Foreign-born, Belgrade-based tour operators, Ralph van der Zijden, from the Netherlands (iBike Belgrade & Yugotour), and Tiago Carruco, from Portugal (Into the Balkans), share the stories of their respective businesses and how the covid pandemic has affected them.
The Mayor of the Hague, a Belgrade taxi driver, and a giraffe also make an appearance.
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Episode Transcript (and More)
PETER KORCHNAK: This is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show taking a journey through the memory of a country that no longer exists. I’m your guide Peter Korchnak.
In the inaugural episode of Remembering Yugoslavia I spoke with a Croatian business woman renting and giving tours in Yugo cars in Zagreb. You’d expect something like that from a local. But the tourism business in the countries of former Yugoslavia isn’t an exclusive realm of home-grown individuals and companies. And I don’t mean foreign tour operators; I mean people from outside these countries with no prior connection to the place who live there and make a living showing tourists around and who, nowadays, are navigating the reality of the pandemic.
Today we’ll meet two of them in Belgrade.
Ralph van der Zijden is from the Netherlands and has lived in Belgrade for nearly a decade. With iBike Belgrade, he offers bike tours around the city, and with Yugotour he offers tours in Zastava cars.
RALPH VAN DER ZIJDEN: But in my heart, I felt like oh, I, you know, I just need to be there.
PETER KORCHNAK: Tiago Carruco is from Portugal and has lived in Belgrade since 2016. With Into the Balkans, he offers tours around the countries of former Yugoslavia to Portuguese-speaking tourists.
TIAGO CARRUCO: Belgrade was calling and in the end, I decided to come to Belgrade.
PETER KORCHNAK: I spoke with Ralph and Tiago online about the sources of their passion for the place, inspirations and process of starting their businesses, reactions from customers and locals, and how the covid pandemic has impacted their business.
The Mayor of the Hague, a Belgrade taxi driver, and a giraffe also make an appearance.
Balkan Tour Operators and Their Inspirations
PETER KORCHNAK: Let’s start with Ralph, he’s been in Belgrade longer. The way he tells it, his interest in the region is a classic example of the contact hypothesis. As a child, born in 1977, he believed that life behind the Wall was all black and white and uniform, and it intrigued him very much. But once he traveled there, in the 1990s, he realized everything was in color. Then—
RALPH VAN DER ZIJDEN: After my studies, I started working for a small NGO in Holland that was active in Kosovo. And they were organizing summer universities. Later, we started focusing on helping young people starting their own company, through business, idea contests, and everything. So I spent about three or four years with this NGO, and mainly in Kosovo, but also Macedonia.
PETER KORCHNAK: In 2007, Ralph got a job with the City of The Hague, at the International Department.
RALPH VAN DER ZIJDEN: The then Mayor he felt like we should not only host international organizations and benefit from hosting that, and but also do something back. For instance, that you have the international court for Yugoslavia former Yugoslavia, the city made money out of that, because we [are] hosting or hosting that, and there’s jobs and employment coming from that. So a fund was created to, yeah, to do something in the former Yugoslav countries. And I was lucky enough to be able to write a project or a policy actually, and use that fund to go here, to the Balkans and do several projects. One reason was to help people here but also to improve the image of The Hague, because especially in Serbia, there’s a strong feeling that the court is a political institution and it’s anti-Serb and everything. Yeah, we also tried to change the image of The Hague a bit, do projects, cultural projects, we exchanged music, bands, musicians, with people from The Hague, and from Zagreb, from Sarajevo, from Belgrade…
PETER KORCHNAK: The Great Recession put a damper on these activities.
RALPH VAN DER ZIJDEN: But in my heart, I felt like oh, I, you know, I just need to be there. Because since I started working, actually, for six years, I, every two months, I would be in the region. Yeah, I just got, I would almost say, addicted to it. I started after two months in Holland, every time I got, you know, my hand starts shaking a bit. And I had the urge to go there again, see my friends and also see the region. And at one moment, I thought maybe, maybe I should just try and live there. And that’s what I did.
Now it’s almost 10 years later, and I’m still here and still having fun.
