Article published by New Eastern Europe.
Many of the 1,733 villages of rural Macedonia face a grave fate. Over a quarter have fewer than 50 residents. More than 150 have been entirely depopulated, according to official data. As families and the youth move to cities, these areas are destined to become little more than a memory. However, for these dying villages, tourism could breathe new life into them.
The sun is high in the sky while the 74-year-old Petko Tošeski toils away. The thudding of his axe echoes throughout the red-roofed village, punctuated by the odd crack of success. Log after log splits, ready to eventually nestle in the stone hearth indoors. Tošeski is the only sign of life in a place that seems to have been petrified for decades. The village of Bonče in southern Macedonia appears on the verge of abandonment.
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Petko Tošeski expects his village to become deserted in the next 20 to 30 years.
In Štavica, a neighbouring village, a middle-aged Dzvonko Miceski just sold his tractor to two farmers from a nearby town. He and fewer than 80 others form the population of the old village.
Seventy-five kilometres northwards, huddled in the winding roads leading uphill from the city of Veles, lies Omorani, a village that was on track to hold a similar fate as Bonče and Štavica.
According to Katarina Georgievska, an environmentalist from capital Skopje, the flow of tourists into the village has helped revitalise Omorani. Georgievska paid around 2,000 euro for her property in village and invested 20 times that amount to transform the house into a guesthouse with three rooms that can accommodate nine people.
Pece Cvetkovski, a former footballer for Yugoslavia, opened his family-run guesthouse in the small village of Dihovo, in southern Macedonia, ten years ago.
Vevčani, a dot on the map huddled in the hills near the Albanian border, realised early on the potential that tourists could bring to their local economy.
Fully-loaded tour buses with curious visitors drive in and out, backpackers make their way through the village and the many tourists have light-hearted drinks on the terraces of the main street.
It may take a village to raise a child, but in Macedonia it takes more than that to keep them there. The implementation of rural tourism could be the hope these skeleton villages need to start revitalising rural Macedonia. Yet for these villages to harvest this potential, they will have to act quickly before it is too late and there is no one left.
Images: Fieke Snijder