After years of UN sanctions, civil war and ethnic strife, the Serbian state of Montenegro is looking to get its economy and people back on track by restoring a former cornerstone industry for the region tourism.
With once thriving resorts along the Adriatic Sea, a cultural heritage that dates back to the Roman Empire, and some of the most unspoiled wilderness remaining in all of Europe, it should be an easy sell.
However, the rush to grow tourism has led to conflicts over the future of the Durmitor National Park. There is a plan on the table that would expand two ski areas up and into Durmitor, which is currently designated as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The UN Development Programme is also involved in redeveloping tourism in Serbia and Montenegro.
The UN and the Global Institute for Ecotourism, concerned that expanding ski operations into the park could ultimately be negative for tourism and other values, sought an opinion on the proposed ski area development from Arthur DeJong, Whistler-Blackcombs mountain planning and environmental resource manager.
Dejong spent six days in the Zabljak-Drumitor region of Montenegro, reviewing the plan for the ski area and talking to people. What he found was a huge potential for tourism development but not for a large-scale ski operation.
"Not only is (Durmitor) a world heritage site, it is one of the, if not the only, intact alpine ecosystems left in all of Europe," said DeJong. "There are bear, deer, goats, wolves, 170 types of birds, all kinds of endemic flora it really is an ecological jewel for Europe, where most of those things are gone."
DeJong believes there is far better potential to develop the area for summer tourism, especially when millions of people already come to enjoy the beaches and resort towns just two hours away on the coast.
Even if the proponents of the ski resort did manage to expand the current capacity of the two existing ski resorts in the region (one is private and is closed, the other run by the state), the area does not have the snow, vertical or terrain to compete with resorts in Germany, France, Switzerland, Italy and other neighbouring countries.
Durmitor is also remote from the airport, and the road to the mountains is narrow and treacherous. After getting a snowfall of four feet recently the road was closed for close to four weeks.
The cost of developing a resort to carry a capacity of 19,000 skiers would also range in the hundreds of millions, while potentially decreasing the parks potential for summer visitors.
The plan for the expanded areas is also too general, and any increase would require the creation of a detailed master plan that takes all relevant details into account, from infrastructure to the potential impacts of global warming. Given that most locals who live in the area are opposed to the development, and the possibility that Montenegro could separate from Serbia, a ski resort does not make sense economically or socially, DeJong says.
DeJong believes there is a national market for expanded ski operations in the area, but otherwise money could be better spent emphasizing summer activities for international visitors.
"Right next door is the Tara Canyon, which is the second deepest in the world next to the Grand Canyon. There is phenomenal rafting there, theyve got excellent sport fishing, wildlife viewing, and hiking, and alpine tours would be absolutely stunning. There is potential for mountain biking on the secondary roads, and lots of neat little villages spread around, and it wouldnt take that much money to do," said DeJong. "Most of the area surrounding the park is not yet touched by tourism, so (Serbia-Montenegro) stands a chance to really get it right."
DeJong filed his report to the UNDP last week, recommending the creation of a master plan for the ski areas and the area surrounding the park. He emphasized the need to utilize the existing assets, minimizing capital expenditures, and creating a small-scale ski experience that would be highly competitive in the Montenegro and Serbian ski market.
For his part DeJong said he enjoyed the experience and would like to work with the UN again if given the chance. He has already helped to co-ordinate a relief program and development program for Romania with Rotary International.
"Its incredible to go to these places that have gone through so much lately, and have so far to go to catch up with the rest of the world," he said.
"At the same time they have a lot of history, and some incredible potential there for tourism and ecotourism. That is ultimately what is going to make all the difference for these people."