Thursday, October 25, 2018

Dubrovnik is beautiful, but is tourism killing it?

I continue my series of posts from last summer's European vacation - I've even created a label for these now - with a brief recount of my brief trip to Dubrovnik, Croatia.

Dubrovnik's medieval walled city is a relic of the past, when the city, which was the capital of the Republic of Ragusa, thrived on maritime trade (and played the Venetians and Ottomans off on each other in order to maintain its advantage). Today. however, Dubrovnik relies on tourism for its economy. Dubrovnik is a tourist favorite because of its weather, its location on the Adriatic Sea, the beauty of both its architecture as well as the surrounding countryside, and its service as a shooting location for the Game of Thrones series. 
The walls of Dubrovnik's old town, as seen from the sea.
The main street in Dubrovnik's old town.
The crush of tourists brings in money, but it also brings in problems. Only about 1,500 actual residents live within the walls of the old town today - most housing units are rented out to tourists - and locals throughout the city have learned not to venture anywhere when the "attacks" from tourists disembarking from cruise ships occur. Authorities have been trying to limit the number of tourists to the city by installing "counters" at the entrances to the old city or by staggering the arrival times of cruise ships, but one is nevertheless left to wonder if tourism is killing Dubrovnik and if the city's future is some sort of Disney-esque dystopia full of bars and souvenir shops but lacking an authentic local population and culture.
Tourists crowd a side street in old town Dubrovnik.

Outdoor cafes and vendor stalls in a plaza in old town Dubrovnik.

To be sure, we were part of the problem, because the four of us were among those throngs of cruise ship passengers visiting Dubrovnik during the peak of the peak season. Our ship had docked there along with two other large cruise ships that day, and the old town was clogged with tourists. Our tourguide dutifully mentioned some of the challenges that so much tourism had created for Dubrovnik, but had a rather fatalistic attitude about it ("but what can you do?" was his usual refrain).*  
Another view of old town Dubrovnik's main street, and the crowd of tourists that had come to see it.

Outdoor cafes catering to tourists are everywhere in Dubrovnik's old town.

Another side street in old town Dubrovnik. The old town itself really is a beautiful, human-scaled place.
I really wish I had enough time to walk up and down every side street in Dubrovnik's old town. The crowds of tourists aside, old town Dubrovnik really is a delightful place, with its old buildings, narrow streets, stairways and plazas. There is a reason why tourists like to go there.

We were in Old Town Dubrovnik long enough to take in some of the main sights, sample the local food and drink (yum!) and collect a few souvenirs. I'd love to go back one day, perhaps in the spring or fall when there are not as many tourists, and spend more time exploring Dubrovnik (including the city outside of the old town).

The best thing about being in Dubrovnik is that we were there the day before the FIFA World Cup Final between Croatia and France. The excitement among the locals, from our tourguide to our waitress to all the Croatian flags fluttering throughout the old town - was palpable. (Alas, France won.)

A quiet side street in old town Dubronvik. Note the arched passageway above the stairs.

One of the gates leading in to old town Dubrovnik. This should look familiar to Game of Thrones fans!
Dubrovnik is a place I've always wanted to visit. The fact that I was there with scores of other tourists didn't really bother me, because I knew that they simply wanted to see the same thing I wanted to see. I understand that we, as tourists, create challenges for Dubrovnik's local population, and I understand that Dubrovnik faces a particular predicament in that it really doesn't have an economy other than tourism to rely upon. How do you strike a balance?

I occasionally come across online listicles (not going to link to any because they don't deserve the traffic) of "places you shouldn't visit" or "tourist destinations that are overrated" that include Dubrovnik. These "lists" are as condescending and cruel as they are vapid, and they could have a detrimental effect on Dubrovnik if enough people take them seriously.

Don't let the internet dictate to you where you should or should not visit. I would however, advise my fellow tourists to Dubrovnik to be polite, be patient, and tip well. Always act like you are a guest in somebody else's home, because you are.

* I was also part of the problem in Venice, which is also straining under the weight of tourism. Only about 50,000 residents actually live on the Venetian archipelago  - again, housing units are being rented out to tourists - and it is one of several places that are experiencing a tourism backlash. However, being too reactionary towards tourism can have adverse consequences of its own. Hence, the need for tourist-dependent locales to find a balance without killing the golden goose.

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