Travel Out Of Bosnian Blight – Interview With HelloBosnia.com

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Bosnia & Herzegovina is rising from the shadows of an infamous past,  flowering into a tourism hot-spot – attracting travellers especially from the Middle East. In the entire journey, Armin Osmancevic is determined to connect people with his beloved hometown – both emotionally and digitally. We spoke to him about his personal connection with Bosnia and his website HelloBosnia.com 

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What looks like a dream has been carved out of nightmare

Travelling allows us to tread a part of the world that holds within its people, culture and architecture stories of the yesteryears. Some stories convey a glorious past – tales of cities that stood tall and won admiration, and on other occasions reveal to us horrid accounts of some of the darkest times in history.  Bosnia & Herzegovina is a country that narrates a mix of both. Situated in Southeastern Europe, the traces of human settlement from the Neolithic age found there have been shadowed by a genocide in 1995 that wiped out traces of thousands of Bosnians.

Over the years, Bosnia has taken positive strides to shed its harrowing darkness – the brightest spotlight falling on its tourism market. At the behest of this tourism revolution are entrepreneurs like Armin Osmancevic, founder of the HelloBosnia.com – a website dedicated for holiday bookings in Bosnia & Herzegovina.

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Armin Osmancevic took the love for his home-country digital with HelloBosnia.com

A fleeing refugee of the 90s himself, Armin’s unrelenting love for his home country and digital media skills developed in Sweden resulted in a website that brings Bosnia & Herzegovina to screens of potential travellers. We spoke to Armin about tourism in Bosnia, his website, lessons from the country’s unfortunate past, and the captivating stories that Bosnia holds within itself.

AG – What’s the total value of travel & tourism in Bosnia & Herzegovina?

Armin – According to the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) report, Bosnia’s tourism and travel industry contributed approximately $369 million  directly to the country’s economy in 2014, equivalent to 2.5% of its gross domestic product (GDThe GDP contribution is forecasted to rise by 3.1% in 2015. Importantly, Bosnia’s travel and tourism sector generated 20,500 jobs in 2014 and this is expected to rise by 2.5% in 2015.

AG – The WTO projected Bosnia & Herzegovina to have the third highest tourism growth rate in the world between 1995 and 2020. What factors do you think have contributed to this forecast?

Armin – High growth projections for tourism in Bosnia comes as no surprise. Situated in the South East Europe and being at the cross road of civilizations, Bosnia holds many lessons for anyone interested to walk the pages of history books. Its untouched nature in Bosnia is captivating in all four seasons.

A combination of intriguing history and beautiful nature brings tourist across the world. As you may know, for example, Sarajevo is the location that sparked the First World War, later hosted 14th Winter Olympic Games and also has been recorded as a city under longest siege in the modern history. 

Bosniaks have not only courageously fought for their rights to preserve their identity, but also respected and protected the rights of others to share the same land.

Favorable geo-strategic position of Bosnia, great connectivity to continental Europe and most recently visa free regime for GCC states (excl. KSA) are some of key factors that have facilitated sharp increase in travelers interest for Bosnia’s attractions. However, due to various domestic issues the tourism potential has not  been really properly harnessed. This is where HelloBosnia.com fills the gap.

Packages from HelloBosnia.com attempt to bridge the country’s past with its picturesque present 

AG – What have been the challenges in turning it into a tourism hotspot, and how is HelloBosnia helping overcome them?

Armin – One of the main issues is that the attractions have not yet been adequately presented and marketed to the global travel industry. In addition, local tour operators are rather small and fragmented, and often the quality of service offered is not up to the expected standards. Given this background, we established HelloBosnia portal to bridge these various gaps and to provide quality service to GCC and wider markets as well as work with local travel industry to bring up the service levels.

HelloBosnia.com is classified as Destination Management and Promotion Company. What sets us apart from the rest, is primarily our fully integrated on-line portal that offers comprehensive service, including bookings and payments. We are the only online provider of travel packages in Bosnia. But perhaps even more important is our promotional dimension which enables us to engage with media, travel blogger community, other travel organizations and associations.

AG – What role do you see Bosnia playing in the burgeoning Halal tourism market?

Armin – According to the UAE-based magazine Arabian Business, Bosnia & Herzegovina held the no.1 position as Halal-friendly tourist destination this year. This signifies the potential and the ambition Bosnia holds in the Halal tourism market. More than 50 percent of Bosnia’s population are Muslims, which means here are plenty of facilities and options available for Halal-conscious travelers who visit the country.Combined with halal food, Bosnia offers tourists stunning architecture in Sarajevo, picturesque sites in Mostar, and beautiful mosques across the country.

