The 'Pearl' loses its lustre


The hordes of tourists that have descended on Dubrovnik are threatening to destroy the very reason it was declared a World Heritage Site, writes Frank McDonald

THE FORTIFIED WALLS of Dubrovnik are very exposed in the searing midday sun, real "mad dogs and Englishmen" territory. But hundreds of tourists pay 50 Croatian kuna (€7) to do this 2km circuit, gazing across the red-tiled roofs, spires and domes of the old city and the blue Adriatic that surrounds it on three sides.

In the past, nobody who wasn't welcome in Dubrovnik would have had a dog's chance of getting into the place. The mighty walls with their bastions, barbicans, donjons and towers - even higher on the landward than the seaward side - plus the dry moat and drawbridges kept out nearly all but Napoleon.

But the gates of the city are now wide open to hordes of tourists from far and wide. Many of the passengers on my Air Croatia plane from Rome to Dubrovnik and Zagreb were Chinese, and almost no-one on board wanted transit cards to the Croatian capital; they had come to see the "Pearl of the Adriatic".

Dubrovnik was designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1979 because of its importance in the history of town planning. Dating from the late 13th century, it is one of the earliest post-Roman examples of an urban settlement designed on a grid, with stone buildings laid out on streets and squares.

Called Ragusa, it was an important trading centre for the Venetian Republic until 1358. It was then a city-state in its own right under the crown of St Stephen (Hungary and Croatia) until 1526, part of the Ottoman empire until 1684 and once again under the wing of Hungary until it was captured by Napoleon in 1806.

It became part of his Illyrian provinces until 1814, then the Austrian Empire until 1918, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia until 1945 and the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia until Croatia seceded in 1991; notoriously, the Yugoslav army responded by shelling the city from the mountains that form its backdrop.

There are big enamelled plaques at the gates showing a map of the old city and the damage "caused by the aggression on Dubrovnik by the Yugoslav army, the Serbs and Montenegrins in 1991-1992". Dots all over indicate roofs and pavements damaged by direct hits or by shrapnel as well as burnt-out buildings.

What worried the London Times newsdesk was not so much the number of people being killed (43 in two months), but the fate of the Titians in the cathedral, as Misha Glenny recalled in The Fall of Yugoslavia. And just like the much more devastating siege of Sarajevo that went on for three years, Europe did nothing.

NOW, IT IS A tourist trap. At least 700 cruise ships are expected to drop anchor this year in the port of Dubrovnik, under the huge cable-stayed bridge named after Franjo Tudjman, first president of the new Hrvatska Republika (Croatian Republic), who was as culpable as Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic in the break-up of Yugoslavia.

It has become the third most visited city in the Mediterranean for cruise ships, after Barcelona and Venice. Barcelona is a city of three million people and it can easily absorb this kind of trade. But Venice's population has fallen to about 60,000, with some 300,000 commuting into the city daily to serve the tourist industry.

Just like Venice, though on a much smaller scale, the old city of Dubrovnik is no longer real, but surreal. Only 1,500 people live within its walls and there are just three shops where you can buy bread, milk and other staples; all the rest sell tourist trinkets, T-shirts, Croatian flags, dolls, handcrafts, postcards, art and ice cream.

"Every year, there are fewer and fewer inhabitants," says one of the relatively few Serbs who still live in Dubrovnik. "With residential space making €4,000 to €5,000 per square metre, many people sold out and made lots of money. The apartments they lived in are now owned by foreigners and occupied for a couple of months a year."

Tour buses crowd around the Pile gate, with its inset statue of Dubrovnik's patron, St Blaise. I overheard a young American tourist (yes, they're still around) remark to his companion, "Oh, a drawbridge - so cool!". No wonder the white limestone paving slabs are so shiny; they're polished every day by the tourist "footfall".

Narrow side streets that offer shade from the hot sun are taken over by pizzerias colonising the pavement with tables under big square umbrellas. There's even an Irish bar called The Gaffe. But the old city has only one top-class hotel, the Pucic Palace, resplendent in a former nobleman's house; all the rest are outside the walls.

During the day, there are signs of indigenous life in the washing lines strung Naples-style across narrow, steep side streets. But when you walk around at night, after the tourists have thinned out, few windows are lit on the upper floors of buildings on the main streets. The town has been turned into a tourism "brand".

One of the best tourism ideas in the region is to form a "golden triangle" of World Heritage Sites involving Dubrovnik, Mostar in Bosnia - famous for its Ottoman bridge, destroyed in 1993 by a Bosnian Croat tank shell and reinstated in 2004 - and the unspoiled Tara valley in northern Montenegro, which is popular for river-rafting.

Montenegro is quite unusual in that its constitution defines this small, recently-independent country with a population of 630,000 as an "ecological state". How this is going to be translated into reality is an open question, especially in the midst of an Irish-style building boom - now one of the principal drivers of economic growth.

Some €7 billion to €10 billion is being invested in roads, housing, offices and hotels. Seaside resorts such as Budva and Becici have experienced phenomenal growth in recent years, although the explosion in hotel construction in this earthquake-prone zone is only making them look more like anywhere in Turkey or the Spanish costas.

"They're building too much," one observer complains. "Montenegro's slogan is 'Wild Beauty', and there's a tremendously successful marketing campaign for it on BBC World and CNN, but I reckon in 20 years won't be a centimetre of the Adriatic coast left, with all the developers coming here like grasshoppers."

MUCH MORE BEAUTIFUL is Kotor, right at deepest point of the only fjord on the entire Mediterranean. Lord Byron was lyrical about it, describing Kotor as "the most beautiful encounter between the land and the sea", one of the pearls of Montenegro. It has fortified walls beneath the high mountains and is more real than Dubrovnik.

Foreign minister Milan Rocen tells The Irish Times that Montenegro is "proud of its God-given beauty". He claims the Tara river is still the cleanest in Europe, surrounded as it is by "completely untouched nature" in a setting that's second only to Grand Canyon in Arizona. And the government is determined to keep it that way.

"We're conscious of our obligations to keep the environment unpolluted, and we're in the process of setting up an environmental protection agency," Mr Rocen says. "We've just introduced an 'eco-tax' on all vehicles entering the country, from €10 for cars up to €150 for big trucks, and all of this revenue will go into an eco-fund." He points out that Montenegro is classified among the top 20 "most promising investment destinations in world", and it also has one of the fastest growing tourism economies, with more than one million visitors last year. However, he says its Tourism and Travel Council is aiming for "higher quality tourism", rather than merely quantity.

The Croatians also aim to make Dubrovnik an "elite destination", rather than a mass tourism one. They're seeking to attract high- quality hotels such as Hyatt to follow Hilton's example of renovating the grand Imperial Hotel just outside the walls. However, most of the tourists in the old city are clearly day-trippers spending little.

What then, is the difference between Dubrovnik and Disneyland? Not much is the answer. The old city might just as well be a stage-set for tourists, particularly those who descend on it like locusts from the cruise ships to soak up its architecture and what's left of its culture, before sailing out for the next "hot spot" destination.

As for Venice, Ragusa's patron for more than 150 years, if its population decline continues at the present rate, the city that once ruled a great trading empire could be denuded of inhabitants by 2050.

This grim forecast raises the fundamental question: Is a Unesco World Heritage site designation the kiss of death for a city?