To many Serbians, May 25 will forever be known first as the birthday of Josip Broz Tito, the longtime communist leader of socialist Yugoslavia, which Serbia was part of until 1992. To Ralph van der Zijden, May 25 is also the anniversary of a business venture that turns memories of a communist past into capitalist profit, drawing global tourists.
Three years ago, the Dutchman — who lives in Belgrade — launched Yugotour, a guided trip through remains of Tito’s era in Yugos, the poorly designed and cheap automobiles that became a symbol of socialist Yugoslavia. Today, the firm is one of a number of emerging Serbian companies tapping the rising interest of international travelers in post-communist Eastern and Central Europe.
Serbia’s own romance with the past began soon after the breakup of what was formally known as the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1992, and it carries shades of Ostalgie, Germany’s similarly complex affair with aspects of life in its former east. But unlike East Germany, Serbia suffered wars, divisions and secessions after the end of communism, and took its current political form only in 2008, after Kosovo separated. Now, as it settles into its new identity, Serbia is increasingly using its nostalgia of a bygone era to lure the outside world.
What if the memory is an act of resistance?
Sociologist Dario Hajrić, quoting Croatian journalist Viktor Ivančić
There’s Yugodom, a stay-over apartment-turned-museum in central Belgrade filled with household objects from the Yugoslav era: socialist-style furniture, clocks, wall decorations, books and dishes. Visitors can spend the night there. When designer Mario Milaković launched it in 2013, he let out just one room for night stays and lived in the rest of the apartment himself. Now, the demand for night rentals is such that he lets out the entire apartment. Besides foreign tourists, locals too rent Yugodom for fashion photo shoots, and to film music videos, commercials and even movies.
The popularity of Tito’s “House of Flowers” mausoleum among Yugo-nostalgics and tourists, say industry experts, is one of the reasons behind the crowds that throng the Museum of Yugoslavia that hosts it. One of Serbia’s most toured museums, it hosted more than 120,000 visitors in 2017. And it isn’t just group visits; it’s also individual tourists driving that popularity, says the museum’s head of program development, Ivan Manojlović.
There’s a minibus tour of Yugoslav architecture that includes visits to some of Belgrade’s most prominent landmarks. Guided bike rides and walking “communist” tours through Novi Beograd (New Belgrade, part of the city) have taken off over the past decade, leading tourists on explorations of socialist architecture. And while there’s no official count of the number of such tours, a growing appetite among tourists is forcing operators to expand. Belgrade-based tour company Serbia Tour Operator began with guided walks around Serbia’s communist heritage in November 2015. But seeing a rising demand, it introduced a new Bike Belgrade tour through Novi Beograd in August last year that has continued this year too. Kristina Stepanić of Belgrade Walking Tours, another firm, says that the number of tourists attending communist tours — which the company started in 2012 — goes up to as many as 40 during summer months. Even when the firm added other non-communist tours to its offerings, it didn’t witness a drop in those attending the communist-era walking tours, says Stepanić.
And van der Zijden, who started with one Yugo car at Yugotour, has had to ask friends with the vehicle to sell or lend it to him. Yugotour now owns seven Yugos, and rents out more for larger touring groups. This summer, Yugotour has doubled its weekly tours — from two to four — to cater to an increased demand from tourists.
“It’s growing, especially the interest in the socialist architecture,” says van der Zijden.
It’s a simple question that draws many foreign tourists to these nostalgia tours, says sociologist Dario Hajrić: Why are so many locals nostalgic about socialist Yugoslavia? To these Serbians, the answer is equally straightforward. Tito’s “soft dictatorship” is seen by many as better than the insecurity that has followed Yugoslavia’s breakup, an event 81 percent of Serbians described as harmful in a 2016 Gallup poll.
It’s not surprising, then, that Serbia boasts spots where local citizens can reminisce about Tito’s era. The former leader’s birthday and other Yugoslav-era holidays are celebrated in the Yugoland theme park near Subotica in northern Serbia, built by businessman Blaško Gabrić like a “mini-Yugoslavia.” Here, visitors can climb up an imitation of Mount Triglav (in modern-day Slovenia), gaze at the Vardar river (mostly in Macedonia) or enjoy mini versions of other prominent geographical features of the former Yugoslavia.
But while this theme park, launched in the early 2000s, began by attracting mostly locals who are “Yugo-nostalgics of older age,” it is now drawing young foreign visitors, according to Yugoland Manager Goran Gabrić. Some young visitors from Europe and Asia even end up volunteering in the park and helping out with landscaping, and building or decorating memorials.
Other outlets are targeting foreign tourists much more pointedly. A key selling point for Yugotour, for instance, is seeing the cars themselves. Even before the actual tour begins, tourists get to experience the vehicles, some of which have been passed on from generation to generation before reaching the firm, and which carry traces of use by past owners — labels, buttons, fuel bills and some hand-sewn interiors. “All of it adds to the authenticity of our tours,” says Jovana Stojiljković, Yugotour manager. The firm’s growth suggests the strategy is working.
Milaković, the designer, wanted to showcase a typical Yugoslav-era home, so he created Yugodom. But a museum about people’s homes under Tito, he concluded, wouldn’t be complete unless visitors could experience that life. Today, the museum hosts guests from across the world and from former Yugoslav republics. One Yugo-nostalgic Serbian couple even celebrated their marriage anniversary by staying over at the museum, Milaković says.
Visitors to Yugodom, he says, are more interested in the design aesthetic of socialist Yugoslavia than driven by Yugo-nostalgia. But what keeps interest and curiosity about communist Yugoslavia alive and kicking is a sentiment of longing for a good life, says Hajrić. “Free education and health, employment, housing … was available to everyone,” he recalls, adding that socialist Yugoslavia’s successor states have failed to provide citizens “even the security that education will provide jobs, and jobs a salary.”
To Hajrić, the foreign tourist interest in Yugo-nostalgia-driven projects isn’t so much an idealization of the former Yugoslavia, but more a critique of the present. He quotes celebrated Croatian journalist Viktor Ivančić, asking: “What if our past is the best criticism of our present? And what if the memory is an act of resistance?” Acts of “resistance” can often prove costly. In the case of Yugo-tourism, though, such “criticism” is proving profitable.
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