Bosnia holds many lessons for anyone interested to walk the pages of history books. Its untouched nature in Bosnia is captivating in all four seasons

AG – Which countries have so far shown the most interest in visiting Bosnia?

Armin – Bosnia is becoming recognized as an increasingly attractive global destination. Its central location in Europe offers multiple themes to explore within the country but also, quick connectivity to the rest of Europe whether by road or air. The recent direct flights from Dubai to Sarajevo, and visa-free travel for UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain citizens has firmly placed Bosnia on travel itineraries in these markets as well as KSA and Malaysia.

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Bosnia is a modern city etched in the pages of historical significance

Q 6 – What does Bosnia have to offer to each member of the family – from elders to kids? How does HelloBosnia.com fulfill diverse needs?

Armin – No matter what the varied interests vistors have, they will find their interests catered to satisfaction. As mentioned, great weather in all four seasons, Mediterenian climate in summers, Alpine climate in winter, history and architecture, untouched nature, adventure, etc are some highlights in Bosnia.

In addition, Bosnia is increasingly recognized as a cradle of sports. For example, many renowned European football clubs such as Juventus have held their camps in Sarajevo.  This presents a great opportunity for youngsters to actively pursue their favorite sport in a destination that is suitable to their parents.

As HelloBosnia, our objective is to select the best destinations and attractions and couple them with superb local accommodation and activities. Whether looking for a fun family trip, a short break amongst nature or an adrenaline-thrilling holiday, guests may rest assured to be able to find a package that suits their time, budget and desires. In case there are activities not suitable for younger kids or elderly people, we adjust the program to suit all family needs.

AG – How does tourism in Bosnia serve individual backpackers and explorers?

Armin – Young backpackers traverse Bosnia frequently. Youth hostels and budget hotels are widely available across major destinations. Also, Bosnia has a landscape rich in adventure trails. Some examples of adventurism include rafting down a 22km route with intermittent rapids, camp in the wilderness and speed down snowy slopes where the winter Olympics were held.

AG – Bosnians were persecuted due to their faith. What do the magnificent mosques and minarets symbolise for today’s Bosnia, and what can visitors expect from your website’s Islamic heritage package?

Armin – The magnificent mosques are sprinkled across the country. They symbolize the multicultural nature and unity in diversity in Bosnia. The mosques are a legacy of Ottoman rule who brought Islam in 1463. While throughout history Bosniaks were persecuted because of their faith, they have not only courageously fought for their rights to preserve their identity, but also respected and protected the rights of others to share the same land.

Being at the crossroad of East and West, we believe that Bosnia and Herzegovina has a lot to offer tourists interested in Islamic heritage and history. Medieval masjids and Ottoman forts, old cobble-stoned bazaars, and recent historical events are tell-tale signs of Bosnia as a nation that has embraced different cultures over centuries. HelloBosnia’s ‘Islamic heritage’ package is designed to give our guests a new perspective and allow them to experience Islam in a European context.

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Bosnia’s scintillating nature is largely undisturbed, making an excursion to this destination an overwhelming experience

AG – What’s your story behind creating HelloBosnia.com? 

Armin – I grew up in Bosnia, but at at the age of 17, the war forced me to move to Sweden in 1993. I made a career in digital marketing launching campaigns for global brand such as Adidas, Mercedes, H&M and others. While I received recognition for my professional work, my mind never stopped thinking about how o make a difference for people back in Bosnia. Having rough beginnings, life has taught me that what others perceive as a challenge is in fact an opportunity if approached in a right way and with the right people.

That was a motivation behind setting up our Dubai-based company, named Bonify – which means ‘to make good or better’. Bonify was established with a vision to make positive contributions primarily to Bosnian economy but also, given that we live in the digital era, to other economies as well. HelloBosnia.com was born after partnering with friends in Dubai and Bosnia with an idea to develop it into a tourism gateway and also to explore other business lines in the future.

GCC travelers started discovering various attractions in Bosnia. This was then followed by establishing direct flights Dubai-Sarajevo and visa-free regime for GCC nationals (except Saudi Arabia). We launched HelloBosnia in late March this year and in this short period of time we have emerged as a Destination Management and Promotion Company of choice, partnering with some of major travel operators in the region.

Bosnians are known to demonstrate strength and perseverance in challenging times

AG – How have online portals such as HelloBosnia.com altered travel planning experience for travellers?

