Once the best-kept secret in the Mediterranean, Montenegro is now a firm fixture on the global tourist map. Visitor numbers are booming, the rich and famous are buying property and major new hotels and other developments are opening each year.
But in a country 20 times smaller than the UK, what can be done to ensure the country is developed sustainably, without straining its infrastructure or damaging its rich natural habitat and biological diversity?
Realising tourism’s potential
“Montenegro is the pearl of the Adriatic, but it is a precious and rare jewel that needs protecting,” says businessman Petros Stathis, owner of the Aman Sveti Stefan hotel, built on a medieval fishing village island that is one of Montenegro’s most famous landmarks.
“I fell in love with Montenegro and am fully committed to supporting its development on the world stage, but also acutely aware that we must nurture its ecology and sustainability.”
The potential for development is indeed huge. The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) has predicted that Montenegro will receive €10 billion in investment over the next decade, with 36%, or €1.9 billion, of GDP coming from the tourism economy by 2021, rising from 17% in 2017. This would place Montenegro in the top spot globally for tourism sector growth with regards to its overall contribution to the economy over the next decade.
While much of Montenegro’s coastal region such as Budva and the Bay of Kotor is already highly developed, there are still areas on the far southern coast that are undeveloped, such as Velika Plaza, a long sandy beach that previously housed a military dock.
Government sales of formerly state-owned land such as this have spurred a wave of foreign investment in large-scale hotels and resorts in recent years. This is increasingly the case away from coastal regions, where the government is working to promote a more diverse tourism industry in areas such as ecotourism, cultural tourism and rural tourism in more geographically diverse locations.
Montenegro is home to Europe’s last remaining virgin forests and longest canyon, and tourists are increasingly visiting the country to partake in hiking, biking and bird-watching while staying in modest accommodations, such as huts that fit into the natural landscape.
In addition, the Montenegrin government’s Tourism Masterplan 2007-2020 aims to develop high-end hotels, golf courses and other luxury facilities in order to continue attracting affluent tourists and property investors.
Achieving a sustainable infrastructure
While the statistics undoubtedly point in the right direction for further development of Montenegro’s tourism sector, sustainability is critical if the country is to achieve its long-term goals for growth.
In particular, Montenegro’s transport infrastructure has traditionally struggled to keep pace with increasing visitor numbers. Congested single lane roads and access to the country’s air travel hubs have presented a significant challenge. Tivat airport, for example, although near the coast, has highly limited hours out of consideration to local communities.
While plans are afoot to develop the country’s infrastructure, delays are common – many of which date back to the last recession, when projects were put on hold as international investment dried up. The future, however, looks bright, with Montenegro achieving greater recognition on the global stage since achieving EU candidate status and becoming a member of the World Bank and IMF after gaining independence
In particular, it has garnered support from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) which has pledged to focus on Montenegro’s infrastructure and the tourism industry, amongst other sectors. The Montenegrin government has implemented many initiatives to prevent infrastructure challenges from reducing the country’s attractiveness as a tourism hub. For example, in order to provide quicker connections and direct routes to passengers travelling from Brussels and London, in 2016 the government signed a four-year cooperation agreement with the budget airline
Addressing environmental challenges
Montenegro’s wild and diverse natural beauty is a key driver of tourism – the country has two World Heritage sites, one biosphere reserve and four national parks – and the government is keenly aware it must nurture and protect the country’s ecology. As such, a commitment to the conservation of such rich natural resources has been enshrined in the constitution of Montenegro since 1991.
With the objective of reaffirming the country’s commitment to sustainability, the Tourism Board of Podgorica, Montenegro’s capital, took the lead in an initiative to implement the European Tourism Indicator System (ETIS). ETIS is a system of indicators designed to encourage tourist destinations to adopt a more intelligent, sustainable approach to tourism planning.
“We want to ensure the continuation of balanced tourism growth while preserving all of our valuable resources,” commented the project coordinator at the Tourism Board of Podgorica. Montenegro’s sustainable tourism efforts began long before ETIS testing, however. Over 25 years ago the country was proclaimed the first Ecological State of Europe, committing to joint efforts by public and private stakeholders to integrate environmental concerns into all development plans.
2017 saw the launch of the CGIS Bioportal of Montenegro, an up-to-date and complete source of information on protected areas in the country. Overseen by the Agency for Environmental Protection of Montenegro, CGIS provides a publicly available online platform where users can discover Montenegro’s protected areas, access statistics and download current data relating to area and national categories, zoning on a geographical map and much more.
“This makes the national protected area system more transparent and open to public participation”
“Sharing knowledge and facts via this information database improves data availability, national planning, priority setting and management of protected areas and biodiversity,” says the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). “This in turn makes the national protected area system more transparent and open to public participation, while also helping the international and donor community to set relevant targets for Montenegro.”
One of most high-profile sustainability projects of the Montenegrin government is currently the preservation of Ulcinj Salina, a 1500-hectare man-made area of salt pans that is home to over 250 species of birds, and a major eco-tourism hotspot. Thanks to salt production, Salina became one of the most important areas for bird migration in the Mediterranean and Europe and critical to more than 20 threatened bird species that return each year because of the salt.
Prime minister Dusko Markovic has recently pledged his full support to a petition signed by over 90,000 people from Montenegro and across Europe, which called for revitalisation of salt production in Ulcinj Salina. As a result, the government has committed to work alongside a group ofNGOs and has so far invested over €1 million in equipment such as water pumps to preserve the habitat favoured by the birds. This type of effort will be critical to a future in which tourism and environmentalism must work hand in hand to ensure the protection of both.
For Predrag Nenezic, Montenegro’s minister of tourism, sustainable development is the engine for a growing and prosperous tourism sector. He insists that new hotel and resort developments are environmentally and socially sensitive to protect the country’s rich natural ecology heritage. Petros Stathis’s luxury hotel island resort of Aman Sveti Stefan, Porto Montenegro and the master-planned resort town of Orascom Lustica lead the way as low density, ecologically sensitive and mixed-use developments, setting a template to be followed by other developers in the country.
“It simply makes good business sense”
“Stunning biodiversity and amazing landscapes are the natural characteristics of this beautiful European country,” concludes Stathis. “The move to a sustainable economy for the tourism sector is not only a social responsibility for anyone involved in this industry, it simply makes good business sense if Montenegro is to continue on its current protectory of growth.”