How do we honor and support the people of Bosnia without participating in exploitation and voyeurism? I once went with a team to build houses for homeless families in Mexico. On our way home, we stopped at Disneyland. I remember feeling badly about having fun at such a lavish place after seeing people living in poverty. I feel similarly now as I walk through the touristy marketplace of Sarajevo. Residents of this city are still recovering from the siege, and I am considering which thickness of Turkish towel to buy. This feels incongruous. I wonder how my trip here can be most supportive to the recovery of this place.
I think it is important to support the economy here. The unemployment rate in Bosnia is high, so money from tourism is important. Yet so many who visit here do not know Bosnia’s history. We have encountered visitors who seem more interested in taking from than participating in this culture.
We had the privilege of learning about working with copper from an UNESCO artisan. He took time to speak to us about how he makes his wares. He showed us how to discern the quality of these goods. He served us Bosnian kahva (coffee). Another group of Americans interrupted during his talk. They were pushy about making purchases. They picked the lower end goods from his store. They did not take time to learn about the four generation history of the store and the beauty of what is made in it.
The conclusion I draw from this experience, and others we had here, is responsible tourism requires learning about the place I am visiting. It is taking the time to understand its history. It is listening to peoples’ stories. The survivors who told us their stories have asked us to share them. I will take this responsibility seriously. Watch out United States. I am coming home, and I have important stories to share!