The Malta Independent 25 November 2014, Tuesday

Montenegro – A niche route for Malta?

Malta Independent Sunday, 29 July 2012, 00:00 Last update: about 7 months ago

During his recent visit to Malta, President of Montenegro Filip Vujanović pointed out the potential of tourism between the two countries, mentioning that this was being hindered by the absence of direct air links. In the following, we will look at some aspects of this potential route development.

The destination

The small former Yugoslav country that is on its way towards EU membership could be a very worthwhile destination for Maltese tourists. Of particular interest are its beautiful towns and attractive villages, as well as the fantastic landscape – especially along the Bay of Kotor, a UNESCO world heritage site that offers everything from small, quiet places such as Perast in the inner bay, to Herceg Novi on the outer bay with its accompanying nightlife. The area makes holidays combining culture, the seaside and mountains possible in just one village or town.

Montenegro, which has been attracting quite a lot of incoming traffic from Russia, has the advantage that its official currency is the euro, after having adopted the Deutsche Mark in 1999, and is generally known for its value-for-money, while certainly also offering top-of-the range accommodation such as the historic Sveti Stevan hotel island. Despite tourism being concentrated along the coastline, the mountains in inner Montenegro can also offer tourists great nature experiences. All this, combined with the fact that it is a comparatively short distance of just 800km from Malta (similar to the distance between Malta and Athens), meaning presumably comparatively low-cost direct flights, could make it a very worthwhile summer destination for Maltese tourists.

The airports

Incoming tourism is mostly handled through Tivat airport, which has a very seasonal profile. Nearby Dubrovnik airport in Croatia serves as an alternative, particularly for Herceg Novi (25km away by coach service). But, of course, this requires the crossing of the border. Maltese tour operators have ventured to occasionally offer Air Malta-operated charter flights to Dubrovnik.

The larger part of the population lives in the capital of Podgorica, which has Montenegro’s other international airport. The distance to Tivat is not too far, however, given that ground infrastructure is limited for geographical reasons, and Tivat remains the better option for flying tourists in.

At the same time, the recent construction of a tunnel towards the coast has made Tivat airport more acceptable for outgoing traffic as well. For outgoing traffic as well as global connectivity, certainly Podgorica as capital and home to 150,000 of the total population of 625,000 Montenegrins, is the core airport, apart from Montenegro Airlines served in particular by JAT, Austrian Airlines, Turkish Airlines, Croatia Airlines and Adria Airways. It is apparent that the market is, of course, limited and average incomes are significantly lower than those in Malta. The “upmarket”, “high quality tourist” segment is therefore not very large.

Present connections

Currently, connection between Malta and Montenegro should be with Serbian flag-carrier JAT via Belgrade and Air Malta/Austrian via Vienna, though not necessarily practical regards timing and cost. A do-it-yourself-transit option might be via Bari (Ryanair/Montenegro Airlines) or Rome (Air Malta/Alitalia/Easyjet + Montenegro Airlines).

Direct flight opportunities

Montenegro Airlines has been a long-time operator of Fokker F100 100-seaters and has now expanded its fleet with the 122-seat Embraer 195. The smallest aircraft Air Malta can deploy is the 141-seat Airbus A319.

It would be essential for carriers to cooperate with local tour operators at both ends in order to start off the route as a once-weekly summer charter route (from June to the end of August) with satisfactory loads and marketing costs outsourced to these tour operators. The advantage for carriers is that it is a comparatively short, and thus not so fuel-intensive, flight.

With Air Malta there should be no organisational problems with regard to an outgoing charter from Malta filled by local travel agencies/tour operators, although it means selling 141 seats. But when it comes to filling incoming charters or routes in general from such new small seasonal markets, it can be presumed that – especially with the rationalisation of manpower in place now – one will hardly have the resources to run such a development that requires staff to build contacts and contracts with Montenegrin operators. If at all, one would rather use the resources in a more cost-effective way on extra routes for more established markets. The plus side is that it would be growth, even though modest, outside the limitations imposed on Air Malta for the EU market due to the state funds for restructuring. If tour operators combine a load to Croatia and Montenegro, this could be an option, yet for the Maltese outgoing market these two destinations certainly compete directly with each other as regards product. So if the wish is to combine Maltese traffic going to Montenegro and some Montenegrin passengers visiting Malta, Tivat airport remains the most appropriate.

The charter of a Montenegro Airlines jet would mean a much lower marketing risk for Maltese tour operators (fewer seats), while additionally Montenegro Airlines might surely have some local tour operator/agency infrastructure at hand to fill some other seats. Generally, however, it should be kept in mind that the bilateral market is not particularly large, so one would have to limit oneself to a seasonal bilaterally loaded charter route to exploit the market while it lasts.

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