PETER KORCHNAK: Tiago first came to former Yugoslavia, to Slovenia, in 2005, as a 21-year old participant in Erasmus, European Union’s student exchange program. Whereas Portugal is a centuries-old country at the edge of the continent which borders only one other country, Slovenia appealed to him with its central location, borders with four countries, and sheer unfamiliarity.
TIAGO CARRUCO: So it was fun to see snowing for the first time in my life.
And apart from that Slovenia is unbelievably beautiful. It was really a life changing event. It was a start of a big passion which is the former Yugoslavia.
So I really like history. And I started to investigate why Slovenia as a country was younger than me.
PETER KORCHNAK: The seed of Slovenia germinated and grew.
TIAGO CARRUCO: I had to see more for myself. And I always wanted to get to know more. Why does a country collapse? So that all started there from the historical point of view, it didn’t make sense in my head. So I started actually learning Slovenian in Lisbon, so it kept me even closer to this country.
So I started to travel a lot. I went several times to Croatia, then to Bosnia, Serbia, to Macedonia and so on. I always have the feeling like, there was something else to see, there was something else. Maybe not in that country, maybe in the other one. So I visited Croatia, let’s say, and, I got the feeling like, I really have to go to Montenegro now, because I already saw this part of the coast, but there is more to see. Or I visited Bosnia and I thought, like, I have to see Serbia, I have to hear the other side. So if the Bosnians say this about the war and the Croatians say that, what is the point of view of a Serb because it must be different probably.
All of this made me travel a lot throughout the region. And I always felt good here.
I came to Belgrade three times before I decided to move. I found myself eating in a kafana in Skadarlija Street, that popular street with typical restaurants and typical Serbian music, and I felt so good in this mixture of food, drinks, friends, music, and good vibe, that I said, I would like to live here one day.
And at some point, in 2016, I thought my life was kind of stuck in my hometown. And I thought this is the moment to go back to former Yugoslavia. Belgrade was calling and in the end, I decided to come to Belgrade. So this was four years ago.
PETER KORCHNAK: After you moved to Belgrade, how did you then start the business?
RALPH VAN DER ZIJDEN: I wanted to start something simple, and also something positive that would contribute positively to people here in the region and the region. And as a Dutch guy, I thought maybe I should take a bike and show people Belgrade on a bicycle. That didn’t exist yet. And in other cities in Europe, almost each city, bigger city in Europe, you can do a bike tour. So I thought, hey, this is maybe you know, something I can offer. And also my background, family background is in bikes. My father had a bike rental company in The Hague, and my mother started the first bike tours in The Hague. So that makes sense. But actually, I thought I didn’t think about it. It was only later that I realized like, oh, maybe I’m doing something that’s, you know, is it my family blood, and…
Then I bought a secondhand bike. That’s what I did when I arrived here in March 2011. And I just started to bike to the city and get lost, actually, that was a great time just to, you know, follow routes and discover everything, all places in Belgrade and then develop, a yeah, a route that I could offer to, to foreigners, to visitors here.
And, and that just happened yeah, I just would stand on the street every day at two o’clock in the center. And I made some flyers and small small website, I think total investments including the bike were like [a] thousand euros. The first day that I started working was 1st of May 2011. And it was raining like crazy. It doesn’t rain in May so that’s one thing I my business plan I didn’t include the rain. So yeah, that was not a successful very successful start.
But soon enough, yeah, people came on the tours, and I would rent out, I would rent bikes from a bicycle rental place here at the river side whenever I had guests, so my, my costs were not very high. If a guest would come, they would walk to the bike rent[al], I would rent the bike for that person. And we would go on a tour.
The goals of the company are actually to provide to a better environment here, to provide some green tourism so to say, and also to promote cycling in general in the city. It’s a car-dominated city, less than 1% of traffic is bikers. And I had this idea, if I go do this bike tours and also organize other bike events I can make the city a bit nicer for everybody.
We also— I also want to create employment by hiring guides. And also to inspire people to start something because you see a lot of young people, especially then but still moving away from the Balkan countries and finding their luck in life in Western Europe or the U.S. And I see so much opportunities here. And I wanted to, you know, inspire people here as well to show like, hey, if I can do it, then you can do it, too.
