Belgrade mayor Siniša Mali discusses how much Belgrade has changed in recent years, in which direction the vision for its transformation is headed, but also the way in which the world has recognized the birth of its new face.
When you look back at your appointment as Mayor of the city, how much would you say that Belgrade has changed during this time? Which projects are you the most proud of?
Belgrade has its history, culture, and tradition, which have all shaped it into the city that it is, but modern age requires change, and we can see this change happening every day. Belgrade is much more beautiful today than it was four years ago, and this is what I am most proud of. We brought the city back down to its rivers, we restored the beauty of its coastlines, we initiated the Belgrade Waterfront project, and I am particularly proud of all the new facades, reconstructed streets, and refurbished squares. Belgrade is no longer grey, it is back to its original white, and one can feel that its streets are brimming with positive energy.
Year after year, Belgrade witnesses an increase in the number of tourists and other guests coming from abroad. What were the greatest challenges that you faced when it comes to developing its potential for tourism?
What is most important to me is that tourists experience Belgrade as an attractive destination–when they come for the first time, they need to feel wowed and amazed, so that they then spread good word about us throughout the world. It was of great help that eminent media worldwide, such as The New York Times, the Parisian Le Monde, and the BBC, included Belgrade into their lists of the most attractive destinations. We have also participated in various travel fairs, presenting the city, and we were even given the award for the most popular destination at the Shanghai World Travel Fair. To make all of this possible, one has to develop the city, to groom it, to use its potential to create content that attracts tourists. This is why we pay great attention to our New Year festivities and all other events that are likely to draw visitors from abroad.
In the recent past, a number of hotels operating under the brands of some of the world’s most famous hotel groups have opened in Belgrade, with more such openings anticipated. After successfully catering for Belgrade’s most demanding guests, what will be your next steps?
During the past four years, the number of hotels in Belgrade has grown from 67 to 97, which I view to be an outstanding success. The Hilton has finally arrived, St. Regis will have its first branded apartments in the Belgrade Waterfront, but I am particularly pleased that domestic investors are also making a move–the Mona hotel is being built in the lower part of Dorćol after a decade of waiting. I believe that there are ample opportunities for the development of congress tourism, and this is why we are looking for a private partner to invest into the Sava Centre, which has great potential. In addition, we have recently signed a concession agreement for the “Nikola Tesla” airport, whose modernisation will directly lead to an increase in the number of tourists. Thanks to the development of the Air Serbia national airline, Beograd has become the hub for this part of Europe, a position that will be solidified by further development of the airport. All of this means that Belgrade, in addition to becoming an attractive tourist destination, could easily become a desirable business destination.
Beograd is well-known for its night life, the good time it offers, and a specific energy that makes its guests feel at home. As a European capital, Belgrade has a great deal to offer when it comes to daily visits as well. How much is the cultural offer of Belgrade expanding?
Beograd has truly become the cultural capital of this part of Europe in the past several years. After ten years, we have opened the Museum of Modern Art, we will soon be opening the National Museum, and this year we will also be initiating several important projects that will boost the cultural offer of the city. For example, there is the City Gallery that will be built in Kosančićev Venac, and the first Belgrade City Museum, which will be in Resavska street. In terms of events, Belgrade is known for its Fest film festival, which keeps breaking records year after year, as well as for Bemus, Bitef, Belef, the Jazz festival, etc. We do our best to ensure that each event we organise is of high quality and that it attracts a great number of visitors.
You have visited many capitals around the works, for a while you have even lived in New York. Which major cities have you looked up to in the past in the context of development?
It is true that, before taking up this job, I have lived in London, in Prague, and I have also worked on Wall Street in New York. These past experiences abroad have proven to be of great value for my current position. Recognising their importance, I initiated international collaborations, which were earlier viewed as entirely secondary in Belgrade. We have signed collaboration agreements with Moscow, Beijing, Shanghai, Seoul, Tehran, Minsk, etc. Each of these cities has taught us valuable lessons. For example, taking inspiration from Vienna, we have included private kindergartens into our pre-schooling system, opening new opportunities for several thousand young children.
When people talk of Belgrade as a tourist destination, they always mention this “spirit of the city”, with which many fall in love at first sight. What do you think is the secret behind this “magic” of Belgrade?
Its citizens are the secret. They are genuinely hospitable and have this positive energy that is contagious. They will always offer a polite reply, give directions, and be of service. This is why our guests coming from abroad tend to feel at home here, with us, in Belgrade.
What do you consider to be the greatest unused potential of Belgrade? Given its development strategy, what are the next major steps that the citizens of Belgrade, as well as its guests, should expect?
The greatest potential of Belgrade lies in the coastlines of the Sava and the Danube, which are still underorganised and underused. This is precisely why we are engaged in the Belgrade Waterfront project, which brought the coastlines to life and Belgrade back down to its rivers. We will also build a gondola from Kalemegdan to the Ušće park, connecting the two coastlines. Another project involves the building of five pontoons for the docking of small vessels, which are intended to be used not only in the context of tourism, but also by passenger ships, as part of the Belgrade public transport system. Finally, since Belgrade is one of the most important ports of European nautical tourism, our plan is to build another large dock for cruise ships in Zemun.
Hypothetically, if you were a tourist visiting Belgrade for the first time, wishing to experience it, how would you spend your first day in the Serbian capital?
After enquiring about the most beautiful parts of the city and its symbols, I would certainly pay a visit to the Temple of Saint Sava, Kalemegdan, the promenade on the Sava river, the building of the Belgrade Cooperative, and, of course, the pedestrian zone–Knez Mihailova street, Obilićev Venac, and other surrounding, recently reconstructed streets. I would definitely want to see the panorama of the city from the rivers, so I would go on a cruise along the Sava and the Danube, and possibly rent a bike at Ada Ciganlija and cycle up the coastline to the “25. maj” sports centre.
What is your favourite corner of Belgrade and why?
I adore Ada Ciganlija, for me that is one of the most beautiful parts of Belgrade because of its diverse content, stunning nature, running trails, biking trails, etc. I love to run there in my spare time, or cycle with the kids, or, from time to time, just go for a long walk. Still, since Belgrade is for me the most beautiful city in the world, I have to admit that I am in love with each and every one of its corners.