The Serbian Embassy may feel imposing – located in prime Belgrave Squre – but Aleksandra Joksimović herself is friendly and unprepossessing, like most of her compatriots.
She opens the conversation with Serbia’s record on COVID-19: the vaccine supply has been exemplary, and the country has also managed to donate 200,000 doses to its neighbours.
Serbia’s economic growth is projected to trend around 3.70–5% in 2022. The country attracts 60% of all regional DFI and has seen massive investment as a result of economic reforms but also, and significantly, because of its low corporate tax – a flat 15%.
Traditional industries include textile, timber and agriculture – with IT, real estate and hospitality gaining traction. The country also has plentiful natural resources such as copper and steel, and is a net exporter of energy production.
The IT sector is particularly appealing to investors because the workforce is well-trained, English-spoken, and inexpensive compared to other European countries.
The low cost/high quality of life ratio makes the country an extremely attractive proposition for real estate investors.
I ask the Ambassador about ‘brand Serbia’ and in the space of an hour, she neatly defines it for me.
The country’s spectacular landscapes have made it an attractive destination for film makers. Ralph Fiennes is shooting a second movie there and has been made an honorary Serbian citizen. John Challis, of Only Fools and Horses fame, recorded a highly watchable documentary on his journey to Belgrade. Boycie in Belgrade was released in 2020.
The vibrant city has a must-visit museum of contemporary art and a museum for classic cars (collected by the late Bratislav Petković, a former Minister of Culture and Information), as well as a thriving music scene.
From film and music festivals, to wine tours (the wine industry is relatively small but ready to punch above its weight), to ski and thermal resorts, spas and medical tourism, to some fairly esoteric national events (such as the trumpet competition festival in west Serbia), the national brand is in full throttle.
Our guess is that the Serbian climate resorts – thermal water spas with their own micro-climate – will become the next go-to destination, both for general wellness and for the healing properties of the water.
The Ambassador names Vrnjačka Banja, one of many spas staking a similar claim to the Sokobanja spa motto: ‘Arrive old and leave young’.
The best-known ski resort in Serbia is Mount Kopaonik (Vrnjačka Banja is, in fact, one of five spas in its foothills).
The Kopaonik national park is rich in history and precious metals (the Romans, Venetians, and the Ottomans all used to mine gold, silver, iron, copper, lead and zinc there), as well as in rare flora and fauna. The Jelovarnik, a spectacular waterfall, is the second by height, with a total of 71 meters.
Most of Serbia is rich in historical sites too, dating from the Roman Empire onwards. Astounding fortresses – built variously by the Romans, Serbs, Hungarians, Austrians and Turks – include the Petrovaradin, Kalemegdan (in Belgrade), Smederevo, Ram and Golubac, perched over the Danibe. The Ambassador reminds me to mention the Tara National Park, where our travel exploration began, and the very popular eco-tourism in the area: from rafting in the river rapids, to staying at the local salaš, the traditional Serbian farms, to horse riding.
I ask how Serbia tackles environmental issues and she is quick to point out that the Serbian National Parks are pollution-free precisely because they are not over-exploited in tourist terms:
‘Ecology is an expensive category but Serbia is trying to catch up and align itself to EU legislation. Public awareness is high and rising, which makes all the difference. As does investment in environmental projects.’
We dwell briefly on the Belgrade waterfront development on the river Sava, built with Serb and Emirati investments. The fairly generic contemporary design and high prices have drawn some local criticism, but the fact remains that riverside real estate adds tremendous value and appeal to regeneration areas and to cities generally.
Belgrade – and Serbia as a whole – are the best kept secret of Europe, although savvy investors will have already discovered it. Once it joins the EU, this landlocked Balkan country will be giving Switzerland a run for its money: in terms of financial services (a fast-developing sector), quality of life and sheer unspoilt beauty.