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news 30 Sep 15

Hotels Flourish as Sarajevo Changes its Image

Once seen as a tourist no-go area and a 'war zone', hotels are booming in Sarajevo as the city reinvents itself as a cultural and culinary hotspot in the Balkans.

Elvira M. Jukic
BIRN
Sarajevo
  The Courtyard Marriot hotel in Sarajevo I Official hotel photo

Bosnia's tourist bosses and entrepreneurs are rubbing their hands in delight after another successful summer season, which brought a significant bump in the number of domestic and foreign visitors - and more income, naturally.  

In years gone by, Sarajevo had a rotten reputation as a tourist resort. Small hostels were hard to come by, leaving visitors with little choice except to splash out in a handful of pricey hotels like the Holiday Inn.

It didn't help that the city was mainly known to the world as a war zone where thousands of people had been killed in the 1990s as Bosniasn Serbs pounded the city from the nearby hills.

Thata has all changed. Thanks to the city's rich history and its growing fame as a cultural, artistic and gastronomic centre, the Bosnian capital has become one of region's top tourist destinations in recent years.

This turnaround in the city's image has led to a significant increase in the number, quality and diversity of hotels, which now go all the way from budget hostels for backpackers to luxury complexes for the well-heeled.

Improved accommodation facilities have in turn attracted more tourists. This August saw a new record, with over 100,000 visitors coming in one month – around a quarter of city's population – drawn by the peak of the summer season and a series of cultural events like the Sarajevo Film Festival.

According to statistics, of the total tourist arrivals, 88.7 per cent were foreign and 11.3 per cent were domestic. Most of the foreigners came from Turkey (16.2 per cent), Croatia (5.7 per cent), Poland (4.8 per cent), the United Arab Emirates (4.1 per cent) and the US (3.9 per cent).

The boom in hotels is hard to miss in central Sarajevo, where almost every street seems lined with new hotels, hostels and guest houses.

Unkas Kupusovic, owner of the Balkan Han Hostel in Sarajevo, who started his business three years ago, says guests are coming throughout the year now, not just in summer, mostly from England and Germany.

“It is logical to have a lot of hotels and hostels, this is the capital. Another reason is that people here are hospitable,” he said, complaining about the lack of institutional support from local government.

“The authorities do little to promote tourism. Everything that functions is a private business but the state hardly contributes at all,” he said.

Kupusovic said the revival of tourism in Bosnia was crucial, because of the gradual disappearance of much of the heavy industry that Bosnia relied on before the 1992-95 war.

Besides the boom in hostels and inns, luxury hotel chains are investing in Sarajevo. The Marriott chain now has two, the Residence Inn and its most recent addition, the Marriott Courtyard, both in the Skenderija area in the centre of the city.

However, experts warn that while the number of hotels is constantly growing, the quality of the accommodation is not always up to scratch.

“Yes, there was an increase in the number of new hotels opened," Asja Hadziefendic-Mesic of the Tourist Organization of Federation entity, told BIRN, but most of the new hotels were “in the lower categories.

“There are still only three five-star-hotels in Sarajevo and that is a problem," she said. “When a major event happens, such as the film festival or this year's papal visit, that is critical...the number of beds is not enough.”

Hadziefendic-Mesic said other problems are hindering tourism from flourishing even more.   Many of the new facilities are not registered, so no one can check on their standard.

This can be seen on Booking.com, one of the leading online accommodation reservation websites.

This website offers some 450 accommodation facilities in Sarajevo, although official statistics note only around 150 facilities in the capital. This also means they do not pay any taxes to the local and regional budgets .

Another obstacle to more investment into tourism is the complicated and lengthy business-registration procedure for new private companies.

“If someone wants to start a company they have to go through 11 procedures that last 37 days and if one wants to get a construction permit, such as for building a hotel, they have to go through 17 procedures that last 180 days,” Hadziefendic-Mesic said.

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