Armin – Being the only full-service online portal devoted to this destination, the portal has designed sightseeing tours, short trips as well as various holiday packages to specifically suit preferences of tourists. Tourists can browse and book rafting, hiking, horse-riding, mountain-biking, fly-fishing and skiing in Bosnia for amazing prices, from the comfort of their home. Essentially, this means that websites have brought destinations such as Bosnia closer to everyone.

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The Derwish monastery or Tekke as it is called was first built by dervishes of the Bektashi order around 1470

AG – How does tourism in Bosnia & Herzegovina serve both the budget and luxury travel market. Which of the two is the strongest offering?

Armin – Currently, Bosnia is more geared to budget market due to general affordability and type of accommodations available. The luxury segment is somewhat limited in terms of 5-star hotels.

The portal offers a range of products including sightseeing tours offered completely free of charge. Other packages are priced competitively and start as low as USD 100 for daily trips and USD 315 for 3 days holiday. The portal also includes “What’s On” section with event listing across the country that  showcases Bosnia’s vibrant cultural and event scene. It complements our products that were designed to offer complete peace of mind to our clients – including Arabic-speaking guides, quality accommodation, and attentive service.

However, HelloBosnia also offers bespoke services such as luxury villas and customized offerings to those seeking private facilities.

AG – One of the packages listed on your website is “Seberenica’s Lesson in History.” How can dark episodes in history be presented as memorable tour visits, and what can tourists expect to take back from this package?

My strongest memory comes from a day before leaving Bosnia when I was climbing the hill behind my house, eating wild strawberries and crying

Armin – Srebrenica is an intriguing small town nestled in East Bosnia with an enthralling story to tell. It was one of the main centers for money minting during the Roman Rule. Visiting a place where an infamous genocide was committed not too long ago is an important experience in itself. Our guides also describe particular circumstances that have led to these crimes, enabling tourists to almost visualize the situation at the time.

As you may know, during the aggression on Bosnia and Herzegovina, it was under auspices of the United Nations and protected as “safe area.” It attracted international attention due to the genocide perpetrated against Bosnian Muslims despite the presence of the UN. Srebrenica is now home to a memorial commemorating more than 8.000 innocent victims. It serves as a reminder and a lesson for humanity’s conscience of the gruesome atrocities committed merely in 3 days. During the Srebrenica tour, tourists also have the opportunity to interact with locals and listen to their first-hand experiences.

AG – With the recent slide in euro over Grexit speculations, is there renewed interest in Bosnia for affordable travel in Europe?

Armin – Affordability coupled with good quality service is one of the competitive advantages of Bosnian tourism. Weakening of the euro has in fact just further reinforced Bosnia as not only a great destination but also an affordable place for a prolonged stay. Some families spend entire summer holidays in Bosnia. Affordability also means that property prices are very competitive and many decide to acquire houses and make Bosnia their second home.

Travelling to Bosnia and Herzegovina is incredibly affordable especially as food and living costs are particularly low compared to other European countries.

AG – What Bosnian values and philosophies have helped you in the journey through struggle and success?

Armin – Bosnians are known to demonstrate strength and perseverance in challenging times. I presume that these two qualities were key in my own journey. Universal values such as sharing, concern for community, conservative and family orientation that are also rooted in Islamic tradition have helped me maintain focus on interests that are relevant not only to me but to society as well.

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The sun that sets on Bosnia today is different from the one in 1995

AG – What is your vision for HelloBosnia.com for the coming years?

Armin – We’ve started as a Destination Management and Promotion Company, but our vision is to become a catalyst of economic revival and development of Bosnia & Herzegovina by connecting people, resources and opportunities in the country with people and investors primarily in MENA and the far-east. Hence, our business objective is to establish scalable global gateway and web portal for tourism and travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina; at a later stage the portal may present other verticals as well such as real-estate, education, media, general business etc.

Parallel to that, we are undertaking another project at Bonify that is aimed at developing a native e-commerce app.

AG – What are your favourite memories from Bosnia and what do you like about that country the most?

Armin – I was lucky to be born and raised in Bosnia until the age of 17. I lived throughout 80’s and had an amazing childhood in suburbs of my hometown of Banja Luka, located in the northwestern part of Bosnia. Most of my family became refugees of war literally overnight in 1993, and are now spread around the world.

My strongest memory comes from a day before leaving Bosnia when I was climbing the hill behind my house, eating wild strawberries and crying. I was crying that I had to leave such a beautiful place. Something in me died that day and I never fully recovered. The day after, I found myself on a convoy to Sweden with nothing except my clothes. I still consider Bosnia as the most beautiful country in the world, but I do not feel Bosnian only anymore. Rather, I feel I’m now a citizen of the world.

[Photo credits: Mustafa Demirörs]

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