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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 February 2020

Majestic Montenegro: why 2020 is the year to visit this thriving Balkan nation

We explore how Croatia's neighbour has become one of the world's fastest growing tourist destinations
A view of The Chedi Lustica Bay in Montenegro from the sea. Courtesy Lustica Bay

In the space of 13 years, Montenegro has changed dramatically. Ever since the Balkan country gained independence from Serbia in 2006, its people have been on a mission to overturn its fortunes and diversify its economy. One of the more successful ways it’s done that is through tourism.

It’s not a hard sell – this is a stunning nation that’s full of natural beauty. There are an average 270 sunny days every year, national parks galore, nearly 300 kilometres of coastline and a mountainous landscape that stretches as far as the eye can see. Lake Skadar, which lies between the borders of Albania and Montenegro, is the largest lake in southern Europe, but also one of the continent’s biggest bird reserves, home to more than 270 species, including Dalmatian pelicans.

Then there’s Tara River Canyon, one of the world’s deepest gorges, that’s perfect for hiking and white water rafting. And we can’t forget Unesco-listed Perucica, located on the country’s border with Bosnia and Herzegovina. It’s one of the last remaining primeval forests, where some of the trees are more than 300 years old.

Montenegrins will proudly tell visitors they could be skiing in the north in the morning, mountain climbing by midday and swimming in southern Boka Bay come afternoon.

Beautiful Kotor Bay, in the south of Montenegro, at sunset. Getty Images

The diversity of natural experiences is only one string to Montenegro’s bow, however, as the government and private developers are working hard to ensure there’s plenty more to keep the recent influx of domestic, regional and international travellers coming back year after year – particularly in the south.

In the lap of luxury

Gleaming super-yachts are docked in the marina at UAE-owned Porto Montenegro. High-end boutiques and luxury apartments jostle for space, looking out onto these incredible vessels and the glistening, winding Boka Bay or Bay of Kotor, in the Adriatic Sea. Alexander McQueen, Chopard and Tag Heuer stores sit next to world-class restaurants frequented by an increasingly international clientele.

Not too far away is Portonovi, another waterfront residential and retail development, and completing the triad of these mixed-use projects is Lustica Bay, an emerging marina town on the Lustica peninsula that is easily the most impressive development in the area. The site covers 6.9 million square metres of land and will ultimately encompass more than 1,500 residences, seven hotels, two marinas, an 18-hole golf course and myriad retail outlets and restaurants. It broke grown in 2013, the first properties were finished by 2015 and in 2018 the project really started to take shape, as its Marina Village was completed and The Chedi Lustica Bay opened its doors.

The Lustica Bay project in Montenegro, which was developed by Egypt's Orascom Development. The company develops resorts and operates 33 hotels in seven countries. Courtesy of Lustica Bay

Lustica Bay is the work of Orascom Development Holding AG, the company behind Egypt’s well-known modern resort town of El Gouna, which sits on the country’s Red Sea coast. The firm also has a number of projects in Oman, Morocco and built The Cove Rotana Resort in Ras Al Khaimah. It has its eyes on the world’s emerging destinations and has now turned its attentions to Montenegro, a place that’s seen growth in tourism reach approximately 10 per cent year-on-year and is quickly becoming known as one of the world’s fastest-growing tourism markets.

As a package, Montenegro has most things and I think most people, when they come, they will come again

Darren Gibson, Lustica Bay’s chief executive

“We call Montenegro a compact country,” says Darren Gibson, Lustica Bay’s chief executive. “You can do a lot in a very small space. There are many different experiences: cultural experiences, beach, snow, skiing in the north, sporting activities and cultural heritage is significant. Most people have been here at some point or another – the Ottomans were here, the Venetians, Romans, Austro-Hungarians. As a package, it has most things and I think most people, when they come, they will come again.”

Gibson, who is originally from Australia, had been working for several years on a similar project in Egypt before joining Orascom to oversee the new Montenegrin development. He uprooted his family and has now been living in the Balkan nation for five years. Even in that short space of time, the change he’s seen around him has been unprecedented, he says. “There are constant challenges, but I wouldn’t say we weren’t expecting those. We know what we’re coming to when we come to these emerging destinations.” These include underdeveloped infrastructure, unclear processes and regulations, as well as a lack of industry – but these are all things that are set to change within a matter of years.

An aerial view of Lustica Bay.

Despite any difficulties, the Orascom team has made big efforts to work with and around its local environment. While the group’s masterplans have similar elements built in, each project is designed to work with its surroundings, whether that’s in Montenegro, Morocco or Switzerland. “They’re built around hotels, marinas, golf – but this project, more than the other existing projects in the group, is different because of its topography.” Where the others are mostly built in sand, this is being developed among steep inclines and rugged coastline. The country’s landscape and vegetation is integrated into the project at every corner, and each of the existing buildings also reflects the architecture seen throughout the nation and surrounding towns of Tivat, Kotor and Budva, for example.

All eyes on Montenegro

The rise in interest in this one development just goes to show how Montenegro is increasingly under the spotlight on the world stage. Not just as a tourist hot spot, but also as a place with serious investment potential. In the past seven years, average prices in Lustica Bay’s Marina Village have gone up by 83.6 per cent and interest isn’t just coming from the surrounding countries; people from 39 nationalities are among its buyer pool.

Inside one of the many apartments on sale or available for rent at Lustica Bay.

Within the next 10 to 20 years, Gibson says he can see Montenegro, as a tourist destination, becoming “a serious player in the Med”. “The changes that have occurred in the last five to 10 years are significant strides. Critical things like infrastructure have come or are coming. In five years or so we will have a very different level – road infrastructure will have improved, for example, and those things are super important.”

I look at our neighbours in Croatia and I expect Montenegro will be far in advance as a destination for the type of tourism that the country is trying to attract

Darren Gibson

The three developments are playing a huge role in that progress, he adds. “What that’s doing is generating interest and demand from other developers, both local and foreign, to further develop the tourism industry – and other industries for that matter.” A new Montenegro citizenship programme, which as of the beginning of 2019 allows foreign investors to apply for a passport, will also undoubtedly help to boost interest. The country’s accession to the European Union, possibly by 2025, will only see it develop further.

What’s hugely important to project leaders like Gibson, as well as the Montenegrin government, however, is the positioning of the country in an progressively over-populated tourism market. “I look at our neighbours in Croatia, for example, and I expect Montenegro will be far in advance as a destination for the type of tourism that the country is trying to attract. We can attract three million visitors tomorrow, but are they the right visitors? What benefit is that to the country?” Primarily, they want people who are active, environmentally conscious, interested in exploring Montenegro’s diverse natural offering, but also have a penchant for luxury.

As with any emerging destinations, what can and will be achieved in Montenegro is as yet unclear. What’s for certain, however, is that in another 13 years, the Balkan state will be radically different. And now is the time to go.

Updated: January 5, 2020 05:27 PM