Tourism changes the complete blood stream of a city; the way it lives and breathes, its values and residents’ choice of occupation

By Barbara Matejčić
Croatian version

In the narrow streets along Diocletian’s Palace it was such slow moving this past summer that you could have effortlessly read a book while slowly strolling, taking a small step forward every half a minute. When tourist groups would invade the place, the newly renovated cobblestones were not visible on the Peristil from the swarm of feet jostling about. The tourists were raising their cameras high up in the air in order to take a decent shot without someone’s head ruining their frame. The locals, who found themselves trapped in town due to pressing commitments kept other locals in the know that the centre was gridlocked and not to come into the city centre barring urgent necessities. A city of 180 000 residents was stretched beyond its limits. Those who profit from tourism were understandably content, while the rest were querulously grumbling in their attempts to escape the city limits at weekends in a backup of traffic.

This has been a run-of-the-mill image of Split for the past few years which has been known for decades as a transitory point and didn’t have the resources to seriously be dependent on tourism-based income as tourists would just pass through it en route to the islands. Today Split is a renowned destination. A tourist destination, as the popular saying goes. As news pour in how this season was worst than last year tourism-wise, Split counts 10 percent more tourists as opposed to the previous year. Even experts can’t offer a precise answer what influenced this phenomenon, while they concur that several factors contributed to this renaissance of Split tourism. Split’s location on the Mediterranean, which presents a strong lure for tourists, the Croatian part of the Mediterranean being a calm and safe location, as opposed to, Greece or North Africa. Another thing to bear in mind, an increase of interest for urban tourism, improved road and air connections, larger tourist mobility, more youth who travel, opening up to new markets. Thus tourism befell Split, before anyone knew what was happening. That is, many knew exactly what was going on and made good on this new unexpected turn of events, especially lessors and the hospitality industry, while those whose job is tourism management didn’t seem to find their footing. The city authorities and the Tourist Board who should have the answers to the questions what kind of tourism is desired, what should be done to move towards and achieve that direction, what specific tourist requirements need to be met, how to harmonize the pressure of tourism with the city’s daily rhythm and where Split will be ten years down the line. In such a disorganized chasm, where the City and its citizens are attempting to cut a profit, Split is rapidly changing. Its most attractive parts, its historical core, have become unrecognizable in just a few years.

A Ghost Town in Winter Spread Too Thin in Summer

Among flocks of tourists and theater stage setters, we met with historian and archaeologist Maja Miše on the Peristil this past summer. She avoids the city center during the summer due to the crowds, yet still has to occasionally make a trip to the center as the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences where she works at its Department of Art History is located right in the city center. We took a stroll within the Palace. Fast-food joints and restaurants reside in the very places where only last year bookshops were situated; boutiques, watchmakers and hair salons have been replaced by souvenir shops, while hostels and boarding rooms are sprouting like mushrooms in lieu of previous apartment complexes. Six years ago Split had two hostels, while just in time for this season, 24 were registered. Last year the Financial Times declared Diocletian’s Palace the most attractive place for living in competition with all other urban locations from the UNESCO list of protected World Cultural Heritage. However, there is little life left within the Palace. The ancient city core has lost a third of its residents within the last decade, according to data from the last two census’, 2001 registered 2882 residents, while a decade later 2036. People are selling real estate at high prices, thus taking care of housing issues both for themselves and their children in less expensive and simpler neighborhoods, while the buyers convert them into suites. Maja Miše states that the Palace hasn’t only been transformed into an apartment settlement for tourists, but other neighboring venues such as Varoš have been confronted with the same destiny. “Blue boards are all over the place advertising property leasing, while students can’t afford to spend the entire year in a rental, rather they usually vacate the premises in June in order to turn the suites over to tourists. They are the biggest source of profit,” she states. As residents are becoming few and far between, so hospitality services are slowly but surely becoming extinguished; services necessary to the permanent, not only temporary residents. The center is losing its butchers, hairdressers, lawyers, dentists, while gaining new ‘summer’ professions: animators, rickshaw drivers, tour guides for pub crawling. At the same time, this turn of events is weakening the position of the old city core as the center of urban life, as Split residents have barely any reason left to saunter over to the center, while they have even less incentive to go during the summer. Thus Split increasingly looks like an abandoned island town during the winter, while being overcrowded during the summer. Maja Miše explains this congestion through an example of what is happening beneath the cobblestones as we walk through the city: sewage and water supply line in the old city core cannot withstand the summer invasion. The infrastructure is old and not being renovated. Investments are being put in only that which is visible and attractive – into the most valuable monuments – while rare occupants are not receiving any type of subvention for expensive housing renovations. The city authorities are neither bound nor required to invest money raised from monument rent, that all business premises within the old city core, back into the city. Maja Miše warns that this focus of Split solely towards tourism is influencing the professions that Split’s youth choose, hence Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences students contemplate how to best utilize their knowledge within the tourism industry. Thus tourism can utterly change the blood stream and life-support system of a city: the way its residents live, how the city is utilized, the measure of its worth, as well as its residents’ choice of occupation.

