How the Macedonian Government’s plan to attract more tourists to Skopje worked, but for completely the wrong reasons
There’s a bit of an inside joke with Macedonians, and it goes something like this:
Question: “How many statues are in Skopje?”
Answer: “I don’t know but I think there are more statues than people!”
Ok, so it’s not that funny (or even remotely funny), but it is quite close to the truth.
If there’s one thing Skopje is famous for it is statues – they are everywhere – and they have inadvertently become a tourist attraction in themselves. Of course, this is what the Macedonian government wanted when they set out their plan to build all these statues, for more people to visit the city, but perhaps not in quite the disparaging way they do.
While travelling around the Balkans and Eastern Europe, as soon as you mention you’re going to Skopje, almost immediately someone will say “ahhh, the city of statues!”
I already knew Skopje was undergoing a redevelopment project to make the city more attractive to tourists, but I was still shocked and surprised at the sheer number of statues I saw, and at how extravagant they were. In fact, you’ll be hard pressed to walk down a street without seeing one.
Most backpackers and travellers find all these statues quite garish and a waste of money (I’ll get on to what the locals think in a minute), but it has created a new game in Skopje – how many statues can you count in a 24 hour period (I scored 68. If you ever play the game, let me know what you score in the comments below!)
The reason there are so many statues in Skopje goes back to 2008 when the local economy crashed. Much like many countries around the world, they targeted tourism as a major source of income and revenue, and the Government came up with the ‘Skopje 2014’ redevelopment project.
With a budget of estimated to be between €80 and €500 million, they decided to make the capital more “aesthetically pleasing” by building statues. Lots and lots of statues. Big ones too.
This infuriated a lot of the local residents as they felt the money would have been better spent on infrastructure, say building a metro or tram system, or improving a number of buildings, but the Macedonian government wanted to make a statement.
However, critics have argued that the project is an attempt to distract people from the country’s real problems, such as high unemployment which hovers around 30%, poverty and stalled progress towards EU and NATO membership.
They aimed for 2014 as the date to finish this redevelopment project, hence the name, and I can assure you there’s absolutely no way they will finish it by the end of the year.
The biggest statue is right in the centre of Skopje, and even this is a bit of a joke. The name of the statue is ‘The Great Warrior’, yet it couldn’t be more obvious it is of Alexander the Great riding atop of his horse Bucephalus. Yet the Government can’t make reference to one of the greatest men that ever lived due to current disputes with Greece. Macedonians think he is Macedonian, Greeks this he is Greek, so instead of causing offence, Alexander the Great is just referred to as the Great Warrior, remaining anonymous in the centre of a city that is desperately trying to make a name for itself.
Don’t get me wrong, it is one of the finest statues I have ever come across, one steeped with the history of nearly 2,400 years, one that would have made Alexander proud (after all, he was an incredibly vain man), but not to be able to call him by his real name almost seems a disservice.
In fact, all the statues in Skopje are fascinating, some more so that others, and I for one would love to know more about a few, but you do have to question the mentality behind building them in the first place, and you can’t help but wonder if the money would have been better spent elsewhere.
Even though the ‘Skopje 2014’ plan has somewhat backfired in the fact people are visiting the city more out of intrigue and fascination as opposed to seeing the ‘beauty’, they are visiting the city, and you can’t deny the outcome it has had. People are talking about the statues of Skopje and they are visiting the city to see them. Ironically, maybe the joke’s on us?