Letter from Montenegro: See the coast, while you can

I am writing this from a balcony in Petrovac, Montenegro. It’s 9 a.m., the Adriatic Sea below me is refulgent in the sun and although it early there are already sunbathers out. Some have skin so brown it’s difficult to tell where their bodies end and the sand begins.

From this perch I also hear the din of construction.

If Montenegro had a soundtrack, it would be the steady sound of hammer, drill and saw. Nowhere is this more true than along Montenegro’s coast.

Since February I’ve been living in Montenegro, and during months of traveling in a country smaller than Connecticut I’ve had a pretty good vantage point from which to consider what is happening to the country’s coastline.

A lot of what you read about Montenegro’s coast is true. It is still relatively undiscovered, if you compare it to, say, Croatia, which is probably now past its peak as the place to go in the Mediterranean. It is cheap, again relatively speaking. It is stunningly beautiful in spots, too. But a lot of people arrive here expecting mile after mile of unspoiled coastline and soon realize, probably when sitting in traffic in Budva, inching along behind so many cement mixers and dump trucks, that this isn’t so.

The Montenegrins are rushing to develop their riviera in an alarmingly determined way, all with the aim of fueling the engines of tourism that are keeping this country afloat. From Herceg Novi in the north to Ulcinj in the south, new hotels are going up and huge condo developments are underway. Even here, in a small town that hugs a cove below a steep bowl of green mountain, men are working around the clock to renovate the old stone buildings along the waterfront and turn them into apartments. In the summer, this town of 1,400 swells to 20,000.

“It really is unbelievable,” says Pat Oates, who owns “The Old Stone House on the Adriatic,” where I am writing this. The house is really just a floor that he and his wife, also named Pat, have converted into a guest apartment. Oates has performed all of the renovation himself, a small job when considered against the backdrop of the dozen or so large scale projects he says are ongoing now in Petrovac. “And there’s another 20 or so smaller projects.”Petrovac is still a tiny place. Elsewhere along the coastline the development is happening on a much larger scale. You can easily imagine, say in five years, mile after mile of soulless hotels standing sentry where you once were able to pull off at the side of the road, walk down among pine and olive trees along a narrow dirt path, and find yourself alone at the sea. Montenegro has a while to go before becoming another Costa del Sol, but it’s getting there.

What’s interesting is that Montenegrins are having a direct hand in the coastline’s transformation. Russians have been buying up much of the local property simply by dangling small amounts of money in front of private land owners, who are poor. Those Russians are building elaborate seaside dachas and resorts. The Montenegrins are cashing the checks.

Young Montenegrins are especially concerned about this. Theirs is the first generation to really have to confront the double edge sword of tourism. They are fiercely proud of their country’s natural offerings – so many quote the country’s official slogan, “Wild Beauty,” you’d think they were all on the payroll of the Montenegro Tourism Board – and love the fact that foreigners want to visit. But they are upset at what they see as a land grab and of the growing geographical gap in the country. The coastline is what gets the visitors, so the government is investing heavily on infrastructure improvements; the north, no less dramatic in its scenery, does not get the visitors and thus communities there go without. “The south is very rich and the north is very poor. The government just pays attention to the south. It’s a big problem,” says Marko Latkovic, a student from Ulcinj.

I realize that I am painting the coast out to be one long construction zone. It isn’t that dramatic; there are still significant stretches of impressive, unmolested scenery. But it’s just that one feels it is only a matter of time till those stretches shrink in length and number.

It strikes me that Montenegro is folding its best hand. Tourists, bored with the overdeveloped and cruise ship-heavy Croatian coast, are heading farther south to escape the crowds and get something a little more natural. Montenegro in turn is rushing to cash in on that tourism, but by developing the coastline in a way that will one day resemble what tourists were trying to escape by arriving in the first place. Of course, the country needs some infrastructure to meet the demands of tourists. But shouldn’t planners be focusing on making Montenegro’s coast different than its neighbor to the north? I mentioned all this recently to a Montenegrin friend, Stevan Ulama, who lives in the coastal town of Sutomore. I said I was concerned. “Me too,” he said.

“You know, we are a new state, and we don’t yet have that many smart people in [tourism] and in the government. What we need is to have rules for this development. We don’t really have them,” he said.

Maybe Montenegro’s motto should really be “Wild Beauty – for now.”