Kosovo: ICJ ruling a bridge to increased tourism?

Today, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague issued a nonbinding advisory ruling on the question of Kosovo’s independence.

The court ruled that Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence did not violate international law. Kosovo’s independence, in other words, was deemed by the court to be legal.

Yesterday, Marc Weller, a University of Cambridge International Law scholar, had this to say for Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty about the ruling’s prospective result: “anything that is not a clear condemnation of Kosovo will be perceived, rightly or wrongly, as a vindication of Kosovo’s claim to independence.”

Weller went on to predict that Kosovo would see a wave of recognitions by other countries (in addition to the 69 countries currently recognizing Kosovo) following a ruling that the country did not obtain its statehood illegally.

Following today’s ruling, Kosovo will no doubt have an easier time attracting foreign investment. Serbia should also benefit from increased trade and investment and emerge from this decision with an easier path to European Union accession.

In line with anticipated increased foreign investment, Kosovo should see some development as a tourist destination. Several of the country’s larger cities (Pristina, Prizren, and Peja) all have tourism potential, as do Kosovo’s beautiful Serbian Orthodox monasteries of Gracanica and Visoki Decani.

(Image: Flickr/MichaelTyler)

Three travel ideas from the ITB Berlin Travel Show

More than 11,000 exhibitors from 187 countries tried to make their mark at the 2009 ITB Berlin Travel Show. They showcased wines, highlighted unique local attractions and generally tried to show that they are the best places in the world for tourists to spend their hard-earned cash. Travel+Leisure tried to describe the industry’s hottest trends, but the article really came across as “here are a few cool things I noticed.” So, I took the coolest of the cool, below:

1. Get healthy
Plenty of destinations offer spas, yoga and fitness options – sometimes using them to theme an entire resort. But, that’s thinking small. Go all the way with medical tourism, and call those DDs your own in an overseas clinic. Before you develop visions of hacksaws and cigarettes over the operating table, some of these surgical getaways are in upscale facilities.

Hey, it’s up to you. Roll the dice.

2. Hearken back to the Cold War
Screw traditional cruise liners in favor of Soviet-era ships pushing down the Volga River. Praise Lenin, listen to a balalaika and drink Russian Standard vodka (quite good, actually). Lament how long it will take for the dictatorship of the proletariat to emerge.

There are other unusual cruise options out there as well – such as one in Laos that takes 28 passengers into a once inaccessible piece of the Mekong River from Vientiane.

3. Watch a new nation rise
Kosovo doesn’t have much to say for itself except that you should be patient, because the country’s just getting started. So, if you go there now, you’re getting in on the ground floor. Get to know the concierge. Tip him well. You’ll become a national hero.

Catching the Travel Bug: Kosovo as seen from a hotel room

Welcome to the sixth and final installment of Catching the Travel Bug, Gadling’s mini-series on getting sick on the road, prevailing and loving travel throughout. For six weeks, Gadling bloggers have been telling their stories from around the globe. Submit your best story about catching the travel bug in the comments and we’ll publish our favorite few in a future post.

It had come down to this in Kosovo.

After much preparation, people to see, appointments to keep, a loose framework in hand for an onward journey through the world’s newest nation – and two days in I had barely left my hotel room.

There’s a reason why travel writers do not usually spend much time on sickness: As a subject, it isn’t interesting. It happens to all of us. Yet so far in Kosovo, it was everything I had, the prism through which I was seeing (or not seeing) the place for the first time. Besides, there was nothing uninteresting about it to me: It was all rather remarkable, the worst stomach virus of my life. I was leveled, weak, in pain. I needed help in a country that needed help.

The knock came mid-morning.

“You need hospital?” the woman said. She looked small in the wedge of hallway light after I cracked open the door. The evening before I had asked her colleague for the nearest one.

“A doctor. I need medicine.”

“There are doctors everywhere in this neighborhood!”

“OK, tell me where.”

“I show you. Let me call. What is hurting.”

I touched my stomach, and made a face that said all was not well.

“Oh,” she said. “I think you ate something.”

