Robin Harris, a British historian, former advisor to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, author of the best-selling book “Dubrovnik: A History” recently visited Dubrovnik. He was a guest speaker at a project launched by the City of Dubrovnik entitled “Discussions on the City” where he talked about the political, economic and social life of Dubrovnik through its turbulent and fascinating history. We caught up with Harris after the event to find his opinions on Dubrovnik and Croatia today, the overcrowding problems of Dubrovnik and Brexit.
Where does your interest in Dubrovnik come from and how did you decide to write history books about our city?
It was during the Homeland War. I am a historian and I am also a great friend of Croatia. I wanted to do something for your country, I'm not a soldier, but I'm a historian and I can write. That is why I wanted to write something that would be useful to Croatia. I then considered it most important to show the West that the attack on Croatia was in fact an attack on Western civilization. I thought that the most suitable place for this would be Dubrovnik because everyone knew about this city. After that, when I made more research, I saw that this history and six centuries of autonomy, it was much easier to explore Dubrovnik's history than any other part of Croatia.
What are your opinions on Dubrovnik today? We receive a large number of tourists every season and face the dangers of over tourism. Is our city losing its soul due to mass tourism?
Such danger always exists. I hope it will not be achieved. Dubrovnik, as a smaller city, could well fall into the trap of over tourism but I believe it still hasn’t. I think your Mayor, Mato Frankovic, is aware of this danger and will do whatever it takes to stop it from happening.
What do you believe should be done to stop this from happening?
Always the biggest problem in Dubrovnik is the number of cruise ships. Of course you shouldn’t have anything against tourists who wish to visit Dubrovnik by cruise ship, but you must also bear in mind that these cruise passengers don’t spend as much as tourists. In addition, they create large crowds which is not good for other visitors who want to come and see and experience everything Dubrovnik is famous for. And that's a problem. I think it is necessary to limit the number of cruise ship arrivals. In the modern world, the tool for this is to raise prices for cruisers coming to a city. I think this is the best solution because regulation itself is not enough. I think that the price of this type of tourism is much higher than what one city actually receives.
The city should concentrate on the problem of solving big crowds. It is positive that your city government is headed by a mayor who is aiming to reduce the number of cruise ships. This is a constructive step for the future of Dubrovnik’s tourism industry.
I also think that your city should aim towards a high quality offer and not be obsessed with the numbers of tourists visiting. This is true not only for Dubrovnik but also for all tourist destinations in Dalmatia.
You speak Croatian very well, was it difficult for you to learn the language?
I really wanted to learn the original Croatian language from the beginning, but initially there was a problem because all the literature was in Serbian. In any case, it was certainly a challenge to learn Croatian.
British tourists have been the most numerous in Dubrovnik for a long time now. In your opinion how much will the uncertainty over Brexit affect the arrival of British tourists to our town?
Brexit will absolutely have no influence on the arrival of British guests in Dubrovnik. There are people who think that after Brexit it will be a disaster and that everything will change, however I don’t think there will be any big differences. In this world that we live in today the relationship between people is much more important than the relationship between countries. It is very important to understand. If I want to come to Dubrovnik, I certainly do not need to ask Mrs. May. That old system is now useless and now people are freer. Tourists will certainly come if Dubrovnik offers them what they are looking for.
Do you think however that Brexit could bring some technical problems for British tourists in the future?
I do not think it will be any more complicated than today. For example, people do not come to Dubrovnik with Kunas in their pockets, we know that today people pay for everything with cards. Twenty years ago this was not the case, but now technology has moved everything forward and we can go where we want and spend how we want. I do not think there will be any obstacles for British tourists in the future. What is important is to have a good quality product and offer and at a reasonable price which offers value for money. That’s what the people of Dubrovnik must think about.
You were an advisor to former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, could you compare the policy that she would have had to Brexit to the one that is currently being conducted by the British government?
It's hard not to be very critical of the current situation. I will openly say that I am pro Brexit, but I am against a Croatian version, Croexit, meaning Croatian leaving the European Union. The interests of Croatia and Great Britain are not the same inside the European Union. The United Kingdom has far more opportunities outside the European Union than it does inside the European Union. The people of Great Britain realized that the direction the European Union was taking was not in their interest. I will openly say that what was needed and what Margaret Thatcher would have done in this situation was to prepare for the UK to leave the EU without a deal from day one. She would have prepared for a no deal Brexit at the beginning of the two-year negotiation period. She wouldn’t have brought the UK into the situation that Prime Minister May has lead us.
Your Prime Minister, Andrej Plenković, who is more enthusiastic about the European Union than me and probably most Croatians, said that it was not good for some members to leave the European Union. He was completely right. European Union leaders, such as Michel Barnier, Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker, are not aiming to reach a good deal with the UK but to show other EU members that it will be very painful if they choose to leave the EU and reject what Brussels wants. I am sure Mrs. Margaret Thatcher, who was very realistic, would have been prepared to leave without a deal from the very beginning, unlike Theresa May, who just lost time and in fact has proved absolutely useless. In my opinion, she is the worst British Prime Minister in the history of Great Britain. It is sad that we have such a leader in this crisis, it is extremely bad for the UK and the country's reputation. According to surveys, 90 percent of people in the United Kingdom think that the Brexit situation is humiliating for the country. They are completely right.