Tourism and the Local Population: (Im)possibility of Cohabitation

That was our topic of conversation at the Carrara grassland, one of many Split grasslands and meadows. Not that long ago, children used to play a renowned Dalmatian children’s ball game called “Mala Branka”, what would roughly translate as a local type of football i.e. “throwing a ball around between two goal-posts on a meadow”, while currently the space is covered in café tables with a over-50-percent ratio, what is legally the maximum space a public venue can lease. Maja Miše holds that an elaborate concept of tourist development of the city does not exist, rather that tourism rules the city: “Split’s ‘claim-to-fame’ is 17 centuries of continuity in a Roman palace. Thus Diocletian’s Palace has such high value and is on UNESCO’s list. If inhabitants of the Palace don’t proceed, through various measures – from seeking funding for housing renovation to parking rights – to facilitate their continuance on living within the Palace walls, this continuity can very well be broken and then the one-time lively center will become an open museum. In addition to the fact that this would prove an immeasurable loss for the city per se, it would decrease its tourist attraction. For successful cohabitation of tourism and the local population it is necessary to guide and manage the development of tourism and not the other way around, the city, in effect, being held hostage to random pseudo-tourism.”

Turning a Blind Eye to the Venice Formula

Changes that came with tourism in Split started earlier, some 230 kilometers south. The lights are still burning bright during winters in houses of rare inhabitants that reside within the Dubrovnik City Walls, those last of their kind who continue to resist temptation of lucrative offers to sell. For the most part of the year one could easily play “Mala Branka” in Stradun without a soul in sight, while during the summer months one needs an hour just to pass some 300 meters in a congested backup from Pile to the Ploče doors. “Dubrovnik has overstepped the line where the sheer quantity of tourists has a major impact on quality. Maybe such overcrowding doesn’t appeal to either Dubrovnik residents or tourists, but does appeal in the short-term to those who make money off tourists. They are all – from the local management to small street vendors and souvenir sellers – united in their interest to make a quick profit in the least amount of time”, holds Pave Župan Rusković, a Dubrovnik native and former Croatian Minister of Tourism who spent her entire working life in this profession. What needs to be done in order that Dubrovnik doesn’t stand empty during the winter and unbearable in the summer? “It’s time to start determining the maximum number of tourists that may be allowed in the city during the span of one day, what certainly means put a limit on the number of cruisers, this new type of mass tourism for which we don’t have relevant data in terms of the profit it brings in. Furthermore, a detailed plan of the city must be formulated in order to know what lines of business are operating within the city. Then plan the number of restaurants and cafés accordingly, as well as determine what’s lacking, what needs to stay open during the winter, so we can know what to open in the first place. Likewise, one of the main challenges and tasks is extending the tourist season in order to distribute the number of tourists throughout the year. Tourist groups that have come to Dubrovnik during the winter were amazed with the city. Certain long-time patrons of Dubrovnik said that this was the first time they had the chance to really see the city in all its magnificence. Both Dubrovnik and Split have all the necessary prerequisites for promoting, managing and nurturing year-round tourism, i.e. heritage, culture, nature and a mild climate, all of which are strong arguments for tourism all-year-round tourism,” she says.

However, if some sort of structure isn’t brought in, if filling the budget and lining certain individual’s pockets continues, what will Dubrovnik look like in ten year’s time? Will it only then, much like Venice in recent years, try to return inhabitants who, after sticking it out as long as they could, and at long last, tired from their daily struggles of living in their own city, just gave up? “Dubrovnik will always have a good occupancy rate as there will always be people who will want to see it for two days, but neither will the financial results live up to our expectations, nor the quality of life of Dubrovnik inhabitants Dubrovčana.” Why couldn’t have Dubrovnik adopted and subsequently applied Venice’s formula, with Split following Dubrovnik’s example? “On account of greed. Greed for money governs tourism in Dubrovnik”, Pave Župan Rusković concludes.