Feature 03 Jul 17

Tito Tourism Turns Yugonostalgia into Business

Tourists can now explore Yugoslav leader Tito’s bunker in Bosnia or stay in an apartment decorated in Yugo-retro style in Serbia, as businesses explore new ways to turn the Communist past into profit.

Tihomira Doncheva, Anne-Laure de Chalup BIRN

The Yugotour takes its participants on a time-travelling journey. Photo: Tihomira Doncheva, Anne-Laure de Chalup.

From an old fairground which dates back to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia to the mausoleum at the ‘House of Flowers’ where Josip Broz Tito is buried, the Yugotour is a kind of pilgrimage through the relics of a glorious past.

Even the postcards offered in the tour’s gift shop show the magnificence of Tito, with the president-for-life portrayed in a frame of flowers and colours.

To perfect the picture, participants don’t take the tour in any old vehicle, but in a Zastava, the emblematic car manufactured in Yugoslavia and nicknamed the ‘Yugo’.

“Foreigners are mostly surprised to hear that this time of socialism was very prosperous because most of them have this negative picture of communism and they are surprised to hear a different story,” says the operations officer for Tours in Belgrade, Milica Ilincic.

To show them the remnants of this prosperity, the Yugotour takes its participants on a time-travelling journey, on which every stop is highly symbolic.

One of them is the Hotel Yugoslavia, a once-luxurious building that was bombed by NATO in 1999; another is the Sava Center - “an example of modernist architecture”, says Ilincic.

As well as foreigners, some people from Balkan countries also join the tours, although they are mainly aged over 30, according to Tours in Belgrade.

Ilincic says this age group is made up of people who lived in Yugoslavia and want to remember what it was like.

She has noticed an interesting trend too - while most foreigners are interested in the Yugo car and the concrete buildings, most locals are usually fascinated by the last stop on the tour, Tito’s grave and the room full of presents given to him by other world leaders in the Museum of History of Yugoslavia.

Down in the bunker

Tito Tourism Turns Yugonostalgia into Business from BIRN on Vimeo.

Yugonostalgic tourism seems to be a growing trend, and Tito’s old bunker in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the small town of Konjic has also become a tourist attraction.

Over the deafening noise of the air-conditioning system, the tour guide working at the bunker tries to explain the purpose of a couple of big white gas tanks in one of the blocks of this anti-nuclear shelter.

But one detail catches the eyes of visitors: red letters spelling out the sentence “material value of laziness” on the tanks. This is part of the various art installations which are now on display at the military site - a deviation from the focus on Tito that some locals regret.

“For people from former Yugoslavia, I have a special tour, because we sing Partisan songs and we jump around and we dance,” tourist guide Lamija Rizvanovic explains proudly.

Rizvanovic used to show people around the Bunker, presenting how Tito’s Yugoslavia was at the leading edge of technology. Now she deplores the fact that there are art pieces among the military installations and has quit her job, critical of the way the tours are run.

“If they talk to you about anything, it will be about the artists, not Tito,” she says.

And yet the ‘father of Yugoslavia’ is everywhere; there is even a room dedicated to him, with one of the photographs picturing him in his traditional army uniform with an intimidating look on his face.

A few centimetres away, another version of the same photograph presents the former president in a different light, with a halo that seems to transform him into a demi-god.

A Bosnian woman is runnning after the tour group, always lagging behind as she tries to memorise each portrait of Tito perfectly. She openly talks about how nostalgic she feels, one of the reasons why she decided to visit the bunker.

Rizvanovic says without hesitation that the most frequent visitors are Slovenians, who in her opinion are very Yugonostalgic.

Other than that, people from the former Yugoslavia rarely visit, as the entry fee is targeted towards foreigners and not Bosnians, she says sadly.

A reconstructed Yugodom

The Yugodom guest house in Belgrade. Photo: Monika Pavlovic.

“Look, my grandma had the same black and gold wallpaper!”

One can almost hear a guest’s surprise when they enter the Yugodom guest house in Belgrade, which is decorated exactly like an apartment from the Yugoslav era.

The owner, Mario Milakovic, has carefully collected objects and furniture from the past, mimicking a way of life that no longer exists.