PETER KORCHNAK: The question that immediately comes to my mind is, how many people in Serbia have a thousand euros on hand to start a business? That said, I’m curious how the mission to support a startup culture is going.
RALPH VAN DER ZIJDEN: You don’t really need a thousand euros, if you have a good idea. And you you know, you can start even smaller, and with less. That was my story, actually. I mean, I had maybe the benefit of having a thousand euros. But I didn’t have the benefit of, you know, speaking the language, knowing the rules. So there’s other benefits that that local people might have, you know, that they can use it I didn’t have.
Yeah, it’s hard to measure how successful that was, but, or is, but what I can tell is that a lot of people who worked for me as a guide—I think we had over 100 guides over the last 10 years, coming and going, they’re mostly students—and they might find another job, or they might go abroad, but some of them they started their own business in tourism, so and I would help them with them or send them guests or help them with you know, questions they have. So and especially when AirBnB started to offer these experiences a few years ago, it became easier to offer your tours. So we have a lot of guides [who] now also offer their own tours, we have a guide that became a manager in my company and now started a food tour here, food tour company, which is very successful. And then you have, you yeah, the copycats as well. But yeah, it’s kind of a flattering thing. And I really don’t mind it. It’s great to see that.
So I guess yeah, I hope I inspired some people. Although at the beginning and still probably people are saying I’m crazy. And it’s— And I remember one of the first days I was working, I was standing on the street and a Serbian man came to me and he just told me in my face, it was not possible what I was doing while he was seeing what I was doing, you know, I was waiting there for guests and guest came. He was just— explained to me that it’s not possible, you know, just impossible that I could give bike tours in Belgrade. while he saw I was doing it. So yeah, some people are not convinced.
PETER KORCHNAK: The story reminds me of an old joke about a Slovak man who goes to the newly opened ZOO in Bratislava, and when he gets to the giraffe pavilion, he stares at the animal, shakes his head, and leaves. Next day, he’s there again, looking at the giraffe, shakes his head, and leaves. He does that for a few more days until one day he finally loses it, and says, “This animal doesn’t exist!”
RALPH VAN DER ZIJDEN: Yeah, I am the animal that doesn’t exist here, yeah.
You know, I am married, married by now to a Serbian girl, Jelena, and I think her mother still doesn’t believe that I make money with what I do. So even after years she still doesn’t get it, how it works, but yeah.
PETER KORCHNAK: And how did you go from bikes to vintage cars?
RALPH VAN DER ZIJDEN: I always had this idea to start this, Yugotour, this name— I checked, and even before I moved here, I already claimed the domain name Yugotour.com. without really knowing why, but Yugotours was the biggest, or the only actually, the state travel agency of Yugoslavia. I had this idea to, you know, do something with it. And then, yeah, I don’t know so much about cars. And I was playing with the idea and I told to a local friend once. And he got back to me, like, after a few years living here said, Hey, how’s that idea of Yugotour going? I said, ‘Well, I still want to do it.’ But you know, the idea was to take old cars made in Yugoslavia, the Zastava car, and show people really only history about Yugoslavia. And also show place, I couldn’t sit show on the bike tour, because, you know, they were not possible to bike there, that’s the main reason. I had this idea to do this with old cars from Yugoslav times, to show the history and the story of Yugoslavia in Belgrade. And, and he said, ‘Well, you know, maybe I can join them, and we can buy our first Zastava car together.’ And so it happened. So he you know, he know how to register cars, and, you know, how to find a majstor, as they call it, a repair guy who could fix it. So with his local help, yeah, then I got, you know, started that adventure. And yeah that did grew. And it was very popular, actually. And, actually is now in some ways bigger than the bike tours.
So, yeah, so I started it because I really wanted to go more in depth about the history of Yugoslavia and show that in, yeah, in the best way possible, as I see it, in a piece of Yugoslav history. And so that’s how that started, I think in 2013 or ‘14, we bought our first car.
