Using Sustainable Tourism to Get Back on the Map
I’m always favourably surprised by how many people have heard of Montenegro. For such a Lilliputian nation, it seems to have outsized celebrity, although, sadly, still seldom as a place worthy of holiday consideration. Having been an attractive vacation retreat as recently as the 1980s, Montenegro until just a few years ago had fallen off the radar as a tourist destination for anyone outside the region. Despite remaining more or less aloof during the Balkan hostilities of the 1990s, Montenegro’s tourist infrastructure and reputation suffered as did the entire region’s: gutted by a decade of flying bullets and political barbs.
Today, however, Montenegro is at last reaching new travel audiences. Unlike some of its neighbours – Montenegro shares borders with Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo and Albania – Montenegro declared its independence in 2006 without its armed forces firing a shot, which sent a clear positive message to travellers. Even before then Montenegro had felt free to pursue an agenda that included redeveloping tourism assets and services throughout the country.
One pair of organisations, however, set its sights on the rich natural endowment of the country’s little-visited and under-serviced north, like Durmitor National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site with numerous mountain peaks over 2,200 metres and stunning glacial lakes and breathtaking canyons carved by the Tara and Piva rivers. All this was looked at with a careful progressive eye toward keeping in step with sustainable-tourism principles and best practices. And, although the north of Montenegro continues to be a primary focus, the shared area of activity for these two organisations has expanded to encompass the whole of the country, equally enthralling both at its mountainous heights and along its 73km of beaches.
Centre for Sustainable Tourism Initiatives (CSTI)
In 2005, with funds from USAID, the international humanitarian and aid organization CHF International founded a local Montenegrin NGO called CSTI as an lasting actor in the development and promotion of tourism, particularly in the north, an area rich in unspoiled natural and historic attractions.
“The needs were clear and simple,” said Christopher Brown, Director for CHF International in Montenegro during a speech in December 2008. “Tourists had to be aware of the region as a tourism destination and adequate service had to be made available upon their arrival. In response, CSTI went to work on promoting the region, developing services and building the capacity of tourism personnel.”
The results were outstanding: more than 40 unique tours, most of them adventure-based or eco-cultural in orientation, some into remote parts of the country; high-quality promotional materials; and strong partnerships on the ground with local communities, national government bodies and even abroad with partners able to assure visitors. On-site work was directed at tourism providers to help them improve hospitality, tour and transport services; knowledge was shared with ministries and major tourism organisations helping keep development strategies and support inline with expectations; and word of Montenegro’s beauty has begun to reach more and more ears all across the globe.
As demand for CSTI-developed tourism products grew, two needs were identified. First, independent travellers and small groups were asking to travel, but, second, “All of our tours were just sitting around unused,” said Slavica Vukcevic, Executive Director of Montenegro Adventures. “We had tested the tours – advertised them, taken a few people and journalists on them – and we thought local operators would carry on the tours. But they didn’t.”
And so Montenegro Adventures was born, a subsidiary wholly owned by CSTI and sharing its ideals, knowledge base and resources, but distinct in both organisation and mission. Whereas CSTI is an NGO that develops responsible and sustainable tourism products, Montenegro Adventures is a for-profit tourism agency selling those products. The end result – using sustainable and responsible travel practices to improve the quality of life in Montenegro, preserve cultural heritage and protect the environment – is refreshingly the same.
Part of the whl.travel Family
In June 2008, Montenegro Adventures accepted support from the International Finance Corporation (part of the World Bank Group) as part of the latter’s Balkan Hotel Market Access Program, designed to open the Balkan region to new markets. This brought Montenegro Adventures to whl.travel, the fast-growing global grassroots network of travel websites. Through whl.travel, three new accommodation- and tour-booking destination portals for Montenegro were launched, covering the capital city of Podgorica and surrounding mountains, elegant seaside Budva and southern Montenegro and the Bay of Kotor.
In just four short years, through businesses like CSTI and Montenegro Adventures, Montenegro has put itself back on the map. So for your next summer holiday, don’t let larger countries distract you. From the top of Bobotov kuk (Mt Durmitor) to the Tara River Canyon or the medieval town of Kotor on its eponymous bay, Montenegro is one of the Balkan’s – and Europe’s – rediscovered gems.