“I’ve started from what we had in our house, then went to family, friends’ [homes]... searched in attics and basements, went to flea markets, secondhand furniture shops, online,” Milakovic explains.

The Yugodom takes its guests back to an era when everything was “made in Yugoslavia”, from the TV used as a nightstand to the pop icons like Lepa Brena whose posters decorate the bright walls.

Milakovic however does not see the project as Yugonostalgic, but purely a designer’s endeavour which could exist “even if Yugoslavia existed nowadays”.

He is passionate about what he has created, although he also admits most of his guests are foreigners.

“They come from all around the world and most of them don’t know anything about Yugoslavia, but they like the design of the place,” he explains.

“They appreciate the vintage and retro aspect of it, rather than a country that doesn’t exist anymore.”

People from the Serbian capital are also supportive of the idea, he adds, because “most [of them] recognise things they had or still have in their homes”.

Milos Nicic, a cultural studies lecturer at Belgrade University and a friend of the owner, says this is more significant than just a money-making scheme.

He points to a Yugoslav passport, proudly hanging in a kitschy frame, arguing that it is valuable because it is no longer in circulation.

“There is something definitely exotic here,” Nicic says, enchanted by the old-fashioned charm of the place.

It is exotic for him, a Belgrader, because it reminds him of his grandparents’ house, decorated in a style which most other hotels have tried to eradicate and replace with the design values of IKEA.

Nicic says he appreciates the uniqueness of “authentic local heritage”, and sees the potential in promoting it to attract tourists and turn interest in the past into revenue.

Supply and demand

Yugo cars on display in Zagreb. Photo: Tihomira Doncheva, Anne-Laure de Chalup.

Nicic says the demand for Tito-connected objects has transformed the tourism landscape in the Balkans.

When foreigners visit Zagreb, none of them misses the most beautiful square in the European capital, the one dedicated to Marshal Tito (although it may soon be renamed). Sarajevo too calls its main boulevard after the late leader, and it is not unusual to see tourists taking photos of the street sign.

In the Western Balkans, even the massive concrete buildings that were built after World War II to find a home for the many refugees can be captivating for outsiders.

“You have lots of cruises down the Danube river with elderly people mainly from the US. They come from another continent and what they know about Yugoslavia is not much, but they know Tito,“ says Nicic.

“He [was] this pop star icon even when he was alive... Even Reagan greeted Tito as one of the greatest leaders.”

Some of the countries that became independent in the 1990s are less Yugonostalgic than others.

According to a public opinion survey published by Gallup last year, 55 per cent of Croats think that their country benefited from the fall of Yugoslavia - but 81 per cent of Serbians and 77 per cent Bosnians regret the break-up of the unitary state.

These divided opinions also extend to the Yugoslav president-for life, says Nicic.

“A lot of people adored Tito, a lot didn’t. When you have mixed feelings, you usually tend to discard the negative. Memory tends to put on pink glasses when it talks about the past,”hesuggests.

But some younger people like Lamija Rizvanovic, who is in her twenties and too young to remember Communism, are genuinely fascinated with the era, which was one of the reasons why she started working as a tour guide at Tito’s bunker, Rizvanovic says.

Nicic does not see anything wrong with businesses using history to make money, as long as they manage to reflect the entire reality. He cautions entrepreneurs seeking to exploit Yugonostalgia to be careful about how they represent Tito‘s image.

“As long as you provide some sort of context other than making him a pop figure that is fine... but if you show him only as a monster or as a hero, it’s a false approach,” he argues.

Milica Ilincic, the operations officer for Tours in Belgrade, argues that its tours try to remain objective, but agrees that Yugonostalgia can be used to generate revenue.

“It is definitely interesting and more and more people turn Yugonostalgia into business. Some people have some smaller tours with Yugos [Yugoslav cars],” Ilincic says.

The demand for Yugonostalgia tourism appears to be considerable - as is the fascination with Tito himself.

“We had one guest from Macedonia, a really popular actor, and when he came here he wore the same clothes as Tito,” recalls Rizvanovic.

“He looked mostly the same [as Tito] and foreign people saw him and he couldn’t go out for two hours because everyone wanted pictures,” she says, bursting into laughter.

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