PETER KORCHNAK: Tiago, you went from not knowing where Slovenia was on the map to guiding Portuguese-speaking tourists through the region. What inspired you to start a travel business?
TIAGO CARRUCO: I saw clearly that this region had a lot to offer, has a lot to offer, while only Croatia is famous. But there’s much more apart from Croatia. There are at least three religions in this region. There are a number of peoples, of minorities, of languages, even alphabets. So all these mixtures seemed very interesting for me. And while I travel these less known countries, like for example, Bosnia, Serbia, or Macedonia. I saw always such amount of beauty and of interesting places that I thought, how is it possible that people don’t know about this? People don’t have a clue in Western Europe and probably all of Europe or probably the entire world. How is it possible that people never went to— never heard about Ohrid Lake in Macedonia, for example? It’s unbelievable, it’s extremely beautiful. How is it possible that people never tasted this local cuisines which are also amazing? How is it possible that people hear about Bosnia and they think about war while I think about UNESCO heritage sites?
These were things that I started to feel like, there’s so much material here, let’s call it like that, and people don’t know about it and I do. So I want to, I want to tell them that it exists. I want them to come here. Guys, you must see this, because this is just around the corner. And this is amazing.
PETER KORCHNAK: Before he moved to Belgrade friends would ask Tiago for advice on what to see and do in the region. Once he arrived, he began developing the business.
TIAGO CARRUCO: So I had a bunch of friends who told me, “Yeah, we would like to visit you and so on,” different friends, they didn’t know each other. And I said, Guys, I cannot travel with every one of you so let’s try to put everyone together so they got to meet each other and seven of them came and I organized a tour from Belgrade to Dubrovnik. So I like to call it like the best of the former Yugoslavia. So for me, this was kind of a test. And it went really well. They all liked, we had a bunch of adventures, typical Balkan stuff. Yeah, the car broke down several times. It was, it was a nightmare. But it was really cool, to be honest. And now when we meet and we speak about that, of course, now, it’s like a joke, I usually say, it was kind of a Kusturica movie, you know, everything can happen.
And it was successful. And I decided that that was the moment to create Into the Balkans. So this brand Into the Balkans has the objective of bringing Portuguese-speaking people to to the region, obviously. So not only Portuguese nationals, but also Brazilians.
And it started through a cooperation with a local company. So I was creating the tours and contacting the potential clients. And then the logistics were done via a local operator. And recently, I decided to create my own company, I would say, to assume, hundred percent control of this.
How the Market Responds to Foreign Balkan Tour Operators
PETER KORCHNAK: Ralph estimates that sixty percent of his customers are from northwest Europe and Scandinavia, twenty-five percent from the rest of Europe, and fifteen percent from outside Europe, with occasional Chinese and American guests. Eighty-eight percent of Tiago’s customers are from Portugal, the rest from Brazil.
What has been the response from your target audiences, from your customers? Have you encountered any challenges of running a tour business in this region?
RALPH VAN DER ZIJDEN: Yeah, well, in general, very positive. You of course, have guests that, that really come specifically to the tour and really want to, to learn they have a background already sometimes in in history, or they they know about it and but still, even for those people, we can tell stories that they wouldn’t find in in books or things that are new to them. And we work a lot with local guides. I do some tours, but I prefer actually, to have, you know, local people doing the tour and also to share their personal stories about Yugoslavia. Some people are almost too young to remember, but still, then they have their parents or grandparents and, you know, it’s great for people who are interested in history to to have a personal conversation with somebody who you know, who lived in Yugoslavia or has a personal memory for it, about it. And so these, that’s one group of people.
And then what we notice is that as a touristic thing to do as a tour, it’s also very interesting for companies actually and for bigger groups. So sometimes we have bookings for a group, maybe a company comes here for a weekend from Holland, and they want to brainstorm or have some fun, you know, they go on a company trip. So that’s a totally different group of— the other extreme, so to say, of guests, they know nothing about Belgrade or Yugoslavia. And yeah, even even those people we yeah, we get interested very quickly, you see that. You go to a place and you start the story, and they just, you know, maybe they are there for a really fun experience in Belgrade for the nightlife and everything of Belgrade is famous for, you know, without making them too serious, they really are interested. And then you notice from the questions that they hear a lot of things they never expected, or, you know, heard about before they have some, you know, some ideas about Serbia, Belgrade, but you know, they never heard about the story of Yugoslavia.
