Croatia's Empty Pearl: A Dreamy, Tourist-Free Dubrovnik

Normally, the so-called 'Pearl of the Adriatic' would be teeming with tourists right now. Instead, the Croatian coastal city is strangely — but also wonderfully — empty.

The main street of the Old Town of Dubrovnik in Croatia
The main street of the Old Town of Dubrovnik in Croatia
Clément Guillou

DUBROVNIK — The city seems to be crawling with them these days. They're everywhere, basking in the shade of stone houses, trotting around in the evenings on the white marble, making a ruckus at night.

For the past three months, cats have had Dubrovnik all to themselves. The "Pearl of the Adriatic," as it's known, is Croatia's top tourist destination. And yet, since the lockdown ended in May — and despite it being a country that the COVID-19 pandemic largely spared — hardly anyone has returned.

Normally, the charming medieval center would be swarming with tourists right now. Instead, Dubrovnik is experiencing a most unusual period, one that for older residents brings to mind the summer of 1992, after the city's siege by Yugoslav forces, when there was no water or tourists.

On the weekend of June 20-21, fewer than 2,500 visitors spent the night in Dubrovnik, an 89% decrease compared to the same period in 2019. There aren't any people debarking from cruise ships, which may or may be back in action toward the end of the summer. There aren't many flights operating here either, and the city has never been easy to access to by car.

What's more, people from the United Kingdom and United States — the top two sources of tourists in Dubrovnik — aren't even allowed to visit right now. On the other hand, some wealthy Russians and Ukrainians have taken advantage to moor their yachts in the marina and enjoy a moment of calm unlike anything the bay has experienced in the past 20 years.

"It's fantastic and strange at the same time, like a Giorgio de Chirico painting," says Karmen Gabrilo, a 28-year-old art historian and Dubrovnik resident who had learned to hate the summer season, which she equates with crowds, noise and a stench of fried food.

This year, though, things feel different, she explains. What she smells now is the sea, or the pleasant odor of a home-cooked stew wafting out through someone's window; she hears the clip of the Croatian language, and children's cries. Walking along Prijeko Street, she can also see a part of the cathedral that would normally be hidden behind the parasols of the many sidewalk cafes and restaurants.

"There are usually so many tables and restaurants blocking the way that I hardly dared walk around here, and when I did I'd have to watch where I stepped," she says.

That also means space for more bicycles. And on close inspection, we even noticed a patch of green in this famous city of stone: Grass had sprouted up through the marble paving.

Eventually tourists could even outnumber real residents.

Gabrilo, like just about every other young person here, worked last summer in a tourism-related job. But this year most hotels and restaurants are still closed because of the pandemic. She decided to take advantage and do a bit of traveling herself — to rediscover the greater region. She even invited some friends to join her, which is itself a novelty, because normally she cautions people not to visit during the period beginning in May.

"The worst thing that ever happened to Dubrovnik was when it stopped being a city and instead become a destination," she says.

For now, the city still has more locals (roughly 43,600, as of 2011) than available tourist beds (31,000), but with the former in decline and the latter going up every year, the two numbers are on track to even out. Eventually tourists could even outnumber real residents. That's especially true for the medieval city center, where the population of locals went from about 6,000 in 1965 to fewer than 1,600 at last count (in 2017).

In the 2000s, much of the old city was sold to investors, most of them foreigners. Locals sold their family homes for previously unimagined prices — up to 8,000 euros per square meter — using the money to buy spacious apartments for the whole family away from the coast.

"It wasn't the tourism that was aggressive; it was the privatization and the arrival of foreign capital," says Marina Missoni Barisic, a guide for 18 years who, like Karmen Gabrilo, has noticed how different the sights and sounds are this year. The nights are finally quiet again. She can hear the singing of the birds.

Barisic says that before the war, the Yugoslav regime kept tight controls on tourism. But since then it's been a free-for-all, and the entire economy has been transformed as a result. Farmers left the fields, factories shut down and everyone — heartened by tax incentives — put their stake in the tourism El Dorado.

Average income in the city and its surrounding is the second highest in Croatia after Zagreb, the capital. And yet, there is shortage of shops selling basic goods. Hospitals are understaffed. And housing is expensive — 30% higher than in Split, another stunning, seaside city about 200 kilometers up the coast.

