Slope solidarity: Bosnian ski resort channels glory days

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Skiers use chairlifts to access the slopes at Jahorina ski resort, high above Bosnia’s capital Sarajevo. AFP

High above Bosnia’s capital Sarajevo, a ski resort bringing together alpine enthusiasts from across the Balkans has proved a surprising success story in a country still struggling to find its footing nearly three decades after war.

The Jahorina ski resort has witnessed Bosnia’s dramatic highs and lows – from the 1984 Winter Games to brutal conflict in the 1990s amid the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia.

The decades following the war have been marked by economic stagnation, mass migration and the deepening of ethnic divisions in Bosnia which was once celebrated for its cosmopolitan culture.

And while much of Bosnia struggled, Jahorina has been the site of an unlikely renaissance in recent years with hundreds of thousands of skiers flocking to its pristine slopes just 30km southeast of Sarajevo.

“I feel like I used to in Yugoslavia,” Zoran Zdravkovic, a police colonel from Serbia, said.

“Everything reminds me of that period – the music, the different licence plates, the smell of Sarajevo’s cevapi,” he added, referring to the Balkan minced meat dish that the Bosnian capital boasts of grilling to perfection.

Thanks to a recent investment push, the number of visitors has soared, with Bosnians, tourists from former Yugoslavian nations and skiers from western Europe and even further afield visiting Jahorina.

The resort first gained international fame during the 1984 Winter Olympics by hosting the women’s downhill skiing.

But in the 1990s, as civil war engulfed Yugoslavia, its hotels were used by the Bosnian Serbs’ political leaders and in the years that followed, the ski resort was largely abandoned with neglect taking a toll.

‘Trendy place’

The resort was given a new lease of life when the Jahorina Olympic Centre began pouring cash into the area, investing nearly €67 million ($75 million) since 2017 to redevelop its dilapidated slopes and infrastructure.

“I can say that more things have been done in the last four years than at the time of the Olympics,” said the centre’s director Dejan Ljevnaic, citing Jahorina’s 48km of skiable terrain, new gondolas and snow machines.

“We’ve become a trendy place in the former Yugoslavia again,” he added.

A new slope celebrates Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic, while another is named “Partizan” after the anti-fascist guerrillas who fought the Nazis in World War II and later founded Yugoslavia.

Since the latest season opened in December, approximately 360,000 visitors have hit the slopes in Jahorina – a dramatic increase from 30,000 in 2016.

At more than €six million, ticketing revenue has already exceeded that of 2021 and is well above the €760,000 earned four years ago.

Camaraderie

Nearly 20 hotels are under construction, including a massive luxury development project overseen by the Serbian conglomerate Galens Invest at the site of the former Jahorina Hotel, which was once frequented by Sarajevo’s elites and destroyed in a fire in 2002.

“All the economic indicators are on our side,” Nemanja Jovancevic from Galens said.

Jovancevic said several apartments set to be constructed on the property had already been sold to buyers from across the region along with others from Germany, the UK and the US.

Marina Medic, a 40-year-old nurse from Croatia’s Split, has been coming to Jahorina for years with her family for winter holidays.

“The atmosphere is excellent,” said Medic. “We met people from the region with whom we have kept in touch. There’s no animosity . . . we go towards each other. We talk. We feel really good here.”

Others prefer Jahorina simply because it is much more affordable than the French or Austrian alpine resorts, while Covid restrictions are relatively non-existent.

But for colonel Zdravkovic, it is the camaraderie on the slopes that matters most.

“I would like it to be like this everywhere,” he added. “Not only on the ski slopes, that it is like before, that we are all brothers and that we love each other.”