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Overtourism #4: Has the Game of Thrones effect gone too far for Dubrovnik?

When it comes to boosting tourism, having your destination feature heavily as a location in a popular TV show is normally something to celebrate. However, for Croatia, the rise in tourist activity has been too rapid to maintain any sense of sustainability. After eight seasons and almost a decade of filming, could the Game of Thrones effect come at too high a price for the country – especially the medieval city of Dubrovnik?

What the press and politicians say

In terms of overtourism, Croatia is a rare case. While most destinations in Europe have a ratio of tourists to local inhabitants of less than 2:1, The Dubrovnik Times reports that Croatia’s ratio is higher than 3:1. And, according to the news outlet, this figure rises to 1000:1 in the country’s most popular destination – the famous city of Dubrovnik, located on the Dalmatian Coast of the Adriatic Sea. A full tenth of Croatia’s tourist flow is concentrated in this one location; a place that would normally be home to just over 42,000 people.

What makes Dubrovnik an even more interesting case study for overtourism is that it doesn’t feature anywhere near the recent lists of most-visited cities. It attracted a record 1.27m overnight visitors during 2018, but this is low in comparison to other cities featured in this series. For example, Conde Nast Traveller’s Top 10 most-visited cities for 2018 places Paris at 2nd with a figure 19.1m overnight visitors.

One reason for Dubrovnik’s sudden rise in tourist visits is clear: the popularity of HBO TV series Game of Thrones. The medieval city has, throughout the course of the show, been the shooting location for the fictional city of King’s Landing. The link is undeniable, as locations in Northern Ireland (where most of the filming took place) have also seen a large rise in tourism. There, the BBC estimates that 350,000 (or one in every six) tourists visit Northern Ireland due to Game of Thrones every year.

In showing off Dubrovnik’s stone alleyways, terracotta rooves and crystal shorelines, Game of Thrones has been a magnificent advertisement for the city. However, the visitor numbers it has inspired now pose a risk to Dubrovnik’s long-term sustainability as a tourist location.

As reported by Responsible Travel, UNESCO threatened to remove World Heritage status from the city in 2016 unless it takes action to prevent such huge numbers of visitors surging into the city. Ironically, this would reduce tourist interest in Dubrovnik, but in a way that would still be in effect long after the Game of Thrones hype has faded.

Dubrovnik’s Mayor Mato Franković has been clear that the city cannot sit by and hope for the situation to resolve itself. Talking to CNN, he said: “We are very proud of our tourism, but we think that we actually need to take a break and slow down the number of the tourists that are coming to Dubrovnik.

He’s hopeful that putting measures of control in place can make a difference to how visitors perceive their trip to Dubrovnik while protecting the city at the same time. “We want to provide high-quality to all of the tourists,” Franković said in his CNN interview. “A lot of them are coming to Dubrovnik. Some of them are coming, of course, because of the Game of Thrones. It is a really ancient city with a rich history, and we want for all of our tourists to have a great quality of destination.”

Franković is right to be concerned, with CNN itself placing Dubrovnik on a list of destinations to avoid in 2018 due to overcrowding.

The facts and figures

Overtourism is a hot topic in Croatia, a country that tops the global list of nations trying to manage excessive numbers of tourists. A 2018 report showed Croatia attracting 57.6m tourists, compared to 4.2m locals – representing 1,380% of the inhabitant population.

For Dubrovnik, the challenge of overtourism is one of scale. Despite not being one of Europe’s mature tourist markets, it has already reached a tipping point where the number of visitors has become too high to handle. The rise has also been too rapid to manage effectively. For example, the number of overnight stays in the city increased by 93.89% between 2011 and 2017; from 606,000 to 1.18m.

The Croatian Tourist Board reported that, in 2018, Dubrovnik saw a further 1.27m tourist arrivals – representing an 8% increase on the previous year. These visitors enjoyed 4.14m overnight stays, which was a 4% increase on 2017. Overall, the growth in visits slowed slightly, but the city still broke its own records. It seems to highlight a trend that shows no sign of reversing any time soon.

To offer a sense of scale, these figures equate to an average of almost 3,500 people visiting Dubrovnik every day (not accounting for peak or off-season periods). The total number of tourists is also roughly 30 times the number of local inhabitants, demonstrating the lack of sustainability brought about by the current situation.

A major element of the issue with overtourism in Dubrovnik – building on the city’s popularity via Game of Thrones – is the influx of cruise passengers. As many as 13 ships a day have previously arrived in the city’s port, contributing to a total of 742,000 tourists across 538 vessels arriving in Dubrovnik during 2017. Alongside the overcrowding, cruise ships are adding to ecological damage in the city – with two cruise ships alone emitting more pollution than all of the cars in Croatia.

In 2015, a UNESCO report suggested that Dubrovnik needed to take control of its problem with cruise ships – recommending a cap of no more than 8,000 arrivals. This came before the organisation’s 2016 warning that the city would end up on the World Heritage in Danger list. In the same year, Dubrovnik exceeded the 8,000 mark on 18 out of 243 days – even surpassing 10,000 passengers on four of those days.

The solutions?

The city of Dubrovnik can’t go back in time to avoid featuring in Game of Thrones – and neither would it want to. It is, however, working on several ways to manage the flow of tourists to the city, especially those disembarking a cruise ship.

In 2017, Dubrovnik unveiled its ‘Respect the City’ plan, which aims to reduce overcrowding caused by tourism. To do this, the city imposed a limit on the number of tourists visiting the Old Town – allowing no more than 4,000 to enter at any one time. Beyond this point, no one may enter the city walls.

Another initiative that Dubrovnik has introduced is the responsible management of cruise ships. Going beyond UNESCO recommendations, the agreement with cruise companies allows a maximum of only two cruise ships (carrying up to 5,000 passengers) to arrive in the city’s port each day. The measures were introduced at the beginning of 2019, so the end-of-year results will make for interesting reading. Additionally, the city signed an agreement this year with cruise association Clia to communicate the new arrangements and protect the city’s cultural heritage.

City Mayor Mato Franković is upbeat about the effect these restrictions are having on Dubrovnik. Talking to the Dubrovnik Times on introducing the measures in 2017, he said: “We have arranged a better schedule of arrivals and departures for cruise ships, thus significantly improving the flow of guests into the Old City of Dubrovnik. Although this season we have an increase in the number of passengers on cruise ships, the streets of the historic core have not been blocked for the first time in 10 years.”

The new rules seem to be influencing the type of visitor Dubrovnik attracts, with overnight stays increasing by 4% in 2018 as compared to 2017. This includes a 6% rise in the number of hotel guests and a 12% rise in those staying in private accommodation.

It’s not all good news for the city, though, as it continues with the expansion of its airport – a project that could yet undermine efforts to reduce overtourism. Despite this, Dubrovnik seems to have taken strong steps towards dealing with the problem. Whether this creates a more sustainable tourist environment in the city – and whether the rest of Croatia can learn from its example – remains to be seen.

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