“Perhaps,” though I had not eaten since arriving.

“Lots of toilet?”

You could say that.

“Wait, please. We will fix you.”

Her name was Fatima. As she turned to go downstairs she said, “I come and get you. Wait please.”


Pec is a small city in western Kosovo, surrouned by steep green mountains that run to Montenegro a short distance away. I had arrived with the intention of making my way east, stopping for a spell in Kosovo’s capital, Pristina, before turning north for the divided city of Mitrovice.

The month before I had received an e-mail from a British travel agency titled — rather optimistically, I thought at the time — “Things to see on your holiday in Kosovo.”

A Kosovo vacation? But then I thought, why not?

Sure, I wanted to take the measure of tourism in the world’s newest country, but I also wanted to verify what many had told me: Kosovo loved America and lionized George W. Bush.

That put this hunk of land not much bigger than Delaware in what seemed pre-Obama to be pretty small company, and, as it turned out, I was to both benefit from and be puzzled by this pro-Americanism.

“Bush,” an ethnic Albanian friend of mine in Montenegro told me, “is a hero in Kosovo.”

Not to the small Serb minority, of course. But it takes no time at all upon entering the country to see that only the ethnic Albanian majority, 90 percent of the population, count for much in Kosovo these days. On the drive in to Pec I passed the burned out husks of what were once grand homes. They now stood blackened or, worse, in rubble, having been stripped like you would an old car.

“Those are Serb homes,” said Miguel Gonzalez, a Spanish aid worker with whom I’d hitched a ride into the country. “The Albanian population drove them out.”

The homes clearly had once been nice. Why destroy them? Why not move into them?

“The Serbs still own them, and they can reclaim them from the town. They destroyed them so there would be nothing for them to come back to.”

Serbs are holding out in small enclaves around the country, most significantly in the northern half of Mitrovice, and Serbia’s capital, Belgrade, still refuses to recognize Kosovo’s independence, seeing the country as the heartland of the Serb people.

That explained, partially at least, the fervent nationalism of the Albanian majority, which seemed a little too conspicuous, as if the population was trying to convince itself of something. The walls along buildings in Pec were often stained with graffiti that read, “No to compromise.”

The Albanian flag dominated the awnings, shop fronts and terraces of Pec, and Albanian folk music was on everywhere. When Kosovo’s parliament formerly declared independence from Serbia on February 17 this year, the streets of Pec filled with revelers who danced, blew their car horns and shot pistol rounds into the air as if what they had just been given amounted to deliverance.


Fatima spoke a little about that Sunday in February while, at her insistence, she walked me to a hospital a short distance from my hotel.

“It was a very important day for us,” she said.

“It must have been crazy here,” I said. “Like a big party.”

“Yes, like that. We were in the streets all night, singing. Everybody was there. It was very happy.”

Had things calmed down?

“Yes, it is now normal here, as you can see.”

What I saw on this walk would amount to my longest exposure to this small city. Up till now, I had been bed-bound save for a few weakened forays to nearby shops to find water.

My eyes grabbed at the surroundings: the narrow stores packed tightly beside one another; the full cafes; the benches where old men in old coats sat and talked; the minarets of mosques that peaked above rooftops; a busy boulevard lined with dead trees, which had been decapitated and looked like erect stalks of broccoli.

What I noticed most was the surprising number of elegant, trendy restaurants that lined the streets; invariably, above these restaurants was a derelict building: dark, stained in graffiti, windows blown out or boarded up, the cement cracked and flaking.

Such a juxtaposition spoke of selective improvement: What was renovated or repaired was what could make money. You could eat in darkness in your own apartment (as many did during frequent power cuts citywide) or you could stroll down to any number of smart pizzerias.

We passed shops that sold the American flag, large versions and smaller ones that fit car antennas. I noted the cars that passed festooned with them. I also noted the ubiquitous white Toyota Forerunners owned by the United Nations and other military vehicles.

“You are coming from?” Fatima asked.


“Ah, America. Very good!” She balled a fist. “My father lives in Chicago!”

