I was tremendously excited about going to Dubrovnik. From Byron’s description – “The Pearl of the Adriatic” – to my girlfriend’s rather more prosaic “it’s just lovely”, I had only heard good things.
As the last stop on my recent breakneck trip around the Balkans, I was expecting great things from the much lauded Croatian city. Instead, I got a textbook example of how cruise ships can wreck the most beautiful destinations on earth.
The effects of cruise ships
In my rant about the terrible effects cruise ships can have on a place, I tried to steer clear of naming names. Unfortunately, Dubrovnik proved to be such a classic case in point that I want to return to the subject.
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It is an indisputably beautiful city. The hillsides, the Adriatic Sea and the offshore islands make for a perfect setting, while the Old City and its majestic walls are amongst the greatest in the world. But it is now – certainly in mid-July, anyway – a very ugly place as well.
OK, so my timing was bad and I’ve possibly no right to moan about a destination being full of tourists when I am a tourist myself. But Dubrovnik has sold its soul. Mass tourism has turned the Old City into a vile parody of what it probably once was.
Dubrovnik and the tour groups
Walking through the Old City, it’s impossible to go a few steps without stumbling into someone else’s photograph or being held up by a shuffling tour group. A walk around the walls turns into a battle of wits as you attempt to weave around barricades of old women. You have to go at a forced march, conscious that stopping to enjoy the scenery will leave you trapped behind the plodders.
Souvenir shops and pizza restaurants
Just about every shop seems squarely aimed at tourists, packed to the rafters with crappy souvenirs, comedy T-shirts and red-and-white checked mugs.
Dining menus at the numerous bland pizzerias are translated into multiple languages, pictures of the food are practically obligatory and the terrace cafés charge extortionate amounts for drinks because they know they can.
I can’t see any conceivable reason why a resident of Dubrovnik would choose to go into the Old City – and that’s probably why the other areas such as Lapad have a lot nicer vibe.
In short, the Old City is hell when it should be heaven. And while the cruise ships aren’t entirely to blame for this, they play a big part in it.
Contrasts in Kotor, Montenegro
I came to Dubrovnik from Kotor in Montenegro. The differences are subtle, but important. In Kotor, the Old Town still has plenty of local shops; general stores, fashion boutiques etc. There’s still a pulse, even if most of the people walking round are tourists.
Another crucial point is that they are – on the whole – a different breed of tourist. Most are there as individuals, families or small groups. They are more relaxed and more concerned with enjoying the city than ticking it off.
At the risk of making sweeping generalisations, they are also more local. Listen in Kotor, and the languages spoken will veer more towards the Balkans and Eastern Europe than the Englishes (of all twangs), Germans and Japanese of Dubrovnik.
In short, in Kotor people tend to be on holiday. In Dubrovnik, they tend to be on tour. I much prefer the former.
Dubrovnik cruise ships and their thousands of passengers
Whilst in Dubrovnik, I counted four or five absolutely enormous cruise ships in port each day. And they spat out the cowed herds in plague-like proportions. White socks pulled up, sandals on, bumbag around waist, camera round neck and crappy white hats on balding heads, they ambled around town like big dumb Weebles. Some followed whichever tour guide held the sign, others just gorged on ice creams and generally blocked thoroughfares.
Cruise ship passenger stereotypes
I’m probably being completely unfair, but the stench of cluelessness and at-best mild interest in the surroundings completely lived up to the cruise ship passenger stereotype. And with thousands of well meaning, bumbling idiots cluttering up the laneways until they’re ferried away to the next stop on the itinerary, everyone else is probably in for a thoroughly miserable time. It’s the very worst of mass tourism, and it has turned Dubrovnik into Disneyland without the rides. They’ve even got the muppets in costume by the Pile Gate.
Call me a snob, call me a hypocrite, say I’m unfairly tarring all cruise ship passengers with the same boat… but don’t expect me to enjoy this. It’s horrible, and anyone being honest rather than wanting to be seen to say the right thing must surely agree.
Taxi prices in Dubrovnik
The seaborne invasion of Dubrovnik has wrecked the Old City as anything but a plastic, Alton Towers-esque slice of pretty architecture, but it has also wreaked havoc elsewhere. I struggled to find a taxi driver that would take me to the airport, as they were all concerned with plying the more profitable route from the port to the Old City.
The queue by the bus stop at the port was so laughably big that most would be waiting the best part of an hour to get aboard. The public transport services just can’t cope with the numbers that the cruise ships are poisoning Dubrovnik with.
Of course, that’s where the taxi drivers come in. With such a captive audience, they can afford to switch the meters off and charge what they like. To go a couple of kilometres, they were charging 15 euros. And they got it, because there was little alternative for the new arrivals.
Dubrovnik visitor numbers and the rip-off culture
Such short term influxes of vast visitor numbers encourage a rip-off culture. They encourage taxi drivers to milk what they can get from the big fat idiot boats. They encourage restaurants to go for the lowest common denominator, knowing that anyone here for a day isn’t going to come back anyway, so why not just dish up a festering risotto or half-arsed pizza?
Cruise ship companies – is it their fault?
This is the effect that cruise ships have. I don’t blame the cruise ship companies for this – it’s not as if they deliberately set out to destroy destinations. But Dubrovnik – well, the Old City at least – has been ravaged, probably beyond the point of no return. And if it can happen to the Pearl of the Adriatic, then it will happen elsewhere.
Do you share the same view of Dubrovnik? Can you think of other places that cruise ships have had the same effect on? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below. Similarly, I’d love to hear from cruise ship companies – am I being fair or are my experiences unrepresentative?
All content copyright David Whitley.