Entrepreneurship in a developing country – Interview with Ana Novakovic
What inspired you in the beginning to dedicate your career to sustainable tourism?
Ana Novakovic: When I finished my bachelor degree studies my title was environmental analyst. However, I wasn’t sure in which field exactly I would like to work. I wasn’t attracted to go only into recycling or some other aspect of it. During those years I worked as a bike tour guide so my time was divided between tourism and sustainable development. When I discovered concept of sustainable tourism, that there is a Master degree dedicated to it and it is in German which I already spoke, I realized it suits perfectly and combines all three segments I wanted.
I know that you participated in several projects in Guatemala and Ethiopia during those years. Tell us more those initiatives.
Ana: In Guatemala I was involved partially in that project as you need fluent Spanish for that. On the other hand, I was participating in several smaller local initiatives in the town I lived so I could learn sufficient Spanish to be able to participate in larger projects in the future.
In Ethiopia I was fully involved in one initiative. I was there through German environmental association NABU. It was cooperation with UNESCO to develop a biosphere reserve in the northern Ethiopia. The project lasted for three years and I participated in the last period which involved opening ceremony for the reserve, as well. Important tasks in which I took part were establishing tourism merchandise and connecting all stakeholders in tourism in the area. It is the region around lake Tana, Ethiopia’s biggest lake.
Did project in Ethopia involved NGO sector and local DMCs and who were the main local participants?
Ana: Local DMC was involved and this network of stakeholders included different producers from the area who wished to collaborate together and start one “umbrella” organization which would be a brand, too. At that point, if I remember correctly, there were no NGOs involved as the main idea was to involve local small businesses and manufacturers.
Connecting these local producers was really challenging task since that area is huge and trip across the lake takes two days and three if you go by car around it. Moreover, there were cultural differences which they needed to overcome. Significant number of those manufacturers arrived from Jamaica due to the connection between Ethiopia and Jamaica and their cultural background is quite different from the local one, nonetheless they consider Ethiopia as their spiritual land.
Public bodies were not involved in these tasks but they took part in the proclamation of the biosphere reserve.
Do you think that there should have been a closer connection with public bodies and do you think that public institutions in general should be present more in activities like this?
Ana: In this particular case it is really hard if you are foreigner since that when you come, more than a half of the documents you need you don’t even understand. You do have information about project in which you are directly involved but all things considering public business were done by Ethiopian colleagues.
Besides that, being a project lead by the European institution, it replicated the concepts and models used in Europe and then applied them in the Ethiopian environment. There were plans for the next two, three or four years in advance, but as project develops, you realize that it doesn’t function exactly like that. There are differences in business processes, there are cultural barriers or something unexpected happens. That is why I think that some initiatives need to come from local bodies and NGOs who could understand better local communities and environment.
On the other hand, I don’t think that I am competent enough to speak about more general or global perspective of this. I do look on things globally but I predominantly act locally.
Creativity is the biggest pillar of sustainability
After being active on a more global level you decided to completely commit to the local development and activism. What inspired that decision?
Ana: My initial idea was to work for UNESCO and when I went to Ethiopia I realized that things function differently. It is only funding that comes from an international organization while all the work onsite is done by local people. It made me realize that in Serbia there is no existing opportunity to be considered for UNESCO heritage and projects and I felt inspired to create in my own country. I wanted to combine experience and knowledge I gained abroad with knowledge of local practices and language so I could create as much benefits as possible. Through this I believe that I can make stronger impact.
Sometimes I think that my approach is regional, somewhere between global and local. I am committed to bike tourism and I believe that Balkan peninsula has strong prospective for this type of travelling. It asks for cooperation, understanding, consensus and respect of certain quality standards but overall I believe that nature tourism can be quite prosperous for the Balkans.
So, in this perspective, do you think that development of responsible or rural tourism could help in changing the brand and image of the Balkan countries in minds of western travelers? Do you see chances for creation of some joint product?
Ana: We are currently seeing great increase in cycling tourism in the region. There is already a brand of Danube cycling route which is now expanding. It starts from Germany, goes all the way to Budapest and now passes through Serbia and goes further. People who already did the first part of this route are now interested in the second one, so they are coming back to continue this tour from Serbia. Still, we are working on new routes and expansion of this tour. This is beneficial for rural regions as well since that the majority of funds in tourism goes to Belgrade (capital of Serbia). People participating in cycling or hiking tourism are interested to visit these less populated regions so they will spend their funds there, rather than in a big city.
