One of the good fortunes I have enjoyed is to have travelled widely - of late this has been in two particular places that I find fascinating: Sri Lanka and Serbia. Vast distances apart, they are in many respect tackling the same issues and have similar opportunities.

Most people I speak to at home link Serbia to the troubles of the First World War or the more recent Balkan War, and Sri Lanka is known to have struggled through a bitter civil conflict in the north of the island. But in both cases, whilst you can see and sense many of the issues that arise from conflict, recent or old, at no time have I felt in danger or threatened. In fact on both cases I have explored, travelled and enjoyed the customs, people and traditions and managed to get underneath the veneer and learn and understand better.

 

I have written before about how I consider myself to be a traveller rather than a tourist. The distinction is a fine one, but it matters to me. I want to see, taste and smell the real country. To see people working and living in their normal context, to see traditions and specialities cooked in old styles, and to appreciate the raw outdoors unadulterated by the intrusion of industrial modernism.

And yet, I see these factors, the very things I strive to see, want to appreciate and enjoy the most, being put at risk and hidden by the advance of naked aggressive tourism. Let me try to explain. I'm all in favour of landscaping - the work of Capability Brown in the UK shows how the natural landscape can be adapted - but the solution is not the pouring of vast volumes of concrete into a hillside just to create a false viewing points. I like the use of woodwork for example, rather than aggressive metal used to construct railings, but not everything has to be wooden clad to an extent that begins to look like a parody. Having good hotels with full modern facilities is a good thing, and ensures that people return and come back year after year - but the answer to create such is not to tear down the old local traditional low rise cabins or houses in order to to shove up stereotypical high rise faux seaside or mountain hotels. Many of us would love to stay in family homes that have been modernised and preserve the charm of yesteryear.

In tourism, in travel, in shopping generally I want to see much much more experiential opportunities. In Sri Lanka I spoke to friends and colleagues about economic development rather than tourism - here in the mountains of Serbia I would talk about the same principles.

So here are five particular ideas and comments on what might work and what doesn't work (these are personal bugbears of mine):

  1. I don't want to see children taking rides on ponies or elephants that are tied, sad looking, bedraggled or worsen chained or tethered up. I want to see animals in their natural environment with space to walk, run lay and play. Distant with space to be themselves is better than unhappy and close enough for me to touch and ride them.
  2. Less is more. Having a culture where wood is a principle materials for construction is a good thing due to its sustainability a especially in an area that is heavily forested. So please don't erect buildings that are concrete poured in construction and then clad them in wood, that is then left to rot and look tatty. It illustrates to me the lack of sincerity in your words and actions.
  3. Having a local market should be precisely that - a market or stalls run by local people, making and selling local produce. I find vegetable, fruit and fish markets the very best because every single stall and layout has to be diffident by its nature. A series of stall that sell pots and pans, fridge magnets and mugs that are the same outlet to outlet to outlet makes me suspect that it is all in fact made and shipped from China.
  4. Please do encourage local artists and crafts people, but do realise that we (the public) can tell if in fact it is a real artist who has inspiration, talent and motivation with desire to share, explore and push boundaries. And try to make this accessible and at prices that people can afford. Being too elite undermines itself very quickly.
  5. Seeing things occurring in their natural environment is one of the very reasons for travel and exploration. I love seeing a coconut or a clump of bananas growing and being picked in their natural environment. To see a bear or wolf or wild horse would be invigorating - to see it stuffed or skinned is offensive and pointless. The walk I took this morning into the pine forest above Zlatibor was far more invigorating than the fake log cabins selling the same things, shop by shop by shop.

My final plea is for simplicity - a nice quiet clean cafe that enables a coffee, a beer, a fresh juice with a view is something I can appreciate - I found it in the deserted beaches of downtown Colombo or Galle, but it was not signposted or encouraged. Here in Serbia, I worry that the advance of tourist progress will pave over the raw simplicity of the humble farmer and or craftsman who wants to grow make and sell their own produce or speciality. Can regional and national governments, all desperate for the rich pickings of tourists, spare a thought for those of us who want to travel to somewhere and leave, hoping that when we come back little has changed for the worse.