Ari Mittleman
Father, Husband, Author

Goodbye Maldives. Hello Montenegro!

The author in Prcanj, Montenegro in May 2024.
The author in Prcanj, Montenegro in May 2024.

Around the world, the first week of June is often considered the start of the summer tourism season.

For many countries, tourism plays a role in a diversified economy. For some countries, tourism drives nearly the entire economy.

In the case of The Maldives, it is the latter. Tourism comprises nearly one third of GDP and over 90% of tax revenues. For this and future fiscal years, the island nation will certainly have less revenue.

This week, President Mohamed Muizzu, on the recommendation of his cabinet, announced that all Israeli passport holders will be prohibited from traveling to the South Asian country. All existing Israeli tourists must also leave. In a country which has benefited tremendously from Israeli technology and has known its share of Islamic terrorism, it is ironic that the Minister of Homeland Security and Technology, Ali Ihsaan, led this historic press conference.

While certainly less tropical, the small European country of Montenegro has been and will only continue to be an incredibly attractive destination for Israeli tourists.

With less than 620,000 total citizens, in 2019 the country had upward of 2.5M international tourists. While recovery from the pandemic was still occurring, the 2021 numbers were 1.6M. Roughly one in ten Montenegrins are directly employed in the tourism sector.

European tourists and those from the Former Soviet Union year after year are the majority, but as of 2023 Israeli visitors, and their cash, have had a disproportionate role. Indeed, in 2023, due to short direct flights multiple times a day on El Al and IsrAir, over 220,000 Israelis visited.

Dayenu. This would be enough.

While significant, the relationship between Israel and Montenegro extends beyond the tourist economy. As a new member of NATO, Montenegro signed in December 2019 a security pact worth $35M. Elbit Systems, Israel’s largest defense company, supplies remote control weapon stations that are fully integrated into those used by other NATO allies.

Dayenu. This would be enough.

In 2016, just ten years into its independence, Montenegro distinguished itself across Europe a brilliant display of cultural diplomacy. Two Israeli painters, one Jewish, Shirley Siegel, and one Arab, Shuruq Egbariah, were artists in residence for the month of September. In collaboration with the Israeli Foreign Ministry, a Jewish-American owned hospitality industry leader spearheaded this important initiative. In a region with an unfortunate recent past of ethnic divisions, this not only deepened Israeli-Montenegrin relations, but also very visibly showed the power of the arts to rise above religious differences.

Dayenu. This would be enough.

Underpinning these trends is the intrepid multilingual Los Angeles-born Rabbi Ari Edelkopf.  His success in Podgorica has led to the opening of another synagogue in the coastal town of Budva. This iconic Adriatic destination now has Hebrew, English and Russian language programming for children, an accommodating five-star resort for Shomer Shabbat guests and a full Glatt kosher restaurant and daily minyanim.

As the beaches of The Maldives explicitly forbid Israeli tourists and other Mediterranean destinations such as Turkiye and Greece pose very real security concerns, Montenegro will inevitably attract additional Israeli tourists.

Air Montenegro had intended to supplement Israeli carriers this summer, but has backtracked. This route should absolutely be a staple in the 2025 season.

Prime Minister Milojko Spajić and President Jakov Milatović are both under 40 and newly elected. They should not settle for enough, but rather focus on innovative ways to maximize their first terms. They should look to not just deepening diplomatic ties with Israel, but with each of the many elements of Israeli society that these tens of thousands of diverse Israeli tourists represent. Indeed, North American and European Jewish tourists and investments will certainly follow.

The Maldives loss could and should be Montenegro’s gain.

About the Author
Ari Mittleman is a proud Jewish father and husband. He lives with his family in Pikesville, Maryland. As a native Pennsylvanian actively involved in the Jewish community, the tragedy in Pittsburgh compelled him to author his first book, Paths of the Righteous, by Gefen Publishing House.
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