Since the 41-km Smokovac-Matesevo highway section was put into operation, the old narrow road through Montenegro's "canyon of death" has turned into a quiet local passage favored by bikers and tourists, while the main traffic is redirected safely above it, across over 20 bridges and through 16 tunnels.
PODGORICA, Aug. 19 (Xinhua) -- For 58-year-old Veljko Ivanovic, the China-built highway linking Montenegro's underdeveloped north with the capital Podgorica and the tourist havens in the south means he can forever say goodbye to the worries of driving on the dangerous old roads.
The 41-km Smokovac-Matesevo highway section, built by the China Road and Bridge Corporation, was put into operation in 2022 and enabled a detour from one of the most dangerous road sections in the Balkans. It is the first part of the 180-km Bar-Boljare highway, which aims to connect northern, central and southern parts of Montenegro.
Ivanovic has worked as a driver for the past 40 years and has ridden on the infamous narrow road winding through the Platije Canyon thousands of times.
Recalling his experience of driving through the old two-lane road between the steep cliffs along the Moraca River, he is still intimidated. "During one terrible flooding after a huge rain shower, as waterfalls poured down from the tunnel, fear paralyzed me as I realized that water nearly flushed me through the security fence, down into the Moraca River."
This aerial photo taken on July 24, 2023 shows a priority section of the Bar-Boljare highway in Montenegro. (Photo by Wang Wei/Xinhua)
"Numerous dangers lurked down the old road -- it was impossible to see beyond the sharp curves in the canyon, the road was of poor quality and narrow, with steep inclines and declines, and the tunnels weren't sufficiently supported with concrete," the Podgorica local said.
Around 1,200 lives have been lost on the old road through Platije Canyon, recalled Milan Ljiljanic, executive director of Monteput, a Montenegrin company that has supervised the construction of the new highway project and is now in charge of its operation.
"Since the new highway was opened, on the Smokovac-Matesevo priority section, as well as along the road through Platije Canyon, no deadly traffic incidents have occurred," he said.
The old narrow road now turns into a quiet local passage favored by bikers and tourists, while the main traffic is redirected safely above it, across over 20 bridges and through 16 tunnels. Thousands of tourists and cargo trucks can safely take the route without risking their lives driving through the canyon.
This photo taken on July 24, 2023 shows a bridge on the Bar-Boljare highway in Montenegro. (Photo by Wang Wei/Xinhua)
HIGHWAY OF STRATEGIC IMPORTANCE
In addition to improving safety, the new highway also brings economic benefits to Montenegro, a country with rugged mountains and of around 600,000 people, whose economy is largely dependent on tourism.
"In the past 12 months since the highway was put into operation, 2.2 million vehicles have circulated here, and the tolls generated an income of 9 million euros (9.9 million U.S. dollars)," Ljiljanic said.
"The construction of this section gave a significant incentive to the development of economic activities, and the development of tourism, especially in the Northern parts of our country," Ljiljanic told Xinhua.
Milan Ljiljanic, executive director of Monteput, poses for a photo during an interview with Xinhua in Podgorica, Montenegro, July 25, 2023. (Photo by Wang Wei/Xinhua)
This year, Montenegro expects to beat the success of the last year's tourist season, when it received two million visitors and generated around 1 billion euros from tourism, according to the national statistics agency Montstat.
Popular destinations, such as Budva and Kotor, are crowded with tourists from all over the world. Meanwhile, the country has made new deals with Chinese companies, such as Shandong Hi-Speed, to improve its key coastal boulevard and other infrastructure.
At a recent celebration marking the 10th anniversary of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Podgorica, Montenegrin officials hailed the success of the transnational project.
Montenegro's Finance Minister Aleksandar Damjanovic said his country should "continue the construction of the highway as soon as possible."
This aerial photo taken on July 24, 2023 shows tunnels at a priority section of the Bar-Boljare highway in Montenegro. (Photo by Wang Wei/Xinhua)
Former President Filip Vujanovic said the BRI project had proved its worth. "Not a fatal traffic accident has happened during the past year since the highway was used. We have a highway that saves human lives," he said.
Ljiljanic believed that the capacity of the highway project will reach its full potential when the whole Bar-Boljare highway is completed and put into operation.
Ivanovic said benefits will multiply once the whole country is connected by highway. "Tourists are more than satisfied, and they will be even more so when the Podgorica-Bar and the Matesevo-Boljare sections are completed," he said.
This aerial photo taken on July 24, 2023 shows a bridge on the Bar-Boljare highway in Montenegro. (Photo by Wang Wei/Xinhua)■