Montenegro eyeing high-end tourism sector to boost economy

ULCINJ, Montenegro (AFP) – Looking beyond another summer for its record-breaking tourism industry, Montenegro plans to turn a chain of beaches into upscale resorts to shore up a post-independence economic bonanza. Singled out for development are around half a dozen locations along the tiny Adriatic state’s cove-indented coastline, including several communist-era military facilities. Central to the plans is Velika Plaza – a 13-kilometer-long beach of sweeping fine sands for which the government is seeking foreign investors who can transform it into a world-class leisure resort. «The development of Velika Plaza and other locations on the Montenegrin coast… can completely change the economic future of our country… Investment of that scope and character can be a trigger for the economic boom that we are expecting,» the Tourism Ministry said in a statement to AFP. Montenegro, a former Yugoslav republic with a population of around 650,000, split away from a loose union with Serbia two years ago after a historic independence referendum. Unshackled from the troubles of its former partner, it has since become one of the most dynamic Balkan economies, posting gross domestic product growth of more than 7 percent last year. The growth has been fueled by the tourism and property sectors, magnets that have helped attract more than 1 billion euros of foreign direct investment in 2007, up 56 percent year-on-year. That and other key indicators such as falling unemployment – now at 11.6 percent against 14.6 percent at the same stage last year – have surpassed government forecasts. Montenegro’s picturesque coast helped it register 1.13 million tourist visits in 2007, up 19 percent from 2006 and well above a target of 900,000 at the time of independence, according to the ministry. The interest of foreign companies in projects like Velika Plaza, which the ministry values at several billion euros, is showing no signs of waning despite tensions about neighboring Kosovo. «The economy drastically jumped after (Montenegro’s) independence; the effects have been unbelievable,» said Vaso Radovic, Ulcinj municipality’s economy and development secretary. Velika Plaza, he added, was of «enormous potential» to Ulcinj, which compared with other parts of the coast is an impoverished region where ethnic Albanians account for 80 percent of its 22,000 residents. But Radovic raised concerns about the project, which has already come in for criticism due to worries about the environmental impact of rampant construction. The federal government had «to complete the investment deal by mediating between investors and the local administration as soon as possible, because the area could be choked by illegal construction of buildings and roads,» he said. In its invitation, Montenegro said it was seeking «experienced international investors with substantial financial resources… to assure the development of this special place in an economically and environmentally sustainable manner.» But non-governmental organizations fear construction will get out of control as in Budva, the main Montenegrin coastal town notorious among locals for its noisy and tacky cafe-bars. Velika Plaza and its surroundings are home to «rare species of wildlife and plants that are unfortunately threatened by extinction because of illegal works,» said Dzelal Hodzic of Green Step, an Ulcinj-based NGO. Other vulnerable projects include the island of Ada Bojana, a beach at former navy base Valdanos, the coastal villages of Kumbor and Bigovo, and Mamula, an island with a World War II fort that once served as a prison. But Montenegro’s Tourism Minister Predrag Nenezic moved recently to allay such fears. «We insist on a high level of investment and high quality, above all with regard to protecting the environment,» Nenezic said. «We have done a strategic study on the effects on the environment… fitting with European standards and a large number of green zones have been identified and will be protected,» assured the minister.

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