About the brand you are absolutely right. It is really interesting to see how fast it is diminishing. People who come share their experience through social media and the image of Serbia as a dangerous country is fading. In previous years a synonym for Eastern Europe destination was Budapest and I think that it is changing slowly and that more and more people are coming to Belgrade and see it as a great place to experience Eastern Europe in an ex-communistic country. It is our “job” now to “drag” these people out of Belgrade and show them Serbia, nature and environment but in a sensible and sustainable way. The numbers are still manageable but I think that there will be increase in arrivals and we need to be aware of it and prepared when it happens.
Collaboration is crucial in this segment since that when people arrive to the Balkans they want to see all countries.
Do you think that adventure tourism has a bright future; that it can become one of the most popular types of travelling?
Ana: In our case, yes definitely. Serbia, and the whole Balkans region, has so much to offer, not only nature but free space and wilderness. I don’t think that this tourism will grow only because it can be sustainable or how well it is set and organized but as well because of the change of human needs. Instead of working manually and going on a vacation to actually have some rest from that, people nowadays travel with the opposite desire. In the most of cases people work in offices in front of the computers and because of that they are looking for journeys in which they can be active, where they feel adrenaline rush or a bit of danger, to be involved in some action. I am confident that Serbia has its place in this area and that can position well on the European markets.
What are the initiatives where you are involved now?
Ana: For eight years I was involved in cycling tourism and now I am dealing more with the research part of it, being involved in further development of Danube route. Besides this one, several other are being developed – Sava route around river Sava and one circular route going from Belgrade to Sarajevo, Mostar, Dubrovnik and then back to Belgrade. Finally, soon will be established Iron Curtain route which will pass through East Serbia and I hope to get involved in some of these.
On the other hand, in Belgrade I am working in gastronomy and photography tourism by offering different types of tours. Currently we offer tours around Belgrade and after we finish some administrative tasks we want to start with one day tours outside the city.
Another interesting project where I am collaborating is cultural sensitivity of foreigners coming to live to Serbia. It is not connected with sustainable tourism per se, but it has a lot of with tourism and cultural differences between people.
After these experiences in three countries, how difficult is it to develop sustainable tourism in a developing countries?
Ana: It is really hard. You need to explain to people who can barely cover their basic needs that they should put nature in a first place and their children or families in the second. It is quite difficult to do, especially if it comes from someone coming from a developed country having all needs satisfied and who does not need to worry about the money.
Probably the best way is to explain to them that they won’t have a source for their income in the future if they continue to do the things in the way they are doing now.
Therefore, I think that the first step always needs to be education. It lasts for years, but only through that people can understand how it can benefit them in the long term. Of course, you cannot think about long term if you don’t have anything to eat so it is big dilemma. However, I do believe that there are many different small things that we can do and change people mind.
In Serbia, for example, I hope that through development of cycling and trekking tourism around Danube route less people would choose river cruises to visit the Balkans. It is not enough only to communicate that some hotel is sustainable or responsible, it doesn’t function like that. People actually need to see that it is a better solution since it is not common to see that someone books a hotel or tour because they heard it is the most sustainable one. Content should make the difference and I think that creativity is the biggest pillar of sustainability.
You have been working with travelers from different countries. According to you, are tourists well informed about sustainable tourism concepts or there is still a lot misunderstanding?
Ana: Travelling responsibly is different for every country. It is very unique. The best practice would be that every country implements education about sustainable travelling for all people involved in tourism so they could pass it then to the visitors and guests. Other solution could be to give information about important subjects to tourists when they enter the country and to try to educate them through that. It can be the fastest solution to let tourist know what would be unethical or non-sustainable in certain areas.
Of course, there are some general topics which refer to a much broader public but there is a question how to pass it to tourists. That is why I think that stronger impact can be made with “on spot education”.
What would be the biggest challenges in the future, both in Serbia and globally?
Ana: For Serbia the biggest challenge is to interconnect with all countries surrounding it. At the same time it can bring much prosperity. Collaborating on joint products rather than competing with each other. If we manage to do it, there will be bright future for tourism.
Globally, I believe that it is communication between people and differences which exist. We need to understand that people see things differently, that people do not function in the same way and that everyone does not have the same view on the world. Empathy is something on which we need to work on.