So we have all kinds of people actually. And the fun thing is with these big groups, I mean, I own about six cars, if they’re all driving, and mostly there’s one or two out of order, that’s what happens with Zastavas. But yeah, so we had tours with I think 30-35 cars were the biggest tours. We only fit three guests, and then I have to find like people with you know, Zastava owners, and yeah, get them all to line up, yeah, lease them. And these are the drivers as well then. And, yeah, it’s a great event. I mean, these cars, you don’t see them so much anymore, at least not in Belgrade. And then we drive 35 cars through the city, which is a real sight to behold, you know.
TIAGO CARRUCO: It’s tough to speak about this region because people are not familiar with it. The basic knowledge that most of them have is regarding the 90s. So it still in the back of their heads that there was a problem, there was a conflict. And people still often ask if it’s safe, for example. That is a common question. “Is the region safe?” So although these problems are solved for 20-25 years, there’s still very bad, very bad reputation from some countries, especially Bosnia, for example, also Serbia, the region of Kosovo.
When we overcome this doubt about this region and people do give it an opportunity, the response is very good. So there’s a lot of resistance until they come or until they say, Yeah, why not? But the ones who come, they are always marveled with the region, because they didn’t expect— maybe Croatia doesn’t have that potential for surprising that much. People already have an expectation, a high expectation when they go to Croatia. And in the end, they say, yes, it was amazing, as we expected. So it’s positive. But when tourists come to Macedonia, to Serbia, to Bosnia, to Slovenia, they are amazed. They are really amazed. I had a few complaints, yes, that we didn’t like the restaurant or, or I don’t know, we didn’t like the bus, this kind of things can happen when you work in this industry. But the core is very positive, very positive. People are very surprised with the food, with the views, with the historical and cultural heritage of this region because they didn’t expect anything. Or they had a bad expectation actually. It’s easy to make them love this region also.
And then there’s there’s something else: it’s still relatively cheap, which is also an added value. There’s many countries and small countries. So it’s always easy to combine two or three countries in a seven-day or ten-day trip, which people also like, because, you know, they can say that they visited more than just, I went to Yugoslavia, okay, you went to a country. And nowadays they go to Serbia, Slovenia, and Croatia, and they went to three countries. So it’s like a psychological effect. But it exists.
PETER KORCHNAK: You give various kinds of tours to various kinds of customers. What role does former Yugoslavia play in your marketing? Do you have any products that are specific to socialist Yugoslavia?
RALPH VAN DER ZIJDEN: Yeah, the Rise and Fall of a Nation tour was the first tour we made and, you know, I have this very well, romantic image or I mean, it’s so exciting to be, you know, in the capital of a country that doesn’t exist anymore. I think that is one of the unique selling points of Belgrade. You know, that’s where Yugoslavia kind of started, you know, was the political center of Yugoslavia, and also where it ended. But, you know, you can tell the whole story from the rise to the fall of Yugoslavia here.
And we start here in a small concentration camp, actually, it’s here in the middle of the center. It’s called Staro Sajmište. Yeah, that is a place that was built in the 1930s as a trade center, so to say, like, there were different buildings, different pavilions, and they were people were offering, countries were actually offering their products they are so you had the Italian pavilion, and you had the Hungarian pavilion, and trade was being done there. It’s a nice little area, modernist design of the buildings. And when the Germans, when the Nazis occupied Belgrade, they turned it into a concentration camp, they actually rounded up all the Jews in the city and brought them there. Yeah, it’s very sad. This is a bit of a dark story. It’s also very dark to start always to tour there. But yeah, the people were killed actually there and are from there. And it’s a really dark place, like any concentration camp, of course. But now, yeah, people live there. And it’s strange, some— there’s even a restaurant and there’s shops, and it’s still the same buildings used in, you know, in the 40s.
