Serbia’s capital is in the midst of a hotel boom that has made the city almost unrecognisable from a decade ago. How has it become the hotspot of the Balkans?
by Mary Novakovich, Click. Travel Writer
In March 2018, Belgrade joined an exclusive club – one of only seven cities in the world to have a Mama Shelter hotel. Along with Paris, Lyon, Marseille, Bordeaux, Los Angeles and Rio de Janeiro, Serbia’s capital offers travellers the chance to experience Mama Shelter’s trademark funky design of Philippe Starck’s brainchild.
During the same month, a shiny new Hilton opened in the southern edges of Belgrade’s Stari Grad (Old Town). Originally awarded five-star status, the hotel opted for four stars as it would appeal more to business travellers. It took no time at all for the rooftop restaurant and bar to become firm fixtures on the city’s social scene – as did Mama Shelter’s rooftop terrace bar and restaurant.
Between these two latest openings, you have in a nutshell the profound changes Belgrade has undergone in the past five to 10 years. Belgrade has always had a turbulent history, going back to ancient Celtic times. But the scars of the 1990s wars throughout the former Yugoslavia have taken a long time to heal.
In the early years of the 21st century, many of the city’s hotels were tired relics of the Tito era – unloved and untouched by modern design. Although the five-star Hyatt has been in New Belgrade since 1990, there was nothing of its equivalent in the infinitely more charming environs of Stari Grad. But new foreign investment in turn created a rapid rise in business hotels, from the Falkensteiner to the Hilton. And where the business community has been leading, leisure travellers have been following.
“Belgrade is one of the very few European capitals with two-digit growth of tourism arrivals on an annual scale,” says Jelena Stankovic, who is in charge of PR for the Belgrade tourist board. “Each month Belgrade has about a 15% to 20% rise in visitors compared with the same month in the previous year, while the number of overnights goes up by 23%. In 2017, Belgrade reached the number of more than a million visitors and two million overnights – plus 71,000 river cruise guests. All this has resulted in new investments in the tourism industry.”
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In 2014, there were 63 hotels in Belgrade, but four years later that’s risen to 95 – an increase of 50%. “The city itself is developing fast,” continues Stankovic. “New urban areas have been created, and the city centre has expanded with new pedestrian zones. Tourist attractions have been improved. Some of the biggest hotel chains recognised Belgrade as a good business opportunity: Hilton, Marriott, Crowne Plaza, Holiday Inn.”
Dejan Majic, General Manager of Mama Shelter Belgrade, adds: “Belgrade is known in Europe for its good nightlife, good food and kind people. Mama Shelter as a brand perfectly fits in. Belgrade embraced Mama Shelter since day one. Jérémie Trigano, the Chief Executive, and his father took a walk on the streets and they felt the energy in the city. A lot of people speak English, and they’ll stop and help you. You cannot find this in many cities in the world. And they were really surprised at the gastronomic offer here in Belgrade.”
Hilton’s marketing and PR executive, Iva Draskovic, has watched how Belgrade’s hotel industry has developed. “In the past five years there have been a lot of changes, with a lot of newly opened hotels,” she says. “It’s not just in hospitality but businesses are also growing here – a lot of Western companies. And when people come here on business, they say, ‘Oh the food is very nice.’ You have very good weather. A lot of them will come back here, and not just for business. They like our mentality, our culture. We are very open people.”
Draskovic thinks there should be more five-star hotels than the five that exist currently. Majic, however, is of a different opinion. “What I think Belgrade misses is nice three-star hotels,” he says. “Investors are aiming for five stars, at least four stars. We’re missing clean three-stars with affordable prices.”
At the moment, four-star hotels are in the majority, with 51 compared with 29 three-star hotels. But what both Draskovic and Majic agree on is the rise of private apartment rentals, which is fuelled by the complicated bureaucracy involved in opening new hotels. “It’s much easier,” says Draskovic. “If you have one room or one flat, you don’t have to start a company. You just renovate the apartment. This is the market that’s opening up.”
In spite of this, the luxury hotel industry in Belgrade shows no sign of slowing down. Within the next few years, there are planned openings for a new St Regis, a W and a Kempinski. In a neat twist, the Kempinski will develop the abandoned shell that was the massive Hotel Jugoslavija, which in its 1970s and 80s heyday was one of the most celebrated hotels in Belgrade.
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Mary Novakovich is a freelance travel journalist and has worked in the industry for more than 25 yearsMore by Mary Novakovich
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