She told me that her mother and father had emigrated to the U.S. in 1999, when Serbia was engaged in its particularly brutal effort to ethnically cleanse Kosovo of its Albanian population. She had been to visit him twice.

“Does he come back?” I asked.

“Two times each year,” she said. “He is coming this week.”

But she couldn’t move to America, she said. It was too much work running the hotel on this one particular, nondescript side street in Pec.


Perhaps the oddest travel book I’ve ever read is A Journey Around My Room, by Xavier de Maistre, which is literally about just that (though with some metaphysical flights thrown in).

This in effect was what I did in Kosovo. Forced to tread a steady path between bed and bathroom, I looked for different ways to glean something, anything, of the country from this limited space.

I kept my windows open despite the cold to catch the calls to prayer, which provided five neat spots of time daily and spoke of the Islamic reality of the place. I noted the din of power generators, a constant low hum, which suggested those frequent power cuts. I turned on the television and flipped through channels featuring fat women doing Albanian folk dances and singing. Even that yielded some insights: the music seemed like a fusion of different traditions – Greek, Turkish – that showed how culturally set apart this place was from elsewhere in the Balkans. Some of the bloodiest episodes of the past 15 years played out in Kosovo, due in no small part to the fact that the local ethnic population felt it belonged if not someplace else than at least to itself rather than Serbia.


Writing this now, I see how the literal and metaphorical meaning of the term “travel bug” took up bedside positions as I lay in the hospital watching the I.V. deliver its budget of hydration in a slow drip.

Literally, the doctor diagnosed me with a stomach flu and dehydration so severe I needed two I.V. bags and nearly three hours to restore enough electrolytes and the like to get to my feet again.

But laying there I thought about wanderlust – that other travel bug – which is essentially the drive in some of us to be in this very situation; not sick, but in a foreign place, a stranger relying on strangers, trying to figure out Where the hell am I?

The hospital was an unannounced building, stark white on the inside, a few tired people waiting in seats for somebody to see them. Fatima guided me past them and found a woman doctor named Elira, middle aged with red hair and wearing the typical white coat. Fatima told her I was American.

There was a young woman in the bed next to me, also receiving a drip, writhing in what appeared to be terrible pain. She moaned often.

Fatima told me she would return to pick me up.

I lay there staring at the ceiling and thought about the conclusions I could draw from my limited observations up till this point, and couldn’t really come up with any hard ones. How could I? If there’s anything about sickness worth mentioning for a traveler, it is its ability to blur a place.

I even found it hard to reckon with the kindness Fatima and the hospital staff had showed me on this day, all this talk of me being American (Elira too had approved. “We love America! America good to Kosovo!”).

Sometimes the kindness a traveler encounters is just random and pure, and sometimes it hints at reciprocal expectation. Fatima’s seemed more like the former, but also driven by a kind of gratitude. That weighed the experience down because you wanted to say in such cases, For what?

Was it because US-led NATO had bombed to a halt Serbia’s campaign against ethnic Albanians back in 1999? Was it because the US had endorsed Kosovo’s independence in February?

I didn’t like feeling that this hospitality was some kind of payback rather than something that stood on its own. And I didn’t like the idea of this kindness and welcome set against some of the things I had managed to see in this short time, especially those destroyed Serb houses.

They destroyed them so there would be nothing for them to come back to.

I didn’t manage to clear any of this up in my head by the time Fatima returned to walk me back to the hotel. My Kosovo vacation would end abruptly. I returned to Montenegro the next day to convalesce. Answers would wait till a return trip a few months later.

At the hospital, as I put my shoes back on (they’d made me remove them for some reason) I caught a glimpse of Fatima slipping a €20 note to the doctor. There was no bill waiting for me.

As we walked back to the hotel, past a school yard full of playing children, I wanted to ask Fatima what she had paid for, but I decided not to.

Kosovo: At dinner with the European Union’s Pieter Feith

O.K., a little explanation is needed at the outset: I didn’t actually have dinner with Pieter Feith, the European Union’s High Representative (read: Top Dog) in Kosovo. But in one of those weird coincidences that sometimes befall journalists, it happened that the two of us were dining in the same nearly empty restaurant in the Kosovo capital of Pristina last Friday night. So it sort of felt like it.

