Responsible tourism in Montenegro

Montenegro is small, just the size of Northern Ireland, and it only gained independence in 2006. So it is a relative newbie on the tourism scene really. And like a baby, its bones are brittle and it is still vulnerable. In some ways, along the coast, it tried to run before it could walk, laying itself open to dangers of exploitation and overdevelopment. When, in fact, with such extraordinary cultural and natural heritage, it simply needs to be nurtured, cared for and allowed to develop naturally, in baby steps. Otherwise, there will be tears before bedtime.

People & culture

Although it is not so well known for its giant cruise ships, the inevitable has happened, especially with the already bruised by cruise destinations Dubrovnik and Venice as neighbours. Kotor Bay in Montenegro is the new destination for these floating hotels, and this is starting to create a lot of anchor angst, to say the least. Local people are reporting up to four giant cruise ships being docked at one time during the peak season, which is far too many for such a small place. Sometimes up to as many as 1000 passengers disembarking at one time, and crowding into the small streets like a tidal wave. If the cruise ship passengers were feasting on land, however, it might keep local people happier, but they pour out after breakfast and go back mid afternoon, stopping only for coffees and ice cream. In Dubrovnik and Venice this has meant that a lot of the traditional local cafes have become fast food outlets, and craft shops are now junk souvenir shops, meaning that the town is not only losing its culture but also its cash.

It hasnít got quite as bad as this in Kotor yet, and there is an understandable fear of losing cruise ship tourism as it means big business. However, many people, locals and land based tourists alike, want to curb it. There is no doubt that many cruise passengers want to embrace the local culture and marvel at the historic buildings, but the country needs them to leave an economic footprint too, not just one made by overcrowding.
What you can do
There is only one way that cruise ship tourism can become more responsible, and that is through government action. So, if the domineering presence of cruise ships in this UNESCO World Heritage site of Kotor Bay worries you, take photos and send them to the Ministry of Sustainable Development and Tourism, and tell them that if they really want responsible tourism in Montenegro, they need to curb it. It is often when the customer starts to say no, and threaten to damage the all-important visitor numbers, that governments sit up and take notice. Or brave it out and just say no, just like some of the Caribbean islands. Now that would be a PR coup.
Mark Jones, from an article in The Independent, Montenegro: A deep-water destination for deep pockets, 13/7/14: ďIf you had to design a town for a short cruise stopover, you'd probably end up with Kotor. It has a dramatic location beneath the nearly overhanging limestone cliffs of Orjen and Lovcen mountains and you can exercise those sea legs by trekking up to yet another monastery at the summit of the Napoleon-era fortifications. Less energetic cruise people simply wander for an hour around the medieval streets, gawp at a palace and the Cathedral of Saint Tryphon, eat pizza, wander around the small museum Ė then back on board. Done.Ē

Wildlife & environment

Montenegro went a bit ballistic after it gained independence, with property developers, hotel visionaries and, to use the official economic term, a load of greedy gits jumping on that dollar driven bandwagon. In 2008, just two years after independence, a BBC report announced that Montenegro was in receipt of more foreign investment than any other country in Europe. And most of that came from Russia. The cranes moved in, concrete was poured and steel girders were erected at various spots along its coast. Small traditional towns, such as Budva and now Petrovac, with traditional red tiled roofed houses and mountainous backdrops that looked like a marriage between Finlandís fjords and Austriaís Alps were drowning under a ruble rainstorm.

And then after the storm came the drought, with Russiaís economy going from boom to bust. In many places the cranes stopped and construction sites were left unfinished. Also unfinished were some of the controversial issues around local corruption and money laundering that were allegedly happening around this rapid development of Montenegroís coast. Indeed, money laundering has been cited as one of the things that Montenegro has to fix before proceeding to EU membership. The nightclub scene in Budva was getting a seedy reputation, and as recently as 2014, the Mayor of Budva was arrested for corruption. As was one of his predecessors in 2010. Many questions remain unanswered and many buildings remain unfinished.

Sources : Independent Balkan News Agency, and BBC
What you can do
It is worth noting that, in 2011, the Montenegrin Ministry of Sustainable Development and Tourism put in place a Coastal Area Management Programme (CAMP). This covers the entire coastal zone including the land and waters around Herceg Novi, Kotor, Tivat, Budva, Bar and Ulcinj. In the meantime, it is crucial to support small, locally owned businesses along the coast. Talk to local people about how they feel, email CAMP if you feel strongly, and post your thoughts on social media. #Montenegro. That tends to get attention from the powers that be.

Responsible tourism tips

Coastal pollution has been an issue in Montenegro, and hardly surprising with all the building development that has been happening. It currently has 18 Blue Flag beaches. You can enter Kosovo from Montenegro, an independent republic since 2008, one that is disputed by Serbia, but recognised by Montenegro and most other countries in the world. Serbia still claims it to be part of its territory. From Montenegro, you can enter through Rozaje to Peja/Pec. Border controls in Serbia do not welcome Kosovo stamps in passports. So if you are visiting the whole region, visit Serbia first, or just make sure that Kosovar authorities donít stamp your passport. Remember that Montenegro still has a devout Orthodox Christian culture, so you should cover your shoulders and knees when visiting chapels and monasteries. Although homosexuality is legal in Montenegro, and has been since 1977, there is a history of violent attacks against gay people, and a general air of cultural intolerance in the country, particularly in traditional Orthodox areas, which are based very much on a patriarchal culture. In 2014, the LGBTQI social centre in Podgorica was attacked 26 times and, according to a 2104 Amnesty International report on on-going human rights issues in the Balkan states, no perpetrators were prosecuted. There is a large population of ethnic Albanians living in the south of Montenegro as you approach the Albanian border. Although some are families forced to flee Kosovo during the war, there have always been ethnic Albanians living in Montenegro. Activist group Minority Rights support ethnic Albanians living in Montenegro in their task to highlight discrimination against their people. They believe that they are under-represented in public-sector employment and suffer many examples of discrimination in daily life. Just as Montenegroís building and transport infrastructure is growing to meet increasing demands from tourists, so is its activity sector. Companies do need to have a licence and insurance to operate, but there is no government organisation regulating or policing proper safety procedures in Montenegro. That is not to say that companies are irresponsible. Responsible operators leading kayaking and white water rafting trip, for example, will always put safety first, and be able to answer all your questions about this. If they seem to be in doubt about equipment or rescue procedures, then stay clear of them and seek out more experienced tour operators. Waste management is an issue in Montenegro, and you still see some illegal dumping taking place on the roads or in remote spots, and general litter can also be an issue. Certainly not everywhere, but the government, and local people, definitely still need to get their heads around this. And now for some good news, and a responsible tourism success story. Montenegrin Ornithologist Darko Saveljic of Montenegro's Centre for the Research and Protection of Birds (CZIP) ran a successful campaign a few years ago to protect the Ulcinj Saltpans, an Important Bird Area and one of Europe's top five resting sites for migratory birds, from being developed as a hotel complex with golf course. The government has publicly promised to protect it as an ecological reserve and the saltpans now have their own website and bird guides.
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: Oleg_P] [Culture: Jorge Franganillo] [Cruise ship: Nicola Keen] [Development: Marianne van Twillert-Wennekes]