Today I had a very unpleasant experience while visiting the doctor’s office in Reykjavik and as I was walking home, I wondered what it was about the experience that had me so worked up. I had gone to seek gel cream for third-degree burns over my upper torso and whooping cough that just would not go away. The doctor who saw me was polite and kind and asked where I was from, knowing I was a tourist as dark hair and green eyes tend to stand out like a sore thumb against a sea of Nordic blondes. I responded that I was from both Croatia and Montenegro and smiled as best I could while trying not to cough profusely. “Croatia? Love that place,” he replied. ‘Umm, yes,” I mumbled. It’s typical to get that response from Icelanders as many of them follow handball and soccer and have just come out of two years where Croatia has been in every one of their EURO and World Cup qualifying heaths. “Can’t say the same about Montenegro though,” he went on while checking my lungs and telling me to take a deep breath. I wanted to respond but kept my temper in check knowing this guy could be the difference between life and death and I desperately needed aloe vera cream and possibly more antibiotics. “Why can’t you say the same about Montenegro?” I inquired politely. “Oh no offense was meant” he went on. “It’s just, in comparison to Croatia I found the place somewhat backwards and I really don’t enjoy going on a European holiday and seeing Russians everywhere. Why do you people let so many in? They’ve taken over half your country, and they’re easily recognizable with all that jewelry and nonsense they wear at the beach.” Now I was seriously offended.
While he wrote out my prescription I sat there thinking of something to say, only no words came out of my mouth. Instead, he handed me my prescription and bid me a good day. I walked out numb and irritated wondering why I hadn’t said anything and considered marching back in. It wasn’t a good idea, and instead of picking an argument I walked out and proceeded to head towards the pharmacy to pick up the prescription he had written for me. Still, my thoughts and mind were clouded by what he had just told me. It wasn’t the first time I had heard someone say something similar and it bothered me just as much today as it had in the past. I recall a few years back when I had booked tours through American Express Concierge for some British friends and was so excited to hear their feedback. They had two majestic weeks along the Dalmatian coast with Brac, Hvar, Korcula, and Dubrovnik planned in the middle and culminated in a 3-night stay in Kotor and Budva before flying back out of Split. I made sure that every single detail was looked after and felt like a kid on Christmas morning waiting for them to heap on praise after praise. When they finally did call I was too excited to let them finish and jumped in with, “can you honestly tell me you’ve ever visited two more beautiful countries? Can you?” I implored. My friend Fiona, who has that perfect Scottish accent paused for a moment before continuing with, “well while we really enjoyed Croatia a lot, we felt somewhat rushed in Montenegro and also we didn’t really feel the same there.” I was stunned. “What do you mean?” I asked. “Why was it not to your liking?” She assured me everything was great and ok, but questioned why there weren’t as many tourists from the UK visiting as the amount they had seen in Dubrovnik. Fiona then went on to say that she and her husband were surprised by signs in Russian and the sheer number of Russian tourists and homeowners they had encountered on their journey. “Well, they live here and have just as much right as anyone to purchase a property if they so choose,” I responded. “Oh of course dear, it’s just we aren’t used to seeing such a big display of it in the other countries we travel to, that’s all.”
Keeping in mind that Fiona visited in 2010 and I hadn’t had a chance to ask the Icelandic doctor when he had visited, this is not the first time I have had to hear such feedback from western European tourists and I can truly state it bothers me. First and foremost, it’s a judgment call that is not a very fair one. I’d like to think that every foreign contribution in a country as small as Montenegro is a welcome one. Secondly, while the argument that the tourism options are not as robust as what they are in neighbouring Croatia may have rung true ten years ago, today is certainly not the case anymore - and if I hadn’t been so upset and riled, I would have pointed out that in many areas Montenegro has actually surpassed Croatia.
So why do comments like the ones mentioned above continue to trouble me? I suppose it is because of the deeper hints at what the voices of these comments are most likely trying to allude to. People prefer the comfort zone of Spain, France, and Italy knowing that their friends and neighbors from ‘the West’ vacation there. Presented with Easterners frolicking on the same shores as them, tends to bring out the smugness in people. I wonder if they even bother to pop open a guidebook before they jet-set away from home or can they really be this naïve? I recall a few years back while waiting for the ferry crossing at Kamenari, a very angry French tourist screaming into his cell phone and telling whoever was on the other end that he was horrified to find out a portion of the Croatian highway ended well before Dubrovnik and that he had to take a two-lane road into Montenegro. He looked as if he was about to explode. When he got off the phone and lit a cigarette, I couldn’t help but approach and let him know that the tender for that last portion of the road was riddled with problems but that the highway between the two countries and extending as far as Greece was in the works. He didn’t apologize but instead went into a tirade about how this ‘would never happen in France.’ I shrugged my shoulders and walked away, what was the point of trying to argue with someone who was determined to have a bad time.
At the crux of it, the reason even the slightest negative comment upsets me is because of how much change I have seen on the tourism front in the last ten years alone, and that change has been huge, noticeable and very positive. It’s led to other positive developments on the economic front as well, but as with all good things, massive change takes time. I’m still immensely proud of the success story which Montenegro has become and for this reason, I will keep writing about these positive changes and do my small part to ensure that the world knows about it and that the message is spread wide and far. I can appreciate that others have the right to their opinion, but what I have learned is to ask questions and see if I can ascertain why a negative experience came about. In talking it through, even a bad experience can be seen in a more positive light given the right context and information. Going forward, I feel every one of us has a right to act as a Brand Ambassador where ever we are in the world and impact on potential tourists all the positive reasons to visit and impress on them that the lifestyle is critical. What we may lack regarding colossal infrastructure projects – which will surely come in time, we more than makeup for regarding comfort and security. Because let’s face it, given the very real problems facing the tourism market in the expensive and often visited countries of western Europe, Montenegro can hold its head up proudly noting that it doesn’t face similar problems and is instead a beacon of safety. The next time I encounter the opinion like the one voiced today by the Icelandic doctor, I will be sure to reply “well, it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but hey at least I’m not afraid of a terrorist attack while vacationing there. Bet you don’t have that in France.”