Nothing so well approximates Hawaii’s over-tourism story as the crush of people that had blemished the Croatian walled city of Dubrovnik in my two times there.
But their leaders didn’t say, as our Tourism Authority chief recently did, well, we’ll have to wait and see how many visitors we want, be it 8 million or 12 million.
Last year we had 10,424,995. They overused our beaches, trails, Hanauma Bay and Diamond Head. They jammed our roads with rental cars.
And they brought us money. Lots of it. But the problem with unfettered capitalism is that it’s a natural for abuse. People will cut trees as long as there’s money in lumber, until the trees are gone. They’ll scar every acre of land so long as there’s profit whatever they’re doing. They’ll close beaches to residents (Ko Olina Resort) to make more beach space for paying outsiders.
Once you turn unfettered capitalism loose it’s very hard to rein in. We get used to it.
But Dubrovnik did that. It waited too long, but it did it. Is doing it.
The pint-sized town had become a mess. Pile Gate, the Old Town entrance nearest to the cruise port, had a theme park-style queueing system to control the flow of crowds. The limestone main street, Stradun, had been smoothed by so many feet a day that it turned into a slippery slide. City workers had to roughen the streets to create resistance for tourists’ flip flops. Souvenir shops replaced food markets for locals, and local-food restaurants were swapped out for fast food outlets.
Cruise ships were unloading 10,000 people a day within a five-hour window on a town of 40,000 residents. And like us, their tourism authority didn’t immediately get alarmed. No, it celebrated the 2.3 million yearly visitors and cheered tourist demands as “healthy” and “welcomed”.
Finally, the resident people said “enough.” So the mayor banned all new outdoor-seating restaurants, shut down 80% of the made-in-China souvenir stalls. Cruise ship arrivals were staggered to ensure that no more than two ships arrive at the same time. That’s still one too many but its minimization progress.
And here’s the most amazing item: The Croatian National Tourism Board began advertising “Consider skipping Dubrovnik altogether.” Heresy? Maybe. But Croatia is packed with towns that provide a very similar experience of local history and culture to that found in Dubrovnik.
UNESCO stepped in and demanded the the number of visitors be capped at 8,000 at any time as a condition of keeping the valuable historic city designation. So the city installed a “people counter” at the main entrance to monitor the number of tourists entering. So far the number has not exceeded 7,000 at a time. “Our aim is to reduce it to 4,000 at a time,”, says the current mayor.
More important, there were only 3 local grocery stores left because a souvenir stall paid better. There were 107 souvenir shops and 143 restaurants. The latter produced large volumes of waste, unpleasant smells and was challenging for the city’s 500-year-old sewage system.
Housing for locals had become too costly and hard to find. Most places were touristic apartments available for longer term rent only during the six winter months when tourists disappear. As the Dubrovnik Times reported: “Airbnb brought competition and suddenly everyone with a garage had a ‘luxury apartment in King’s Landing’ for rent.”
The city’s being gradually returned to its citizens. Yes, the money’s dropped and about 600 people a year move out, seeking work elsewhere. But that, too, relieves some of the pressure.
We seem to demand it all here. The tourists. That every resident’s kids and extended families can stay here. That we needn’t bother creating new jobs because we still have those old ones in tourism (except when something shuts them down!).
We never seem to look ahead. Just down at our feet.