And that’s, for me a very good point to start because it was, you know, Yugoslavia started before the Second World War, but socialist Yugoslavia started in 1945, by the end of the war, so it’s good to, to start at that place.
And then we go on the route, and which at each stop, we highlight another aspect of, of Yugoslavia. So we stop at the former government building of Yugoslavia and we talk about the politics of Yugoslavia. We go to a big building called the residential building the Genex Tower, the gate to Belgrade, if you enter from the from the highway from the airport on the highway, the highway of Brotherhood and Unity, you will see this big Genex Tower, and we talk about daily life or politics also of, sorry, economics in Yugoslavia.
So we go to different places. Hotel Yugoslavia, we go to and we tell about Tito and you know, how, how famous he was in the world actually, about his diplomacy, and also about his, his hobbies, and you know, his quirks actually. Yeah, we take different places, and each place, its location, its building, we use to tell different aspects of Yugoslavia.
And this tour ends at the Museum of Yugoslavia, where is also a mausoleum of Tito, the former leader of Yugoslavia was buried there. And yeah, that’s that’s the end of Yugoslavia. Maybe in some way, you know, that maybe the death of Tito is also the death of Yugoslavia, I think, some in some way, you could say that.
Belgrade really allows us to tell the whole story from the start to the finish.
TIAGO CARRUCO: It depends on the tour. For example, if it’s Slovenia and Croatia, it’s more difficult to, to tell that part of history or even have of the story of, you know, the 90s on because those countries have moved on, I would say. It’s not a coincidence, they were the first ones to break away. And obviously, most of the people on [sic] those countries want to move forward, you know, and they have focused more on the European Union, for example. They still try to put the past behind their backs, I would say, and they are doing better also economically. So they focus on the future.
The other countries, people always, I mean, the locals, still long for Yugoslavia, still have mixed feelings about Yugoslavia, most of them positive feelings, especially compared to the current situation economically. So when we visit other countries, I do try to tell a lot about Yugoslavia and, I mean, you can come and just check countries in your list, like I went to North Macedonia, went to Serbia, and to Montenegro, and so on.
But I think it’s more interesting if, apart from that, so apart from just visiting, what is today, if you can make this jump into the past, this trip into the past, into 30-40 years ago, because I think it’s just more interesting, you know, to understand the culture of the country, you have to know what happened in the past. If you start going backwards, there’s a lot to tell. And I think, in the end of, of each tour, when we do this historical point of view, I think it’s culturally much more interesting, and much more enriching for the tourists.
And most of our tourists are seniors, so they do remember all of these names. They remember very well the conflicts in the 90s, although they don’t know very well what happened. I mean, 20-30 years have passed, but they surely know that something happened. And as I said, they remember Tito, they remember Yugoslavia as a powerful country. When we get on that spot, I mean, sometimes it’s difficult to lead people into that interesting spot. You know, like, if you just start saying a bunch of historical facts, it’s not interesting. But if you succeed in making this storytelling, then it’s very interesting, you know.
And for example, when we are in Belgrade, and, you know, we visit the Novi [New] Belgrade, the new Belgrade neighborhood where a lot of buildings were built at that time for the local government, and then we visit the mausoleum where Tito was buried, that is really telling a story. And that is much more interesting than coming to Belgrade and just looking at facades. The tourist who comes to see facades, expecting to see monuments in Belgrade will be probably disappointed. Once you see across those facades and you realize what’s inside and you see the soul of the city, then it’s fascinating. And that happens a little bit with Tito, the mausoleum, and all the story around him, and all the social construction, the socialist views from that time. Even building the neighborhood of New Belgrade with those socialist ideas, the blocks of buildings are not that pretty, but [the] idea that is behind is. So when we manage to tell this side of the story, people immediately stop seeing, stop looking at ugly buildings to seeing something humanistic, you know, ideals of that time, which is interesting, especially for the senior tourists no doubt.
PETER KORCHNAK: You’re both foreigners, from Western Europe at that. What has been the response from the locals to this fact? What do people say about foreigners taking people around their cities, their countries, telling their story for them?
RALPH VAN DER ZIJDEN: Actually, the first response was extremely positive, from from people from the media, but also really people on the street.
