongst youth. The untouched nature, the Muslim population, low prices, good food, and the friendly people – they told me almost in unison.
Bosnia has, in fact, become a major destination for the Gulf middle class since 2013. They mostly visit in summer months to escape the scorching desert heat, but now, with greater connectivity, winter has also become a good time for them to enjoy the Balkan Mountains.
After the Arab Spring destabilized many traditional holiday destinations, such as Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, Gulf tourists started looking for new spots of rest and relaxation. Apart from mega-popular Turkey and far away Malaysia, Bosnia popped up as an undiscovered – yet relatively close – destination. A favorable geo-strategic position and a mostly visa-free regime for Gulf citizens are just some of the factors that have facilitated a sharp increase in Bosnian tourism. At its peak in 2016, some 60.000 Gulf tourists visited Bosnia compared to just a few hundred in 2010. In 2017 and 2018, the numbers dropped slightly as Azerbaijan and Georgia began to attract visitors from the Gulf.
Nevertheless, the demand remains so great that both Qatar Airways and FlyDubai now operate four to five direct flights a week, respectively, from Doha and Dubai to Sarajevo. During the summer months, they are joined by Wataniya Airways flying from Kuwait City, Nesma Airlines flying from Riyadh, and Air Arabia flying from Sharjah. Starting in the summer of 2019, a private company called FlyBosnia, which is owned by a Saudi businessman, will start flying from Riyadh. Negotiations are also underway for direct flight from Bahrain’s capital Manama to Sarajevo.
In accordance with the laws of supply and demand, a greater influx of deep-pocketed Arab tourists has led to the development of high-end shopping malls and five-star hotels. Four major shopping malls and an ever increasing number of fancy hotels have been built over the past eight years in Bosnia’s capital. These temples of capitalism are now frequented by Arab women carrying overstuffed paper bags from designer outlet stores, while their sons and husbands are glued to their iPhones in nearby nargila bars and restaurants. In addition to this, entire gated communities, constructed entirely by local Bosnian companies, have sprung up in greeny hillsides outside Sarajevo where large Gulf families spend their summer vacations. Car rental agencies are overbooked nearly all year long, with many Gulf tourists preferring to rent SUVs or vans instead of using the country’s much-hated public transportation services.
Bosnian Muslim men and women, who mastered the Arabic language while studying on post-war scholarships in the Middle East, are more than happy working as guides and translators, earning in a week what the average Bosnian earns in a month. One state employee working on tourism promotion told me that Gulf tourists spend three-times what other tourists do.
Local Complaints and Controversies
Despite all the obvious economic benefits, the presence of Gulf tourists has become a divisive, if not controversial, issue amongst Bosnia’s various ethnic groups, including Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) themselves.
Among the most common complaints is that Gulf tourists are purchasing summer homes and apartments and, thus, substantially driving up real estate prices. Several critical media outlets have even accused Arab tourists of ‘buying up Bosnia’, ‘flooding the country,’ and making life in Sarajevo ‘unaffordable for the average Bosnian.’ The fact of the matter is that – though in some areas prices have risen – elsewhere they have been untouched, with property generally remaining affordable to Bosnian citizens.
There is also the claim that Gulf Arab tourists are using Bosnia to establish fake businesses and launder money. In reality, however, Bosnian law prevents foreigners from buying property directly without registering a company. This means that Gulf tourists have no choice but to register a company in order to purchase property. Bosnian security officials have raided dozens of companies deemed suspicious, but found no proof of criminal activity or money laundering by Gulf owners.
The third complaint is that Gulf Arab tourists are ‘Arabizing’ and ‘Islamizing’ the country. It is true that in some parts of the capital, store signs, restaurant menus, and banners have popped up in Arabic – but this is hardly the ‘Arabization’ of public space as some have claimed. I have visited high-class hotels in Switzerland and Austria that have menus in Arabic, halal restaurants, and Arabic TV channels all specifically catering to the needs of Gulf tourists. Bosnia is simply doing the same.
A number of prominent Bosnian Muslim personalities have openly spoken against Arab investments and tourism in the country. Fahrudin Radončić, a media mogul and leader of a political party who was a major candidate in the October 2018 presidential elections, voiced his concerns saying that: “by bringing in a large group of people (from the Middle-East) someone wants to Islamize BiH,” as reported by ACD. A leading Arabic language scholar in Sarajevo, Professor Esad Duraković, has decried and harshly criticized what he refers to as “the relatively massive sale of land and other assets to wealthy Arabs,” as Dnevnik.hr reports.
Prospects and Potentials
Despite all the talk, Gulf investment in Bosnia is still meagre compared to that of EU member states. The latest data from the state agency for foreign investments shows that the country’s biggest investor in 2017 was Austria (95.5 million EUR), followed by Croatia (52.2 million EUR) and Slovenia (52.0). Significant foreign direct investment has also been registered for Switzerland (30.0 million EUR), Serbia (27.6), Germany (27.4), Italy (22.8), Luxemburg (21.0), Saudi Arabia (19.9), United Arab Emirates (13.8), and Kuwait (12.4 million EUR).
Even though Bosnian Muslims have also been critical, there are racial and religious dimensions to the uproar over Gulf investment in Bosnia. While investments from Europe, including neighboring Serbia, Croatia, and Slovenia, are more often than not reduced to their mere financial dimension, money coming from Gulf Arab countries is deeply scrutinized and suspiciously viewed as having political and religious connotations and favorable implications for a particular group – in this case, Bosniaks. Balkan media, as well as German and French media, have frequently attempted to draw a connection between Gulf Arab tourists and radical Salafi interpretations of Islam in Bosnia. Right-wing Serbian and Croatian media outlets have jumped onto the bandwagon and used such accusations to make bogus claims that Bosnia is becoming a hotbed for radical Salafi Islam.
Just 140 years ago, Bosnia was part of the vast Ottoman Empire, which spanned from the northernmost tip of Bosnia all the way down to the Yemeni port cities of Aden and Sana’a. Arab traders, scholars and soldiers traversed the Balkans then, just as Bosnian Muslims travelled to Cairo, Baghdad, Aden and Damascus. The collapse of empires, world wars, and a long Cold War did much to sever these ties. What we are witnessing today, however, is an Arab (re)discovery of the historical connection between the greater Muslim world and Bosnia.