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24 Jul 16

Locals Fear Hidden Cost of Serbia’s EXIT Festival

While Novi Sad’s EXIT festival has undoubtedly boosted the local economy, some fear it might be doing the city more damage than good.

Brian Englar
BIRN Novi Sad
Exit festival. Photo: BIRN archive

Leaving the festival grounds on Monday morning, EXIT festival-goers could be overheard debating: “Was this the best EXIT ever?”

With a line-up that lacked nothing and a reportedly record-breaking turnout, most were hard-pressed to say anything to the contrary. First-timers and EXIT-veterans alike gave rave reviews. Visitors in town specifically to attend the festival were blown away by the “magic” EXIT promised.

Locals, however, were torn.

While EXIT draws hundreds of thousands of paying tourists and gifts the city of Novi Sad free publicity each year, some argue that the festival has lost touch with its philanthropic roots and may be doing more damage to the city than its organisers care to admit.

Novi Sad, the capital city of Serbia’s northern Vojvodina province, is usually a fairly quiet place. The second weekend in July – the festival’s annual timeframe – marks an impressive peak in the city’s summer tourist season.

And the four nights of fireworks and pounding music at the city’s famous landmark, the Petrovaradin Fortress, is drawing ever larger crowds of music-lovers, and their money, to the region each year.

With this year’s audience estimated to have numbered just over 200,000, business-owners and entrepreneurs alike compete to earn their share of the money to be made from the crowd of boisterous, often intoxicated, guests.

The most obvious sign of EXIT’s economic impact is the vastly increased foot traffic through the city’s downtown pedestrian area, which is striking when compared to the average weekend.

Although most festival-goers sleep through the day to recover from the nightlong festivities, only emerging from their accommodation as the sun begins to set, the city can feel almost too crowded at times.

No business opportunity wasted

Photo: Flickr/Exit festival

Hotels and hostels sell out weeks in advance, with rates rising to match demand created by the festival. Some local families choose to rent out their flats to visitors for extra vacation money, using house-rental apps like AirBnB.

There are queues to be seated at local restaurants and even at grocery stores, with shoppers lining up to buy cheap drinks before entering the festival grounds.

Along the path to the festival site, artists set out displays of their wares and various vendors, selling goods ranging from rakija [Serbian fruit brandy], fresh corn, glow-sticks and other illicit substances, rove the streets.

Not one business opportunity is wasted. Residents of Novi Sad have learned how to get their share of trade out of the festival, but there’s much more to EXIT than its moneymaking merits.

Founded in 2000 by a student movement fighting for democracy in Serbia and the Balkans, it was a protest against the legacy of hate of the bloody Balkan wars of the 1990s.

The festival organisers say they have retained that strong philanthropic mission, as explained on the website page dedicated to EXIT’s values.

Yet it’s hard to find that original vibe at the venue these days. Corporate sponsors plaster the walls of the fortress with logos and advertisements for Heineken and Smirnoff.

And while programmes like the EXIT Youth Heroes campaign made headlines before the festival by rewarding politically active teens, these values very much take a back seat once the festival revelry, lewd behaviour, and consumption of alcohol and other substances begins – these days before the gates even officially open.

This is likely just an inevitable symptom of a festival getting world attention too quickly but there’s something to be said about the loss of its original mission and the transition towards hedonism.

Time EXIT gave back more?

In addition, EXIT has been accused of irresponsibility on several fronts. The thing that appears to be called into question most frequently, however, is the festival’s relationship with its host city and venue.

Despite the fact that the festival receives significant funds from the provincial government of Vojvodina and is allowed to use Petrovaradin Fortress as its venue free of charge, EXIT does not appear to contribute a great deal to the upkeep of the fortress.

While the fortress was designed to withstand sieges, and has done so to this day, some fear it is not faring well against the wear and tear of the festival. Beyond the eyesore of discarded bottles, cans and food wrappers littering the ground every morning - which EXIT coordinators do well to clean up – the unrelenting bass beats, foot traffic and heavy machinery have brought into question the structural impact of a concert of this scale on the fortress.

Over the course of four days, the grass in front of the many stages is completely uprooted by stomping feet and dirt and dust fills the air to the extent that most choose to cover their nose and mouth by the fourth night of the festival.

The wearing away of the turf exposes the soil to a high risk of erosion and waterlogging, which some believe could, over time, have lasting effects on the stability of Petrovaradin’s impressive walls and deep foundations.

Additionally, the preparation of the fortress and the construction of massive stages within its walls require large trucks and cranes to come and go via the narrow cobblestone streets. The fortress’s famous clock tower has been found to be sinking over the past 15 years, although it’s not determined if the festival is to blame.

Vojislav Devic, a local architectural history enthusiast, told the Balkanist website that “during the 10 days of EXIT [including setup and dismantling] the fortress ages 10 years”.

In a written response to BIRN, EXIT organisers said that some damage has been present since before the festival began using the fortress as its venue and that the sound vibrations have no harmful effect, citing a joint study between the University of Novi Sad’s Faculty of Technical Sciences and the Institute for the Protection of Cultural Monuments.

Additionally, festival organisers have established an organisation, FORT, for the “protection and development of the fortress as a cultural and historic monument of national importance.”

Despite this, EXIT exists on the profits it generates without releasing if it hands over much at all to maintain and restore the historical landmark. Now that it is a successful fixture of the international music festival season, it may be time to ask that it gives back a little more.

So say what you will about the festival’s economic contribution or the hedonism of those who flock each year to attend, at some point, Novi Sad will have to ask: Is EXIT worth the cost?

NOTE: This article was amended on September 19, 2016 to add attributions identifying material from other media sources. See details on our Corrections and Complaints page.


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