Is the mayor paving the way for a more sustainable tourism industry or is he unnecessarily damaging an important source of income?
New plans to protect Croatia’s ‘pearl of the Adriatic’ involve imposing limits on tour operators during the day, installing security cameras on the outskirts of scenic Old Town, and banning Segways between the major historic sites and the beachfront. Cruise ships will be moved away from peak times, such as weekends, and spread the flow of people more evenly. The number of people allowed to enter historical attractions will be severely reduced.
The announcement of the policies come in response to unprecedented growth in the tourism sector since the end of the Yugoslav War. An estimated 10% of the sudden growth is attributed by some to the city’s prominent appearance as “King’s Landing” in Game of Thrones. The picturesque, medieval streets have also featured in Star Wars and Robin Hood. A record number of 10,388 visitors entered the city on a day during Heatwave Lucifer last year, which was set to have been topped over this summer. Hundreds of cruise ships bearing flocks of eager sight-seers, dock at the port 2 miles from Old Town. In 2016, 529 ships visited, up from 475 in 2015 and 463 in 2014.
All this growth is in contrast to the dwindling number of permanent residences, which has gone from 5,000 in 1991 to 1,157 in 2016. Locals haven’t received as much benefit as they potentially could, especially with the exploitation of the city by cruise companies. The spending of cruise-goers yields little profit to the local economy, whilst going about daily life amongst the crowds would be nothing short of a pain in the neck.
UNESCO had previously recognised the impact that the fast growing industry was having on the city. They recommended that a maximum of 8,000 visitors were allowed into the city’s main attraction Old Town, per day. This was as a result of fears the at the World Heritage site’s ancient buildings would be irreparably damaged. The mayor of Dubrovnik, Mato Frankovik, was voted in shortly after UNESCO’s involvement in June, and was faced with the large task of tackling such issues. Unfazed, he vowed to go further than the 8,000, by placing the cap at 4,000 entrants.
The impressive battlefront walls, which seem to defy time, survived an earthquake in 1667 and made it through the turmoil of the 1990’s conflict. Standing amongst the glorious Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance churches, it is hard to imagine that they will do anything but persist through any problems it faces.
The radical announcement has not been received without opposition. The tourism industry is thought to be responsible for pulling Croatia to recovery from the 2009-2014 recession. Is it wise to turn away the people who have brought prosperity to the city? Dubrovnik authorities predict 1 million euros will be lost from visitor related revenue in the year after the cuts. However, the mayor is confident that the money lost will return in future by making the city a ‘high-quality destination’. Frankovik acknowledges the resistance he will face, justifying his actions by saying, “I am not here to make people happy but to make the quality of life (in the city) better”.
The changes in Dubrovnik highlight a wider issue of unrest related to tourism across European cities. A lot of this tension has been focused on Spain, where 75.6 million tourists visited last year, nearly 4 times as many as the UK. The 17th of August saw thousands swarm to the streets to express their dissatisfaction in Mallorca and San Sebastian. Although largely the protests were peaceful, Arran, an anarchist group, have made a stand against the mass tourism they claim is destroying the country, by vandalising tour busses and rental bicycles. Barcelona has had building problems over the last decade, led by a shift to short city breaks and the use of AirBnB rather than traditional accommodation services. This has had a negative impact on the local housing market The city has enforced its laws on rentals more strictly recently by doubling the number of
inspectors checking unlicensed properties, frozen hotel construction and limited beds available in hotels. Other popular destinations have responded with varying tactics. Venice installed automated ‘people counters’ in heavily trafficked areas, Hvar plans to fine tourists, and most notably, all visitors are required to have guides on the iconic Inca Trail by 2019.
The nature of the tourism industry, being led by the private sector, often means that little long term planning is involved and therefore sustainable practices are often sidelined in favour of increasing visitors, locals often do not receive a fair amount of the benefits, and everyday life made slightly more difficult by the hoards of people.
What could be a really positive phenomenon for development of countries economically and socially, is tainted by divorcing control from locals and the potential damages they cause to ancient structures in Dubrovnik and elsewhere. The UN World Tourism Organisation secretary general Taleb Rifai defends the industry, arguing that if managed correctly tourism can be the “best ally” to conservation, preservation and the community.
How Dubrovnik’s new approach will affect the city, and whether more destinations will follow suit is currently a mystery. But in the meantime, anyone planning to visit the stunning Dalmatian Coast should not be discouraged. However, they should perhaps consider holidaying in off-peak times (Dubrovnik is still lovely in winter), think carefully about where their money is going and not to be too disappointed by the lack of Segway tours.