From Sarajevo to Beirut (from Stratégies)
The war-damaged capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina is taking lessons from Beirut in a bid to attract tourists and foreign investors, reports Mark Tungate.
As my taxi rattled along the highway from the airport into Sarajevo, it was impossible to overlook the evidence of war. One of the first landmarks was an enormous bombed-out factory, its twisted steel innards exposed to the sky like the ribs of a slain android. Bullet-scarred buildings lined the route. There were soldiers on the streets. And, right opposite my hotel, the former parliament building was still a blackened hulk, a gaping hole visible where a missile had torn through its side. The thought that came into my mind was: "It's just like Beirut ."
I visited the capital of Lebanon six years ago, when the city was still recovering from the ravages of its own civil war. In Sarajevo last month I found the same situation: young people beginning to return from self-imposed exile, new bars and restaurants springing up alongside bomb-damaged buildings, and a feverish optimism that spilled over into a love of conversation, music, and life in general.
Sarajevo celebrated this cultural renaissance with an advertising festival called No Limit, which brought together the leading creative talents in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The highlight of the event was a debate about how to make the country more attractive to visitors and foreign entrepreneurs. In other words, how to rebrand a destination whose image has been shattered by war.
Unsurprisingly, one of the most important members of the debate came from Beirut . Najib Saab is the editor of Environment & Development magazine, a consumer publication that has covered the reconstruction of Beirut from the very beginning.
"The danger with this kind of rebranding campaign is that you either try to hide the fact that you had a war, or go in the other direction and keep apologising for it," he told the assembled marketing gurus and government officials. "I don't think you need to turn your back on the past. The fact that you are in the process of overcoming this terrible tragedy is a positive story."
When the late Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri officially opened the Virgin Megastore in Beirut in July 2001, he called it "a testimony to the city's revival". And although he has his critics, Hariri himself did a great deal to raise Beirut from the ashes. A billionaire who made his fortune in construction in Saudi Arabia , Hariri is reported to have donated millions of dollars of his own money to the project. He used his contacts to pull strings and encourage investors, and he begged and borrowed finance from wherever he could get it, realising that the country would have to go into serious debt before it could begin to recover.
But as Saab pointed out, Hariri's financial muscle was only half of the story. "The real stroke of genius was to make it easy to for foreigners to invest. I have the feeling that here in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a foreign investor would still have to go through a lengthy bureaucratic process. In Beirut , we made sure all the red tape had been cut."
Visa requirements were simplified, corporate income tax was reduced to 10%, and a flat annual rate of tax was introduced for offshore companies. That - together with Beirut banks' reputation for being discreet about their customers' finances - abruptly made the city a highly attractive option for foreign entrepreneurs. The result is that Beirut 's downtown area now blends new businesses with restored colonial buildings and the best of contemporary architecture.
"The government has placed ads describing this success, mostly aimed at corporate investors - but the story is getting around, and now the visitors are coming back too," said Saab. "Last May, Beirut hosted the 38 th annual congress of the International Advertising Association. Only a few months ago, we had the Summit of French Speaking Nations and the Arab Summit."
Sarajevo itself is already on the mend. Brands like Coca-Cola and Benetton have returned to the market, bringing multinational advertising agencies with them. But without the energetic government of a Rafik Hariri, or the financial boost he was able to provide, it may be some time before the city can replicate the rebirth of Beirut .