I didn’t expect this response that I got with Yugotour. It was very emotional, actually, in a very positive sense. Older people would stop me and they would see me with my car or you know driving a Zastava. And I remember one cab driver was just— He pulled up next to the traffic lights, and he will roll down his window and he started to, you know, when it turned green, we both started to drive and he just kept on talking about Yugoslavia and about his children, I don’t know, he just had so much memories of Yugoslavia when we were driving and he was just shouting through the window, all the great things. And these cars of course, everybody here, you know of thirty years and older at least have a memory of Zastava or Yugo car (Yugo is a model of Zastava).
At gas stations or anywhere people will, you know, come to ask about the car and then, you know, tell their own story about the Yugo or the Zastava, they went to the coast with with the whole family or how they crashed one or how they, you know, made love for the first time in a Yugo, you know. There’s just so many stories and so many memories. Everybody has a memory of this car. And yeah, as I said, you don’t see them so often anymore.
So this was all very positive, a lot of positive reactions, and a lot of emotional reactions, not just like, oh, great that you’re doing this. And but emotionally, yeah, people, you know, it’s a trip down memory lane for a lot of local people.
I don’t remember any negative reactions, actually also not online. At the beginning, when I started bike tours, there was, you know, sometimes a bit of negative reactions, what is this Dutch guy coming to do here, and you must be a spy. This is this center thing. If you come as a foreigner, you know, to Serbia, and you can’t be here because you like it, you must be a spy. The mentality [has] changed here in general a little a bit over the past ten years.
Being a foreigner and telling the story of Yugoslavia, I mean, I didn’t really get the negative reactions from it. But I don’t know, I mean, nobody was doing that before I did it here. There were no tours. You know, as I told you there was only the Museum of Yugoslavia, which was also in a pretty bad state, and it became better now under better young management and they tell the story better. And yeah, nobody was doing it, and I was just surprised by it. I was interested in it and I wanted to offer, you know, to open it up the story to other interested people.
And I think the benefit of being a foreigner is that I don’t really have that emotional connection with Yugoslavia, and especially not the end of Yugoslavia, of course. I mean, if you talk to a lot of especially older people, they they view Yugoslavia as a success story, economically, and it was a world power, and, you know, you always get the story about the Yugoslav passport that could bring you everywhere, you know, you could go to each country without needing a visa. So there’s these positive memories for a lot of people. There’s also negative memories, of course, but in general, there’s this romantic idea about how great it was, Yugoslavia.
TIAGO CARRUCO: It’s a very good question, actually, because I’m not the only foreigner working on tourism here, but there are not that many. I think people are interested, like, a bit shocked even. And the question is usually, but why? But why?
But it’s interesting because I think they feel proud actually of their country or their former country, of all the region. In most of these countries, people still have that feeling for the former Yugoslavia. I think they are proud, like, here’s a foreigner who comes and who sees our beauties, our you know, our, the beautiness of our land, whether it is Serbia, Bosnia, whatever, as a as a whole. And they are surprised but they feel happy that actually someone kind of fell in love with their land so much that this guy from Portugal wants to learn the language and and show it show the country to foreigners.
Usually, there is also this, this feeling like people tell me, you know it better than us. But this happens frequently, I think, when you’re a foreigner who lives yeah, in another country, you often know that country better than than [the] locals, because you just are more interested in finding every detail, in visiting every city or town, yeah, not missing the details to get the big picture. So for them, it’s usually interesting, yeah, that I’m doing this.
The Pandemic vs. Balkan Tour Operators’ Business
PETER KORCHNAK: How has the pandemic impacted your business?
RALPH VAN DER ZIJDEN: Basically everything is on zero, you could say, as of March 13th, when you know the lockdown started in, in this part of Europe. Yeah had been down very quick. And we’re open still in Belgrade for renting out bikes and also for doing Yugo tours. And we have an incidental booking, you know, we have kind of new group of tourists. We have, for instance, Americans coming because they can’t travel to the EU, they travel to Serbia where they can go, and you know, they’re still in Europe. We had people, I had a couple who wanted to go to Amsterdam, but then they changed to Belgrade, because, you know, they could still travel to Europe, but also an American guy who has a Romanian girlfriend he couldn’t visit in Romania, because he was not allowed so they would both come to Serbia. So you have this new kind of visitors somehow.
