I first set eyes on Dubrovnik on April 16, 1996. Although the last shell dropped on the pearly city in 1992, it could have been last week as far as the residents were concerned. The tourist business, which was the economic lifeblood of the town, had been moribund since the beginning of the Homeland War in 1991. Before the war, Dubrovnik was welcoming some 4 million tourists a year. In 1995 numbers were down to about 120,000. “We’ll be happy if we can get 10% of our pre-war arrivals”, the tourist director explained to me in his office. “That’s quite an economic hit”, I remarked, mentioning that my book might bring more Anglophone tourists. “We don’t care where tourists are from or how much money they spend. We just want to see their faces. Bring some life into town”.
In Croatia to update Lonely Planet’s Eastern Europe guidebook, I found that tourist officials everywhere were desperately eager to meet me and present their domain. Dubrovnik was in a particularly bad place both psychologically and economically. It was and is geographically isolated on the very tip of Croatia with its former tormenters from Bosnia and Montenegro penned behind disturbingly close borders. There was no shipbuilding business to rebuild as in Pula or Split and the days of Dubrovnik as a center of Adriatic trade were long gone.
People were morose and anxious. “We’re worried we can’t keep the young people”, murmured my guide, Antonjeta over lunch at Dundo Maroje. They talked obsessively about the war and the sudden collapse of normal life. It was “like a mousetrap”, said one woman, remembering the day when officials pulled up the drawbridges. Many spoke wistfully of the cable car up to Srd Hill that had been destroyed in the war and left in ruins.
The women were still exquisitely dressed, determined to keep up appearances. On the one hand, the careful grooming belied their economic situation but on the other hand, it brought them closer to me. That could be my aunt or my sister or even me who suddenly sees their elegant middle-class life explode because of distant political squabbles.
The preoccupation with surfaces extended to the physical landscape of Dubrovnik. The facades were mostly repaired by then at least along Stradun, the main artery. UNESCO and other international organizations had rushed money into town to repair the most seriously damaged structures. Along the side streets though, many buildings were empty and shuttered waiting for the completion of repairs.
Replacing Dubrovnik’s distinctive honey-colored roof tiles proved particularly problematic. A source for the clay tiles had yet to be found and there was an urgent need to protect buildings from the rain. In desperation, the restorers turned first to Slovenia, then to Agen in France before finally retooling a factory in northern Croatia.
In the photo above, the contrast between the old and new tiles is evident. Notice also the burn marks that remain on the walls and the scaffolding around the Cathedral.
What a difference a decade makes! Not only was Dubrovnik well and truly repaired by 2007 but its property market was at its height with prices rivaling those of central London. Even in 2010 the price of a two-bedroom apartment was €490,000.
Foreigners rushed in to buy vacation homes and residents happily sold out. By 2012 only about 1500 residents remained in the Old Town, a drop of about %75 since the early ’90s. The fear that Dubrovnik cannot keep its younger generation has been replaced by the fear that the city cannot keep any locally-born residents. Preserving Dubrovnik’s traditions and culture has become challenging as tourists flood the city each season.
Some 657,000 tourists arrived in 2012, a number which is expected to increase by 10% in 2013 when final figures are in. But those numbers don’t include the nearly one million cruise passengers that arrive annually, an influx that strains tempers as well as Dubrovnik’s infrastructure. Some say that cruise tourism is a fragile economic base as cruise passengers spend a fraction of what overnight visitors spend. Also, an Old Town packed to immobility by strolling cruise passengers may make Dubrovnik less attractive to other visitors.