Tourism is big – and rapidly growing – business in the Balkans. Once considered one of Europe’s
‘off-the-beaten-path’ hidden treasures, these countries have now firmly established their
position on the radar of visitors and investors from across the globe.
But how can the region’s developing markets avoid some of the typical pitfalls associated with a
sudden boom in foreign visitors? One hotelier’s answer is simple: think local.
“If developed and operated responsibly, a hotel can transform a town or even a whole region,
providing the impetus for sustainable growth in tourism,” says hotel owner Petros Stathis. “But
the needs of the local community and environment must be considered hand-in-hand with the
needs of the business.”
Foreign investment inflows into the Western Balkans rose from €4.9bn to €6.2bn between 2017
and 2018. A significant percentage of this investment was channeled into the tourism industry,
particularly in the emerging hotspot of Montenegro.
The country’s dramatic and varied landscapes, business-focused economic system and low
corporate tax rate have provided a catalyst for growth in recent years, piquing the interest of
investors from around the globe. The tourism sector alone now accounts for over 20% of
Montenegro’s GDP, with predictions it will rise to almost 30% by 2028.
Greek-born Stathis met his future wife, a Montenegrin, in the mid-2000s and started to explore
the potential for investment in his new adopted home country. In 2011 he opened Aman Sveti
Stefan, an 80-acre luxury resort built on the existing foundation of a medieval 16th-century
village. The hotel wouldn’t have become the iconic destination it is today, says Stathis, without
the full backing of the town’s residents.
“As a foreign investor, the successful completion of any project rests almost entirely on gaining
the support of the local authorities and ensuring it benefits the local community,” he reflects.
Due to its high visibility, Sveti Stefan’s public-private partnership structure set an example for
further tourism privatisations in the region. Stathis and his team worked closely with the local
government throughout the project, and its impact is widely considered to have reached
beyond Montenegro’s borders and set quality standards for the tourism industry in the
Southern and Eastern Mediterranean region.
Aman’s skills development programme has provided training for locals in the area surrounding
Sveti Stefan, creating hundreds of jobs and providing the basis for future careers in hospitality-
related and managerial positions.
“By training up a skilled local workforce, resorts like Aman Sveti Stefan can kick-start the
economic growth of an entire area,” says Stathis.

 

Prioritise sustainability
“Montenegro is a tiny country currently receiving a huge amount of attention on the global
stage,” says Stathis. “This type of situation calls for careful management to avoid exploiting and
destroying the very reason foreigners want to visit in the first place.”
That reason, of course, is Montenegro’s wild and diverse natural beauty. The country has two
World Heritage sites, one biosphere reserve and four national parks – and the government is
keenly aware it must nurture and protect the country’s ecology. As such, a commitment to the
conservation of such rich natural resources has been incorporated in the constitution of
Montenegro since 1991.
However, Stathis believes that hotel owners should also take the lead on sustainability issues,
rather than relying solely on the government and other authorities. The Aman group is known
for environmental, material and social sustainability, not just at Sveti Stefan but at all its hotels
across the world.
Construction of Aman Sveti Stefan was consistent with Montenegro’s low-density tourism
development strategy rather than mass tourism, and is complementary to the World Bank's
ongoing Sustainable Tourism Project.
Sveti Stefan island is a protected monument of culture of II category in the country, and the
refurbishment work fully complied with the relevant regulatory requirements and was
conducted under the supervision of the Institute for Cultural Monuments Protection.
“Consideration for the stunning environment that we are lucky enough to live and work in is
enshrined in everything I do,” he says. “The precise reason Aman Sveti Stefan is so iconic is
because it preserves the exact aesthetics of the original medieval island it inhabits, allowing
guests to reconnect with the purity of nature and the area’s rich cultural history. Everything
from the way the hotel was constructed to its energy supply and the seasonal menus in the
restaurants is hyper-focused on sustainability.
“Montenegro – like many of its Balkans neighbours – is at a critical juncture in its
development,” he concludes. “The coming years will shape the future of these beautiful
countries, and as business owners we must work together to ensure they retain their unique
charm whilst delivering the economic benefits their citizens deserve.”