Why Is Balkan Travel Still So Hard?
You almost can't get there from here. At least not if you're in the western Balkans and you want to fly to somewhere in the European Union. Or even sometimes if you want to fly to a neighboring country. As Europe continues to celebrate its ever closer union and visas for most of the continent become a thing of the past, travel in its southern parts remains stubbornly difficult. This hampers both the region's ability to integrate itself and to move closer to EU integration. Expansion of the EU to include Central European states brought with it expansion of travel opportunities for citizens from both "new" and "old" Europe. The subsequent development of increased airline links, particularly low-cost, has created its own small cultural revolution by allowing travelers from both sides to get to know their European space. That has allowed a deeper sense of European identity and "union" than any set of bureaucrats in Brussels could create. The breakup of Yugoslavia and ensuing violent conflicts, however, left the citizens of the Balkans paradoxically less mobile and less connected within Europe than they were at the height of the Cold War. Young people today are much less likely to have left their county or region than their parents' generation, a trend in almost complete contradiction to the rest of the continent. The reasons for this isolation are many. New borders and new states created a corresponding set of rules and visa regimes. Fear of the refugee hordes from during the years of fighting and continued concern about unsavory governments or criminal elements have been used to justify tough EU visa regimes. On the regional level, lack of political will and distrust has added to the difficulties. Overall fairness of systems for entry and reasonably priced air tickets are still in short supply within the region and from Europe to the region. The economic dimensions of the problem are gradually being addressed even as political will has been slower to follow.
NOT EXACTLY THE MOST DIRECT ROUTEDespite the wars of the last decade, opportunities for people living in the EU to travel to the west Balkan region have grown tremendously in the past five years due to increased business investment and traveler interest. The growth provides more choice, but it also has allowed the national carriers of the countries and their partners to firm up their respective monopolies and price accordingly. A Budapest-Pristina roundtrip ticket, for example, is priced closer to a UN-salary level rather than to local living standards.
Such prices, however, do not guarantee that the flight will be as direct as you need it to be. Despite the high prices and increase in direct flights, it is still common to fly from Belgrade to Budapest via Vienna or from Sarajevo to Munich via Zagreb, rather than being able to fly directly.
Even as the rise of low-cost airlines has increased the competition and reduced the prices somewhat for savvy western-Balkan travelers, most budget airlines fly only during the tourist season. Those that operate year-round often have departure and arrival times that make connections difficult for onward travel around the continent.
Even if travel is secured at a reasonable price and with straightforward connections, the risk that a traveler from the western Balkans might still be denied entry into an EU country is high. Regional efforts to persuade the EU to drop the visa regime appear likely to generate some results soon, but for those countries not put on the visa-free "white list" for the Schengen area, the system in place is the traveler's reality.
NEXT DOOR ONLY IN THEORYFor travelers attempting to make their way from one western Balkan city to another, the cost and journey is even more convoluted. Traveling from east to west or west to east in the region usually requires a zigzag trip that hops north into "Europe" and takes an entire day for a few hundred kilometers of travel. Offerings for air travel have improved in the past several years, but the reality is that most travelers within the region often need to leave the region in order to reach their destination.
Nearly 15 years after the cessation of hostilities there is still no direct air travel between Zagreb and Belgrade. The lack of an air connection between the region's two biggest hubs has resulted in a continued expansion of north-south linkages but has effectively halted further development of east-west air travel in the region. The reasons are less economic than political. While Zagreb and Belgrade have increasingly improved bilateral relations and investment opportunities, direct linkage of the two capitals appears to be still politically too sensitive.
For example, Croatia Airlines has increased direct flights from Zagreb to Skopje, Sarajevo, Podgorica, and Pristina, but going from Zagreb to Belgrade or Sofia or Bucharest requires additional flights through Vienna or Budapest or Munich. Generally speaking, the shorter the flight is, the higher the price. Flying on the national Serbian carrier, JAT, will likely be cheaper, but not that much more straightforward. Needless to say, there are no direct Belgrade-Pristina flights.
Visas for travel among countries in the region are momentarily less problematic than in previous years. Regional agreements on visa-free regimes have meant that a Belgrade resident or a Macedonian resident can reasonably expect to cross the border to Croatia. But Kosovan passports and other documents still present some uncertainty (recently, border guards denied access to goods intended for Montenegro after not recognizing Kosovo customs stamps, even though the country recognized Kosovo last fall).
Travel is not just a luxury. The ability to travel at lower cost and less hassle can have a profound affect on the western Balkan region's ability to reconcile its past with its intended future. Leaders and common citizens alike speak the parlance of "European standards," yet if few actually manage to experience such standards, either by exploring other parts of the region or the "heart of Europe," it is difficult to imagine that governments will be able to develop the groundswell of support that they will need to enact difficult reforms. European integration of the western Balkans is both an EU and regional objective. How the region's governments manage to convince both Europe and themselves to facilitate travel to, from, and within the region will be a crucial test of these integration goals.
This is the sixth in a series of articles from the TOL Special Report: Transportation.