Almir Peštek: BiH Is a Country of Untold Stories

Almir Peštek: BiH Is a Country of Untold Stories

As a grantee of the prestigious Fulbright scholar program of the US State Department, Almir Peštek, a full professor at the Faculty of Economics in Sarajevo examined the improvement of marketing activities in BiH tourism and its competitiveness within his postdoctoral studies in Chicago.

Foto: Irfan Redžović/Furaj.ba

His research can serve as guidance for all those involved in the tourism industry, where the rules of profession should be primarily respected in our country, and professionals should be more included in all issues related to the development of this economic branch. As the continuous education, and broadening of knowledge and views must not stop either in private or public sector, professor Peštek says: 

– Constant learning is a precondition for success on the hyper-competitive tourism market, where change is the only constant. In addition to life-long education, substantial investments in the formal education system – secondary schools and universities is necessary. We must innovate curricula and create new ones, create new occupations for the new age, provide high-quality practical work and equipment, show young people that occupations in tourism are attractive, and that tourism gives them the chance for development and success. 

Strategic turn

If you were assigned with a task of branding BiH, what direction would you follow?

– BiH is a country of untold stories. We cannot really boast of being well known to tourists, and our existing branding activities are on a fairly low level. A non-systematic promotion and non-consistent messages must be replaced with a systemic and professional approach. I would try to position BiH as an open country, and promise an experience based on hospitality, culture, history, nature, and food. I would communicate BiH as an interesting, colourful, pleasant, open, friendly, original, and foody destination.

Where do you see the greatest tourist power of BiH?

– In the culture, history, nature and people. We have great tourism potentials that must be turned into economically valuable resources.

Efficient tourism industry requires constant planning. Do we have a proper view of the future? 

What development direction we follow, what tourism forms should be developed, what is our vision… These are frequent questions that we cannot answer. The destination management or absence of an efficient destination management is one of the big problems we are facing. A related issue is the marketing of destinations, and especially the development and integration of offer, branding, and systemic promotion. Tourism is a system that should be managed on national, regional, and local levels. We need a strategic turn in the tourism development – from organic development to the systemic, strategic development on sustainable development principles.

What has the coronavirus pandemic revealed? 

– All imperfections and problems in tourism, and merely declarative, but not practical recognition of tourism as a development chance by the public sector. Tourism must be observed as an important export sector, as a sector with extensive direct and indirect effects on overall economic development. The Travel & Tourism index of the World Economic Forum, where BiH was positioned on number 105 of the total of 140 countries in 2019, far behind the other countries in the region, tells us to what extent things are currently observed in this way. This index descriptively shows everything that we need to change if we want to be successful in the future. The pandemic resulted in the tourism reset on the global level, and now we need to work on the rethink phase – creation of new business models for the new-normal. Now we finally have to work together, and in a lot smarter way, because the competition will be much stronger when you literally have to fight for the attention of every tourist. 

Short-haul trips

Foto: Irfan Redžović/Furaj.ba

How much do the private and public sectors cooperate in BiH tourism?

– Integration is a precondition for success. The tourism development requires cooperation between private, public and non-governmental sectors, and tourism development in BiH mostly results from initiatives of the private sector, which cannot develop tourism on its own. A favourable framework for the development is necessary – legislation, infrastructure, trainings, business environment, all of which is the public sector’s task. Interests of private and public sectors do not necessarily need to pursue the same goal. This is why cooperation and balancing of interests are necessary. There is no sufficient or proper cooperation between private and public sectors, which is a precondition for the development of destinations, and there is no sufficient level of cooperation within the private sector. Atomized approach does not benefit anyone in the long run; we need joint action and synergy. 

What other changes are necessary?

– The narrative should be changed. The “tourism development” is mentioned continuously, and we must replace it with “sustainable tourism development.” We are overly focused on economic effects of the tourism development, which again did not result from a planned action, and social and environmental aspects have been neglected. Regardless of all positive development influences, tourism can have negative effects on the community and the environment. Therefore, investments in tourism must consider interests of the community and preservation of the environment. If we continue working in this way, before long, we will be talking about unsustainable tourism development. Among other things, let’s look at the size of the BiH territory under the protection regime and BiH’s position on ranking lists related to the protection of cultural-historical and natural heritage. We have to invest in infrastructure more. BiH must be more accessible to tourists, which is currently not the case. Air transport, road transport and railroad transport must be developed more intensely. And finally, we have to develop overall business environment. We need to create both tourism enabling and business enabling environment. Doing business must be easier and cheaper. We must enable citizens of BiH to launch and operate businesses more easily, attract more foreign investments, and be more competitive on the global market. Also, we need to reduce the grey economy, which is particularly present in tourism, enable people to stay here and develop, be satisfied and live a good life, instead of looking for opportunities elsewhere.

When can we expect to recover from the pandemic consequences?

– Tourism usually reacts quickly to crisis events, and we have a global crisis in this case. The recovery will depend on finding of a cure, and until then, we can only guess what will happen. In this case, the recovery will be slow. Many countries are trying to open their borders for tourists, but this is not enough. Many people around the globe lost their jobs, the discretionary income that they used to finance travels has been decreased, and they will certainly travel less. They will also travel less because of the travelling conditions. The recovery of tourism in BiH will depend on the economic recovery of our outbound travel markets. The 2020 season is definitely lost. I believe that the recovery effects cannot be expected before 2022. Short-haul trips will be more important in the near future. Long-haul destinations and journeys will be less attractive. Recovery of mass tourism destinations will also take longer. Fortunately, BiH is not a mass tourism destination, and we are close to the largest outbound travel market – Europe. Besides, we are well known to tourists from the region. We should also focus on the development of domestic tourism, as its potential is underutilised. BiH is also characterised by the high concentration of tourist activities. In the Federation, Sarajevo, Mostar and Neum account for almost 75% of total tourist movements. There are many destinations that can and should develop. For example, I like the idea of vouchers that was initiated by the Republika Srpska, Slovenia, Serbia, and previously the Szep card in Hungary. Generally, I see BiH’s chance in the increase of tourist consumption and extension of stays. The stays are usually short (2-3 nights), which is in line with global trends, but the consumption level is low. For example, both domestic and international tourists spend a lot less in BiH than in Slovenia. 

Lover of research

Your life is devoted to education. What motivated you to choose the scientific path?

– I have always liked to read and research. I was a top student in school and at the university. I successfully applied to the vacancy announcement for an assistant at the Faculty of Economics in Sarajevo in 1999, and it resulted in my career obtaining an entirely new development dimension that I hadn’t thought about before. I am happy and proud for having been an assistant to the late professor Boris Tihi who influenced my academic career and development a lot. Work at the university suits me perfectly, it gives me freedom and opportunity to research, and to apply my knowledge in practice.

Who has always put the wind in your sails?

– My wife Suada is my biggest support. My grandparents, bakers Atif and Fata Agić from Žepče influenced me as a person the most. They taught me not to wait for others to give me anything, and that I can achieve everything with my own work.

What is the most beautiful thing you realized?

– Honesty, hard work and investments in knowledge always pay off.