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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

SME profile: A love letter to the homeland’s tourism

A Bosnian refugee wants nothing more than to help people visit his country. His business has found a niche for itself in Dubai’s travel industry.
Armin Osmancevic created the website HelloBosnia.com to bridge the gap between his country's tour operators and potential visitors from the Gulf. Casper Hedberg for The National
Armin Osmancevic created the website HelloBosnia.com to bridge the gap between his country's tour operators and potential visitors from the Gulf. Casper Hedberg for The National

For a country that was all but destroyed by a three-year civil war from 1992-1995, Bosnia and Herzegovina is working to change its image by enticing tourists to visit the “heart-shaped land”.

With a population of just under 4 million people and more than 6,000 refugees still present in neighbouring Croatia and worldwide, Bosnia is looking to rebound economically.

And one refugee is looking to help, with the newly launched HelloBosnia.com website, hoping to introduce people to the frontier lands.

After being forced to leave his home in Bosnia in 1993 at the age of 17, Armin Osmancevic made his way to Sweden. With that move came a career in digital marketing, but he couldn’t shake the idea of bringing his expertise back to his home.

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“My mind has never settled in thinking about various opportunities to make a difference to the people back in Bosnia,” he says.

Mr Osmancevic has had a hand in several Bosnian ventures, ranging from being a music video director for the country’s leading pop stars to a Dubizzle-like site that was less of a triumph. “Having rough beginnings, life has taught me that what others perceive as a challenge is, in fact, an opportunity if approached the right way and with the right people,” he says.

Four years ago, he came to Dubai as the creative director of a local advertising company. “It was truly a fascinating time and I fell in love with the business pace and the people I have met in the UAE,” he says. This is where he met his Dubai business partner, and together with another friend in Bosnia they created Dubai-based Bonify, the company behind HelloBosnia.com. Bonify, which means “to make good or better”, was established to make positive contributions, primarily to Bosnia.

The founder says that as a result of domestic issues, Bosnia has not been able to properly harness its tourism potential. “The attractions have not been adequately presented and marketed to the global travel industry,” he says. “In addition, local tour operators are rather small and fragmented, and often the quality of service offered is not up to the expected standards.”

And this is where HelloBosnia comes in as a portal to “bridge these various gaps and provide quality service to the GCC and wider markets, as well as work with the local travel industry to bring up the service levels”.

The site was launched in March and so far 60 per cent of its website traffic has come from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Mr Osmancevic attributes those numbers to the ease in flights and visas. Flydubai became the first UAE carrier to operate direct flights to Sarajevo in December, and there are no visa requirements for Emiratis.

There are a variety of packages, ranging from three-day excursions for €285 (Dh1,175) up to €2,055 for 14 days. In addition to the variety of packages available online, clients may request to have a tour designed specifically to suit their needs. “Schedules are created based on specific preferences of prospective clients in target markets,” says Mr Osmancevic.

He says that demand has increased for those bespoke packages. “This probably reflects the family orientation and specific needs of the GCC and Mena clientele,” Mr Osmancevic says.

The company is plans to organise a family trip from the UAE for late-September/early-October. The trip will include media and social bloggers as well as travel agents. He says that Bonify has also been in discussions with the Bosnian government to create content that captures the region’s interest. “We have already made arrangements with a couple of major global airlines that see value in supporting our efforts to propel Bosnian tourism to a new level,” he says.

In addition to the personal connection that the owners have with Bosnia, what makes the company different than other tour groups is the integrated portal that HelloBosnia.com offers its customers. The site offers a service that includes bookings and payments. Mr Osmancevic says it is the only site that offers comprehensive information about attractions and activities in Bosnia and allows users to instantly book and make online payments.

The founder says he chose Dubai as the home base to implement online payments for the region and bring Bosnia closer to the company’s target market. Bonify has a branch in Sarajevo and representatives in Stockholm and Kuala Lumpur. “Soon we will have a representative in Muscat joining our team,” Mr Osmancevic says.

The country’s tourism sector is still small, but it is picking up pace. The country’s annual revenue from tourism increased by 17 per cent last year compared to the previous year, according to statistics from the Central Bank of Bosnia. The Tourism Association of Bosnia shows tourism figures nearly doubling last year to about 845,000 people compared to 10 years ago.

Some of the top destinations include Perucica, the oldest rainforest in Europe, and the continent’s deepest river canyon, River Tara Canyon, which offers rafting, hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, fly fishing and skiing.

“Bosnia holds many lessons for UAE travellers interested in exploring and enjoying untouched nature and fascinating history,” Mr Osmancevic says.

lgraves@thenational.ae

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