Perspectives | Tourism

Dubrovnik vs. Tourism

By - 22.08.2023

Can residents survive in a city built around tourism?

Dubrovnik and its main economic activity, tourism, coexist in a complex ambivalence. Though the majority of locals make a living from the industry, there are open questions about quality of life, the preservation of Dubrovnik’s historic core and overall sustainability.

The dramatic increase in the number of visitors to the city in summer months has resulted in numerous infrastructure problems. One of the most serious is transport. Traffic congestion is a near constant, public transportation is frequently disrupted and there is a chronic lack of parking.

To some degree, the problem lies with Dubrovnik’s specific geography. The city is wedged between hills and the sea, so any solutions to transport issues such as bypasses or alternate routes are not an easy option. Anyways, the examples of other tourist destinations show that even these remedies fail to address traffic as heavy as Dubrovnik’s. In addition, the local road infrastructure is outdated, in part due to how the southern tip of Croatia is treated by the national government. Dubrovnik has never been connected to the highway network, and that’s unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.

The biggest ever infrastructure project in Croatia’s south — the Pelješac Bridge — was built at the initiative, or more precisely the insistence, of the EU. Supported in large part by EU funds, the bridge was built to connect the territory of a country whose external borders are also the external borders of the EU (a small slice of Bosnia cuts off the southern tip of Croatia from the rest of the country).

Most businesses in hospitality offer discounts to “domestic” guests, the criterion often being whether they speak Croatian or not. However, even the discounted prices are high.

For Dubrovnik residents, one of the biggest daily struggles they face is high prices. Some retailers are more expensive in touristy places than in the rest of the country, but so are services, including public transport and especially hospitality. Most hospitality businesses offer discounts to “domestic” guests, the criterion often being whether they speak Croatian or not. However, even the discounted prices are high. On top of this, high prices do not necessarily mean high-quality goods or services.

This economic focus on tourism is reflected in the shortage of skilled craft workers. For instance, it is now difficult to find a mechanic, plumber or shoemaker. Even though vocational education may be lacking across Croatia, the rapid decline of skilled labor in Dubrovnik is the result of locals’ wholesale transition to tourism-related jobs in general and rental businesses in particular. Moreover, the city budget keeps on swelling, yet residents of Dubrovnik do not enjoy high-level social and public services.

Probably the biggest struggle they face though is housing.

Given the development of short-term rental units, it is almost impossible to find an apartment to live in. Other places in the country are seeing soaring rent prices due to the rising number of apartments being rented to tourists. The same process is happening in Dubrovnik, except moreso. There are practically no apartments on the market for long term leasing. For those who can’t get bank credit and who don’t stand to inherit any properties, the rental situation has become an existential concern.

Buying an apartment anywhere close to the center is only possible for those with a large amount of capital, so an increasing number of people are buying real estate in suburbs and near-by towns. This creates problems beyond Dubrovnik, as these neighboring areas are experiencing rapid population growth without adequate infrastructure to handle them.

A common stereotype is that everyone from Dubrovnik owns apartments they rent out and just bums around the rest of the time.

The current situation reinforces social inequalities, which are rarely discussed. It’s widely believed that everyone is living well off of tourism. This goes along with the common stereotype that everyone from Dubrovnik owns apartments they rent out and just bums around the rest of the time.

The “apartmentization” of the city has led to drastic changes in the Old Town, where few locals remain. Coupled with the fact that many businesses close in the off-season, Dubrovnik becomes a ghost town in the winter.

The prioritization of profit has led to the usurpation and destruction of public space, including the sea.

According to the law, the maritime domain, which includes beaches, cannot be privately owned. Beaches are supposed to be accessible to the public, though they can be offered up for concession. Winners of concession bids often flout the terms of their contract by occupying more land than they’re allowed to, effectively privatizing larger and larger swaths of the seaside.

Lack of concern for public space has also led to the “concretization” of the coast and destruction of green space. A prime example of this is the main beach at the Lapad inlet. 

Recently the government recently tried to push through a new law that would make it possible to limit public-use of the coast, allow private concession grantees to do construction work in the maritime domain and legalize backfilling beaches, a process that threatens the biodiversity in the local marine habitats.

Since this would have led to — for all intents and purposes — beach privatization, the proposed bill provoked considerable public backlash. In the face of a public petition, the government dropped the most controversial provisions in the bill, but many in the public feel this is only a temporary victory. Evidently, the privatization of the beaches is a long-term goal of some, challenged only by the sometimes flagging vigilance of the community.

In spite of the law, villas and hotels in Dubrovnik increasingly limit access to the beaches in their vicinity. Activists have protested against this and have mobilized to remove physical barriers to the beach. The fact that activists are undertaking this work demonstrates the lack of a police response. The illegal privatization of the coast is a result of institutional inaction and the corrupt partnership between the government and private enterprises.

Dubrovnik also happens to be the busiest port in Croatia for cruise ships. The total lack of concern for sustainability and long-term thinking on the issue is clear in the fact that locals’ views of cruise ships are shaped by the near universal belief that, despite clogging up the streets, cruise goers don’t spend much in town. This makes the ships widely hated by locals.

Rarely is the enormous damage cruise ships cause to the marine coastal ecosystem mentioned by locals, showing the short-sightedness and exclusive focus on profits of many.

Instead of working towards better and more sustainable solutions, the city government increasingly relies on repressive measures and overregulation.

Dubrovnik has the dubious honor of having Europe’s highest tourist-to-local ratio. Inevitably, a large number of people visiting a small town will create undesirable situations, but instead of working towards better and more sustainable solutions, the city government increasingly relies on repressive measures and overregulation.

The mayor of Dubrovnik’s most recent idea was to ban the use of wheeled bags in the old town. Behind the overarching campaign titled “Respect the City” lie some conservative ideas — e.g. the city should be respected by wearing appropriate clothing, so shirtless individuals are liable to fines. However, what is disregarded is that the real damage to the city is a result of exploitation by private companies the ruling elite readily colludes with.

Most jobs in tourism are seasonal. Although many find this desirable because half the year is spent idle, this type of work creates quality of life issues as well. For lower wage workers, the issue of frequent job changes and job insecurity is a constant stress. Seasonal workers also have trouble getting loans from the bank.

The biggest challenge is the discrepancy between the heavy on-season workload, and off-season life, where there is a shortage of not only work, but also cultural and other events. Seasonal work is demanding both physically and mentally, the latter being visible even in the off season. Such a pace of life may take its toll, which tends to be overlooked by many.

The dominant characteristic of relying on tourism for the economy is insecurity. Political, climate and health changes can have an enormous impact, whether they take place inside or just outside Croatia, or even beyond the region. Tourism brings a specific type of precariousness.

Dubrovnik is in dire need of grassroots initiatives, strong civic consciousness and an insistence on sustainability.

A solution to all these problems that is often mentioned is “elite tourism,” seen as the opposite of “mass tourism.” According to this cliché, having fewer guests who pay more would be the magic cure. But this would not only fail to provide a solution to existing issues, it would create new ones. Public space would be further privatized, for instance, and prices would go up. Small renters and businesses would be in jeopardy and it could exacerbate social inequalities.

Though there are many problems Dubrovnik faces due to its reliance on tourism, it is a fact that many locals, and the city itself, survives directly off tourism. This is by no means a call to end tourism. What we need is smarter public policies with a long-term approach that can bring about a more equitable social system. Dubrovnik is in dire need of grassroots initiatives, strong civic consciousness and an insistence on sustainability, so that it can preserve the available resources for future generations. Meanwhile, we can dream of a more just social and economic system.


Feature image: Ruben Ramirez via CC license

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