Published by Financial Times, 12 November 2007
Carrying thousands of passengers on the Adriatic Sea, the towering cruise liners approach from the south. About three miles short of Dubrovnik, they stop on open water and release tender boats, shuttles that ferry passengers to shore. The tenders motor between the coast and the forested island of Lokrum, toward the walled city's small marina.
But squeezing into the marina can be tricky. Large enough to carry 150 passengers each, the tenders must navigate through a maze of little moored boats while competing for space with glass-bottomed sightseeing vessels that use the same diminutive dock. After careful manoeuvres, the ship-to-shore tenders land and unload passengers who promptly march into the old city.
The docking procedure can be complicated even in the low-season, when no more than two cruise liners arrive at once. But at the height of summer, as many as seven liners sometimes arrive within a short space of time. Then the marina becomes a waterborne traffic jam.
Crowds form on land, too. The exquisite old city, whose international fame multiplied when shells landed on it during Croatia's 1991-1995 war, heaves with pedestrians through the high season. These foreign visitors arrive not just by boat but by aeroplane, coach and car, bound for the famous walls, the gleaming white pedestrian streets, the cafes, restaurants and souvenir shops.
"In August and September sometimes we have had 14,500 tourists in the walled city, all at once. I hate it. I lock myself in my office until the afternoon when things slow down," says Erol Olcan, general manager at the Pucic Palace, the only luxury boutique hotel inside the city walls.
Such high-season crowds are both a headache and a source of profit for Mr Olcan and for many locals. They exemplify the kind of strain being felt as Croatia scrambles to accommodate fast-growing tourist demand. What happens in Dubrovnik, the country's leading tourism boomtown, also happens elsewhere along the coast, though usually on a smaller scale.
Croatia registered 53m tourist nights in 2006, up 36 per cent from 2000. Total annual visitors will exceed 11m this year and could top 12m by 2012, says Zdenko Micic, state secretary for tourism.
As the Croatian tourism industry absorbs this surging demand - which has yet to return to pre-war levels - the country's tourism offer looks less and less like its former self. "The Mediterranean as it once was," the national tourism board's slogan, evokes unhurried tranquillity, not crowds. The slogan still rings true, but a nagging question is what will happen in the long run if growth continues at the current rate.
Mr Micic says he envisages a well-managed shift toward upscale tourism along the coast and a careful preservation of quiet environments on the islands, of which Croatia has more than 1,000.
But change may prove difficult to manage. As new investment pours in apace, some critics already ask whether tourist destinations could put existing assets to work more effectively.
Dubrovnik, in the way it handles crowds, is a glaring example. Goran Vukovic, a local architectural consultant, says the walled city's traditional dockside area - the Lazarica which was formerly used for quarantining sailors - could easily be converted to receive vessels again. A short distance outside the city walls, the Lazarica houses quiet art galleries and offices. If the tenders landed there, rather than at the marina, docking would be simpler, demand for gaudy trinket shops could be displaced, and crowds within the walls would shrink - at least marginally.
Such lateral thinking, Mr Vukovic says, can still help Dubrovnik "to handle the attack of mass tourism" and keep it from becoming "a dead city or a museum like Venice".
However planners are moving in the opposite direction. Expensively reconfiguring the quay walls at nearby Gruz Harbour, they are making room for multiple mega-liners to dock at once.
"We know what sustainability means. We do not want to overbuild our capacities," says Mr Micic.
However, locals are often more sceptical. "We are learning, quite unexpectedly, that money is far more dangerous to Dubrovnik than bombshells," quips Mr Vukovic.
In some cases, rapid growth has led to imbalances between what visitors expect, what they actually receive and what local economies are able to provide.
Sometimes asked to pay the equivalent of â‚¬95 for a 90-minute walking tour, visitors to Dubrovnik complain that prices are too high. Yet prices are just as often surprisingly low, as local businesses struggle to adjust prices for a spectrum of clientele that includes mass tourists.
"You can get a pizza and a glass of wine for â‚¬7 in the old city. You can't call that expensive," says Mr Olcan.
At the same time, some locals find themselves priced out of their own market. Real estate prices have soared to around â‚¬4,000 per sq m.
Andreas Jersabeck, general manager at the Hilton Imperial Dubrovnik, a prominent hotel just outside the city walls, says the fast-rising cost of living has led to an undersupply of cooks, waiters and housekeepers, complicated by seasonality.
"There is a huge shortage of labour in the summer, yet in October people come queuing for jobs when we do not need them," says Mr Jersabeck. Seasonal workers, cannot afford apartment rents.
All agree that the solution involves a move away from mass tourism and an upgrade of accommodation across the country. Some 80 per cent of current space is camping or private rooms, and more than 60 per cent of hotels are 3-star. "We need more 4-star and 5-star rooms," Mr Micic says.