Tourists wearing face masks board a boat in Dubrovnik — Photo: Grgo Jelavic/Pixsell/Xinhua/ZUMA

On top of that, it's only possible really to rent an apartment in Dubrovnik between October and March, because during the spring and summer months, owners prefer to put their properties on Airbnb. There are laws in place that are supposed to regulate the short-term rental market, but they're only loosely applied. The same goes for the use of sidewalk space by restaurants and cafes, and for city planning in general.

To get a sense of what's wrong with Dubrovnik, take a stroll down to the Porporela, the historic pier and breakwater that juts out into the harbor at the base of the old town. The old jetty offers a stunning view of the adjacent hills, which are now covered with rental apartments — at the expense of the receding treeline. The old forest now covers just half of the space, which UNESCO still classifies as a "buffer zone."

Tomi Soletic, a 31-year-old architect, opens a beer as he starts to discuss the construction taking place. "That one," he says, pointing to particular building in the distance. "I would have a hard time explaining how it can be legal."

Soletic cannot find words harsh enough to express his thoughts on Dubrovnik's urban management plan, which dates back to 2000 but is regularly amended to allow for this and that exception. The city's curator, Zana Baca – the person responsible for issuing building permits – has just left her position and is under investigation by the Ministry of Culture.

Here's another number that illustrates how much things have changed for Dubrovnik in recent years: Of the 233 weddings celebrated there in 2019, more than half involved foreign couples who came for the postcard view.

Nikolina Farcic, a caterer and party planner who especially works with British couples, earns a living because of it. But of course this year, things are much different. What's her take on the sudden disappearance of tourists? "I'm not sure that there's one good answer," she says.

Farcic is pleased on the one hand that there's space this summer for children to run around and play, for example, in front of the old clock tower. But she's also concerned about the future. "What will it look like?" she asks. "Like it or not, everyone here depends on tourism. With the wedding parties, I'm giving jobs to hairdressers, decorators, florists, lighting designers, make-up artists, DJs and so on." Indeed. A full 80% of all earnings in Dubrovnik are tourism related, the city government reports.

A nearly empty beach in Dubrovnik — Photo: Grgo Jelavic/Pixsell/Xinhua/ZUMA

Sitting outside the majestic Gradska Kavana café, Farcic takes out her phone and pulls up a picture from Facebook. The image, taken six years, shows a monstrous jam of tourists bottle-necked at the famous Gate of Pile, one of three main entry points into the old city center. Such scenes are typical of Dubrovnik over the past decade, when low-cost airlines added to the stream of visitors already transported by cruises.

"Tourism has always been there," Farcic explains. "But, before the war in 1991, the people who came were loyal customers who returned every year to the same hotels and stayed for one week or two."

Then, starting around 2000, she adds, cruise ships starting docking in Dubrovnik. "We were thrilled," Farcic admits. "But when we started having difficulty entering the old city, when city buses were full and we couldn't park our own cars, that's when we realized how unbearable it had become."

Tourism is a golden goose that, nevertheless, needs protecting from over-tourism.

Nearly 1.5 million tourists spent at least one night in Dubrovnik in 2019, a 13% increase over the previous year. Add to that 750,000 cruise passengers, who stay for just half a day and don't tend to spend a lot, and it's no wonder that Dubrovnik ranks third worldwide (behind Cancun and Las Vegas) in terms of tourism intensity, calculated as a ratio between the number of full-time residents and the tourist accommodation capacity.

Still, some locals say they're used to the crowds and the festive atmosphere, and find that this year they're actually missing the normal summer hubbub.

"​Seeing the city like this makes me sad," says Ivan Pijevic, a 20-year-old communications student. "Let me have one more month to enjoy things as they are now, but then I'd be happy if they all came back!"

For many residents, the ideal would be to find a happy medium: Tourism is a golden goose that, nevertheless, needs protecting from over-tourism. "The system is going to collapse," worries Robert Bender, a 40-something man who manages seven rental apartments in the old town. "It's not sustainable."

UNESCO, which works closely with the city government and is tasked with helping preserve the historic site, agrees. For that reason, the body had a plan in place for this year to spread out the arrival of groups and cruises. The plan was to never have more than two boats docked at the same time.

What UNESCO didn't anticipate, obviously, was that with the pandemic, no ships at all would dock. But Marina Missoni Barisic, for one, sees the crisis as a blessing in disguise: an opportunity for collective reflection.

Tomi Soletic is also making the best of the current situation. Soletic recently renovated a house on an island in the bay, and now — post-lockdown — is taking advantage of it himself. The water, he says, has never been so clean. And he's spotted different species of birds that have been missing since his childhood.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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