But business wise, it’s, it’s just surviving, actually. I was planning some big investments this year and buying a lot of new bikes and ebikes and hopefully, also, maybe some Zastavas. But yeah, I could stop that investment luckily, just on time, also, I would be sitting here with no money and a lot of new bikes. But yeah, now we’re spending that money to pay the rent. And, yeah, we’re just hoping– We do see when there’s when borders open, which happened for a very short period of time, I think, yeah, suddenly, we saw tourists coming quite quickly again. Not the numbers we’re used to, but yeah, then that shut down again. So it’s really 100 percent, 99.9 percent less, and I just hope that this will pass and that we are we’re there for next year again.
TIAGO CARRUCO: The drop is around 100% to be honest. Flights were canceled, and there’ s no way people will come. So all the tours that were planned for 2020, because until February, we had already scheduled some tours, and we were in the process for some more. So everything was frozen, and postponed for next year.
But now, I mean, since June, maybe I would say there’s– interest is growing again, after that crazy, initial pandemic. So some people now realize that they can be safe if they follow the rules. But the problem is still that some borders are not opened. And since there are not that many direct flights, either from Portugal or from Brazil, they need to make a connection flight somewhere but that’s an additional problem because you know, “Will that country allow me to go in? Will that country close the borders?” Usually you have, you must have two flights. So if only one of them is canceled or postponed or something, the other one will be jeopardized, also. So there are many challenges that are now preventing people from traveling. I think it’s not the fear of the pandemic anymore, of getting infected. Now are more of these technical issues.
Apart from that, if you think that this region is probably the last one or one of the few last ones to be undiscovered, I mean, in Europe, and to be cheaper than the rest. It’s not only Western Europe, I mean, Central Europe, let’s say, Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland, maybe Bratislava, even and other, let’s say Baltic countries, they are getting more and more expensive, because the tourism has grown a lot in the past few years, so this is that last frontier, I would say.
I’m not speaking about Croatia actually, because it is already very famous but everything that is around. And there’s this growing feeling of wanting something special. They want something new, they want something authentic, I would say. So this region will play an important role in the coming years. Let’s forget about the pandemic, once the pandemic is over and we go back to normal. This region has has to catch up with the rest of Europe.
PETER KORCHNAK: Ralph’s and Tiago’s stories remind me of the time, a few years ago in Portland, Oregon, I went to a traditional dance event organized by the Bulgarian-Macedonian community. As I watched Americans with no formal connections to the culture don traditional garments and circle-dance the night away, I asked one of the organizers, a towering Bulgarian named Vesko, how he feels about all these quote unquote foreigners being here. “I love it,” he said. “They’re doing more for Bulgarian culture here than most Bulgarians I know.”
Sometimes it’s outsiders who tell our story best, or at least from a different angle, precisely because they’re on the outside, free from the baggage of history, of group identity. Sometimes it takes outsiders who, with their different vantage point, different way of seeing, see beauty in what we consider normal because it’s always there. Or maybe it’s just about turning your passion into opportunity, you tell me.
As someone who prefers to travel independently, I’d take Ralph’s or Tiago’s tour only out of curiosity, to observe and report what the customers say. That said, I’ll definitely take Ralph up on his offer to take one of his Zastavas for a spin when I’m next in Belgrade, after the pandemic, next year or the year after next or whenever. Maybe we’ll meet there.
Until then, I’ll wistfully recall my travels through former Yugoslavia over the years. And, hands shaking, heart aching, I’ll imagine all the future trips I’ll take, the people I’ll meet, the stories I’ll hear…
Sretan put! Bon voyage!
PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for motoring along. Find the resources for this episode as well as subscription links in the show notes at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast. And if you would like to continue touring Yugoslavia’s memory, support the podcast on Patreon or tell your friends, I truly appreciate it.
I am Peter Korchňak.