I was at Il Passatore, a wonderful (and unexpectedly authentic) Italian restaurant run by a gregarious woman named Antonella, which is found only after a meandering taxi ride full of left and rights, in a nook of a hidden parking lot some way out the city center.

A few diners were outside, but inside the place was deserted. Me and my dinner companion had the run of a small, three-table room near the main entrance.

When Feith entered, of course, I had no idea who he was other than Someone Important. But Pristina is awash with such people, all tooling around town in white Toyota 4Runners, all answering to one or another alphabet-soup organization or mission: OSCE, UNMIK, EULEX.

He clearly was a regular (the kitchen staff and Antonella herself lined up to offer hugs and greetings, everyone calling him Peter). It appeared that he was entertaining a group of journalists: There were a few from the Netherlands (where Feith is from), a German and a few French speakers. The party debated on where to sit before settling on the long table that dominated the room we were in.

“Unfortunate for you,” he said to me, noting the quiet of the place that had now disappeared.

“Don’t worry about it,” I replied.

Feith settled himself not at the head of the table, but squarely at its center. He promptly ordered wine. He assured his guests that Antonella could prepare them pretty much anything. He negotiated with her about getting regular supplies of prosciutto and parmigiana delivered to his home. Then he settled in for a few hours of essentially holding forth about the situation in Kosovo, the culpability of the Serbs, and the overall outlook for the region.

I know this because I am a terrible eavesdropper, especially when I have a hunch that I’m in the presence of someone notable. But besides knowing his first name, his obvious VIP stature and the idling UN 4Runner in the parking lot, I had no other clues about his identity. I did what any good journalist would have done: I went home and Googled him.Not that I would have asked for an interview right there, or even interrupted the table’s conversation to proffer my business card (though I probably would have). But I still felt like an opportunity was lost, and at a time when Feith should have plenty to say.

This Sunday, a day when Kosovo puts its constitution fully into force, the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), which has been administering Kosovo since 1999, formally hands over its reins to the so-called EU Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX). There are a lot of questions about what will actually happen after Sunday, about whether the UN will just up and leave (unlikely) or maintain a symbolic presence, as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said recently. Even many of the diplomats working in Kosovo don’t know how things will go.

Feith, the top diplomat in Kosovo, will wield a lot of influence under EULEX. I won’t go so far as saying he’ll run the country (if you think Kosovo is truly independent, it’s not), but he’ll approve all legislation passed by Kosovo’s government and will have the power to fire government officials deemed not up to snuff. It is expected that some of the more difficult issues EULEX will help tackle is the right of return for Serbs driven from their homes by ethnic Albanians earlier this decade, and protecting the rights of the Serbs still in Kosovo.

So, alas, it would have been interesting to talk to Feith. But at least I know he’s partial to Italian provisions delivered straight from the Old Country, though this seems unlikely to come in handy some day.

Other than that, what I can say is that should you be unlucky enough to find yourself in Pristina, and are in search of a good meal, you won’t be disappointed by Il Passatore. Just hail a taxi; every driver knows the place.

“Swapping Kosovo for a pair of sneakers”

The person who posted the YouTube video of two young woman looting with glee in Belgrade described their actions thusly: “Belgrade bimbos exploit unrest to steal from smashed-up boutiques without the slightest shame. They are so greedy they even have to carry things in their teeth.”

Their arms laden with clothing, bags, and other sundries (including chocolates), the two women could barely carry their booty through streets clogged with other seemingly joyful looters. Although the video is in Serbian (I assume), Reuters translates some of the dialog for us; the cameraman follows the two around, asking sarcastically if they’ve found their size yet. When one of the woman asks him to turn the camera off, he responds, “but you are the heroines of this protest for me.” The video aired on Serbian television and has prompted scores of negative responses on YouTube. Reuters speculates that the shame of the publicity might be better punishment than being arrested. Decide for yourself: