Why you should care
In the country with the world’s highest youth unemployment, the number of registered tour guides in the capital city of Sarajevo has nearly doubled in three years.
Maintain eye contact while talking to tourist groups. Read a few books. And sound confident. At the age of 24, Emina Torić knows the basic tricks of the trade for tour guides in Sarajevo. “From the 10th century to 1463, we were known as the Bosnian kingdom” — that’s her standard opening sentence. But it helps that she learned the capital of every country while in high school. Her industry is getting crowded, and she wants to stand out. It will help her migrate.
Bosnia and Herzegovina has the world’s highest youth unemployment, at 55.5 percent, according to the World Bank. But the small nation of 3.8 million people in southeast Europe is also witnessing a tourism boom. Foreign tourism has increased by more than 20 percent in just the past three years, among the highest rates of growth in the world, according to the U.N.’s World Tourism Organization. That’s a fact Prime Minister Denis Zvizdić proudly iterated to a group of journalists including this writer in September.
This explosion is increasingly making tourism a key driver of the economy, its contribution to the national GDP rising from 7 percent in 2016 to 9.6 percent in 2017. That’s expected to go up to 12.5 percent of the GDP by 2028. The sector directly or indirectly supported 81,500 jobs or 11.2 percent of total employment in 2017, and that’s expected to rise to 103,000 jobs or 15.2 percent of total employment by 2028. But within the industry, there’s one particular job that’s attracting the country’s youth, who often don’t have houses they can rent out to tourists for money. It’s the job of a tour guide.
The government doesn’t maintain any public data with a breakdown of jobs within the tourism industry. But the number of licensed tourist guides in the state — known as a canton here -– of Sarajevo listed by the country’s ministry of economy nearly doubled between 2014 and 2017, from 22 to 40, according to government documents.
My friends saw that getting a tourist guide license is the easiest way to earn money.
Emina Torić, 24-year-old tour guide
And if those absolute numbers look small, that’s because only a small fraction of tour guides in Bosnia and Herzegovina have licenses. Researcher Elma Drinjaković in 2017 found that, of the Sarajevo tour guides she interviewed, only 17 percent had licenses. An extrapolation would suggest that the total number of tour guides in Sarajevo alone might today be more than 230.
But what’s good for the country’s youth isn’t necessarily good for Bosnia and Herzegovina. The country is witnessing a wave of economic migration — its working-age population has declined by 4 percent in just the past two years, according to the country’s 2018 labor force statistics, even as its birth rate remains positive and the elderly population is growing. According to the nonprofit Union for Sustainable Return and Integration (UZOPI), 5,620 families left the country in just the first six months of 2018. And many youths taking up jobs as tour guides see the profession not as a reason to stay in the country but as a path to better migration opportunities given their language skills, contacts with foreigners and understanding of the travel industry.
“I would definitely [migrate] if a good opportunity comes my way,” says Torić. “I won’t hesitate to accept. This job is definitely a stepping stone, giving us tour guides opportunities to migrate and work in tourism in other countries.”
At one level, the country’s government appears to recognize the potential for tourism to help it address high joblessness. China is a major sender of tourists, so the two countries have mutually agreed on visa-free travel. That’s why several of Torić’s friends are among those who have taken on jobs as tour guides. “My friends saw that getting a tourist guide license is the easiest way to earn money,” she says. Yet at the same time, ironically, the process to become a legally licensed tour guide remains cumbersome, with convoluted and high taxes on top of that.
In 2016, Torić wanted to apply for a job at a tour company. By then, she had quit college midway, worked odd jobs and then interned at Philip Morris International. But for the job at the tour company, she first needed to take a test conducted by the federal government’s department of environment and tourism. She passed the test, but that only allowed her to work as a “freelance tour guide” — firms couldn’t hire her full-time yet. It was only in 2018 that she got her license to be a tour guide, after appearing for another exam, at a price of $145, which she borrowed from her sister.
It’s tough, even after getting the license. Danijela Mehić has been operating her own agency since 2013, after she passed the test and then applied to receive the license. As a licensed tour guide, she pays about $285 each month in tax. That amount is more than half the monthly per capita income in the country. A guide can only avoid the tax if an agency she works with agrees to foot it. Each of the cantons in the country also has their own registration rules, further complicating the process, especially for young women and men looking for quick jobs.
But these challenges aren’t holding youths back from the profession. On any evening in Sarajevo, a glut of tour guides pause at the “Meeting of Cultures” spot in Sarajevo’s old area of Baščaršija, asking tourist groups to look at both sides: On one side is the Austro-Hungarian architecture and the other bears markers of the Ottoman influence.
At the same time, this struggle to even work legally is making many look for opportunities beyond Bosnia too. Mehić, for instance, works with multiple professional partners to fully capitalize on the license. She collaborates with Germany-based tour operators and with tour guides in other Balkan countries. She is also part of an association of tour guides who are pressuring the government to reform the system to make it easier and less expensive to get a license.
Torić, meanwhile, juggles her life as a tour guide with a second job with the ruling right-wing Bosniak party, SDA. Between April and November in 2018, when tourists were tottering around Sarajevo, she conducted two or three tours every day. At times, she earns up to 200KM [$116] from a group of 10 tourists, she says.
With competition rising, Torić hopes to build customers through referrals. “You never know who you will meet and how that could help you in [the] future,” she says. And that means picking up cues about what tourists like — and what they don’t. For instance, she says, she’s learned that most tourists prefer a general timeline of events rather than exact dates from history. “People lose interest with dates,” she says as she sips Bosnian coffee at Morića Han, the courtyard of the caravanserai — a place where traveling traders once could rest — originally built in 1551, in Baščaršija.
She’s proud of her country’s history but doesn’t mind speaking about the 1992 war that left nearly 100,000 people dead. The war, she says, showed how “having Bosnian blood means surviving because of stubbornness.” She’ll need that stubbornness in her job, at least until she migrates. As their profession only grows and grows, tour guides from Bosnia and Herzegovina will face competition from foreign counterparts too. As we walk out of Morića Han, we see an East Asian man guide tourists, also from Asia. “I heard that he is Korean and conducts guides for Koreans here,” says Torić. “That’s how popular tourism is now.”