A journey through the Balkan region: Challenges and opportunities with the transportation system

If we exclude the fact that we are surrounded by borders all across our region (not including between the members of the EU), where we have to spend some time waiting while our papers are being checked, traveling through the Western Balkans sounds interesting and easy. It definitely is interesting, however, one might ask how easy it is in reality. I’m pretty sure many tourists want to know what form of transport is the best one before coming to the Balkans and how to make the best out of their experience here by having the right information on transportation. Unfortunately, the Balkan region is not as connected as it should be. Since I traveled a lot throughout the Western Balkans, I will use this blog to talk about my experience and maybe it will help others to pay attention to a few things when they plan a trip through this region.

I often take a bus from Belgrade to Prishtina, when going to Kosovo. It’s a six-hour long ride including the wait at the Serbia - Kosovo border, which is not a long wait when going by bus, but the ride itself is not as brilliant and quick as someone from Western Europe might expect. Also, trains are not an option in this case, as it is for example from Serbia to Montenegro, which is an interesting ride that offers a lot of sightseeing but takes forever to get there. Thus, already talking about the connectivity and transportation between the countries in this region is complicated. A journey that I will forever remember and is a great example of this fact, is the trip I took to participate in a music festival in Gjakova, Kosovo. This time, however, I wasn’t planning on going there from Belgrade but from the Croatian island of Vir near the city of Zadar, where I was spending the summer holiday with my grandmother. Since I had no option of returning to Belgrade by taking a quick road through Bosnia (because the road through Bosnia is everything but quick) I decided, instead of going up via Zagreb the way I came, to go on an adventure I haven’t been yet. Since the distance from Zadar to Gjakova via Belgrade is about the same as Zadar to Gjakova via Montenegro, as well as about the same price, my plan was to take a bus down the Dalmatian coastline to Montenegro and from there across Albania to enter Kosovo.

It wasn’t that easy. First, I had to take a bus from Zadar to Split, then from Split to Dubrovnik and transfer there to another bus to Bar, Montenegro. The trip was beautiful since the buses didn’t take the highway, but made local stops along the coast. It was quite amusing stopping at the two Croatian-Bosnian borders eight kilometers apart from one another. Nevertheless, I made it past the Croatian-Montenegrin border and arrived in Bar at midnight. Now I had to wait for the next and only bus that goes to Gjakova, which was at 8 in the morning. Then it took me another eleven hours to get to Gjakova, eight of which were needed just to get to Montenegro - Kosovo border. The whole trip was without air-conditioning since the bus was in a terrible condition. For some reason I thought the bus would go through Albania, as that would be shorter and quicker. Instead, it made local stops throughout Montenegro until entering Kosovo from northwest and then continuing south to my destination. I realized that the routes between countries in the region are not easy even for people who were born and raised here.

Additionally, besides lack of infrastructural connectivity, Kosovo is a unique case and as the citizens are the only people in the region that need a visa to travel around. The irony is that they even need a visa to go to Bosnia! They can only travel without visa to Montenegro, Macedonia and Albania, while for Serbia they need to ask for a special paper, since Serbia doesn’t recognize Kosovo passports, and that paper is not always easy to get. People traveling from Albania to Serbia via Kosovo have to go to Macedonia in order to enter Serbia “legally”. These are just a few issues.

Besides the above mentioned challenges, there are positive solutions being implemented as well. The highway connecting Tirana and Prishtina is relatively new and the quality resembles those in the EU. There are talks about not having border controls between some countries any longer. Such a decision, along with improved infrastructure, would benefit all citizens as well as businesses by enabling free movement of goods, services and people. It would also boost regional tourism which would immediately help ease up the tensions and explore the beauty of the cultural and geographical variety of the Balkans.

Author: Tomislav Perusic