It was quite hot outside, typical for a summer day in Montenegro, and I knew I shouldn’t wear long pants. But there was nothing to be done; we were getting ready for our first trip to Sveti Stefan and the occasion called for a little dress-up.
That infamous summer of 2020, when tourism in Montenegro briefly came to a halt due to the pandemic, I had the best time. Like a complete tourist, I explored beaches I’d otherwise never go to, not only because they’re crowded in summer, but also because they’re pricey. I visited national parks too. Then I decided to take it one step further.
Using my journalism background to pull some strings, I managed to secure myself a guided tour of the famous hotel town Sveti Stefan, a gem of the Adriatic Sea. I also shamelessly worked up the courage and nonchalantly asked if three cousins of mine could come along. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity after all, an opportunity worth sweating it out in some smart pants.
Sveti Stefan is the face of Montenegro’s tourism. There are loads of advertisements for summer tourism in Montenegro, but it’s hard to recall a single one that doesn’t show the tiny peninsula with red-roofed houses clustered together under a church’s bell tower. Nevertheless, neither me nor my cousins had ever visited the place before, let alone peeked into Aman Resorts’ luxury suites.
This is nothing unusual for Montenegro. Although numerous world leaders and celebrities — from Orson Welles, Sophia Loren and Kirk Douglas to Victoria and David Beckham — stayed there at one point in the past few decades, most Montenegrins have never been to Sveti Stefan. We often take quick selfies with the well-known scenery in the backdrop either from up the road or from down the beach, but only a few people have a chance to explore this site of cultural and historical significance to Montenegro. For the majority of locals, it remains a luxury summer resort that’s just not accessible to everyone, in fact, it’s only open to guests of the luxury hotel that runs the whole islet.
This is one of the reasons why the cultural landscape of Sveti Stefan (together with the nearby Miločer Park) was included in the list of Europe’s seven most endangered heritage sites this April.
Published by Europa Nostra, a civil society group that works to protect Europe’s cultural and natural heritage, and the European Investment Bank Institute, the list contains two more sites located in the Balkans: the Partisan Memorial Cemetery in Mostar (Bosnia and Herzegovina) and the Watermills of Bistrica in Petrovac na Mlavi (Serbia).
All the beauty we can not see
“The Montenegro State has almost half privatised this national treasure and disenfranchised its own citizens from their own public domain,” Europa Nostra notes in their announcement. “Unauthorised building and site changes are altering the whole aspect of the site. The popular and public summer theatre has been closed and dismantled. Public access to Sveti Stefan old town and other parts of the site has been forbidden, even during winter months when the hotel is closed, making it impossible for locals and non-hotel guest tourists to enjoy this cultural landscape.”
The organization points out that Sveti Stefan has been declared a national heritage site by Montenegro as well as that the islet’s eponymous oldest church received UNESCO restoration funding in 1984. Of particular concern, according to Europa Nostra, is the planned construction of a large hotel “next to the entrance to Miločer Park, which would cause significant harm to the whole cultural and natural area of Sveti Stefan and Miločer Park, and damage the beauty of the coastline.”
The Advisory Panel for the “7 Most Endangered” program notes that this behavior is in direct conflict with the Faro Convention that Montenegro acceded to in 2008. Signed by 27 countries, the convention states that every person has a right to use cultural heritage and “contribute towards its enrichment.”
Sveti Stefan made the list of Europe’s most endangered sites thanks to the civil group “Initiative for Sveti Stefan.” They call on the Montenegrin government to limit culturally and environmentally disruptive real estate development and demand that the area be made a public good, all things the government already committed to by signing the above mentioned convention.
What are the things money can buy?
This type of decades-long governmental mishandling of cultural heritage has brought about a situation in which many Montenegrins have simply given up. It has become acceptable that — provided you have enough money — you can buy out or get a lease on anything you want and thus keep it away from the public, making it either unavailable or only sporadically accessible.
In 2007, the Montenegrin government decided to lease out the entire hotel town together with the Miločer Villa and the former hotel Kraljičina Plaža — which sit on the mainland near the narrow causeway to the island — over a period of several decades. Adriatic Properties, the lessee company, committed to invest 50 million euros along with annual rent payments. A subsequent annex extended Sveti Stefan’s lease period to 2049, while the annual rent was cut from 1.6 million euros to 1.1 million. On top of that, all parties agreed to extend the lease on Kraljičina Plaža hotel before Adriatic Properties tore it down and started to build a new hotel in its place.
After the initial closure during the pandemic, Sveti Stefan remained closed the following year due to escalating confrontations with local residents who opposed the new construction projects and who demanded that the beaches open. Adriatic Properties then filed a multi-million euro lawsuit against the newly elected government of Montenegro.
An arbitration held in London has been ongoing since 2021 about which there are occasional unconfirmed leaks of information about its slow progress. Just when it became likely that Sveti Stefan would remain closed this summer, the Montenegrin government held a meeting with Adriatic Properties on May 3. “We have a deal!” Prime Minister Dritan Abazović then announced. “After three years, Aman is opening Sveti Stefan.”
The details of the agreement are not yet public so it’s unclear who is going to be the first to visit the islet and when, who is going to have access to the nearby beaches and what’s going to happen with the construction of a brand new Kraljičina Plaža hotel. A question mark hangs above all the things Europa Nostra warned about.
The brief “liberation” of the beaches that encircle the islet, which the wider public got access to after such a long time, generated much debate.
That first summer when Sveti Stefan’s closure began to look certain, I remember people making all kinds of comments. “I don’t know what the problem is. I don’t get it. Is Victoria Beckham supposed to swim in the same place I do,” a friend asked in one of our heated debates. He didn’t see any issue with the way a country’s cultural heritage, beaches and parks are ceded to the rich. As a matter of fact, this whole “you can do whatever you want if you have enough money” idea has become so integral to our mentality that it’s hardly ever questioned.
I’m not sure where David and Victoria Beckham are supposed to go swimming, it’s the least of my concerns. It’s much more important to ask for what reason and under what terms the state leases out cultural heritage, what public contracts are given to private companies and how transparent contracting is. Moreover, we need to look into how much money the Montenegrin government has made out of this particular and other similar leases. And let’s not get started on what a country should expect if it treats its cultural heritage like this.
One of my favorite arguments is that money can’t buy the type of promotion provided by having the Beckhams visit Montenegro. Maybe that’s true. However, these generalizations often just mystify the whole process of promoting the tourism industry. Certainly there are other promotions money can buy — promotions that should be part of wider tourism strategies and planned promotion of Montenegro’s tourism potential.
If we consider an effectively unlimited leasing of certain locations and cultural heritage the pinnacle of our strategic planning in tourism, I’m afraid that we’re everything but strategic. Rather, I’m not afraid — I know very well whose benefit it is.
It was only in 2020 that the tourist destination called Montenegro remembered that local tourists exist too. It’s a country where children’s resorts have been closing for years, while new ones fail to be developed. This is the reason why a large number of children don’t have an opportunity not only to go to their own seaside for a summer vacation or to explore their common cultural heritage, but even to see the sea. This is no surprise at all given that at least a third of Montenegrin children live in poverty.
It’s a country where a tourist complex or two are opened almost every year, while the Yugoslav-era hotels that granted workers and their families cheap access to the sea either no longer exist or have been privatized. It’s a country where the number of free beaches available to everyone is plummeting.
Despite all this, we’re still going to worry about where the Beckham family — David, Victoria and their children — will go next summer? That’s really the least of our problems.
Feature image: Ivan Čučuk / Europa Nostra.