The international press has a love affair with Dubrovnik. Travel reports, guides and “to do” lists are published on a regular basis. This week we caught up with one of the most influential writers and broadcasters about the city, the Scottish travel writer Robin McKelvie. He has been to the city fifteen times and written six books about Croatia and Dubrovnik in a journey that started 19 years ago.
When was the first time you came to Dubrovnik?
The first I tried to come was in 1993, I was covering the Homeland War in Croatia as a freelance journalist. I say tried because I couldn’t get down through Dalmatia at that time, Dubrovnik remained a dream of a place I had to visit. In fact even now I still get a tingle down my spine when I come to the city; it still has a magic appeal. The first time I actually made it was in 1997.
In the almost two decades that you have been coming to Dubrovnik what has changed over the years?
As I was saying to the taxi driver as we drove into town – absolutely nothing! Dubrovnik is still Dubrovnik, this is Ragusa, it is an entirely cohesive, architectural brilliant, city state and always will be. There is nothing like this city anywhere in Europe. And also this sense more than just normal civilisation that’s what Dubrovnik is for me. It’s living for something bigger, its Libertas, it’s a bigger ideal, it is not just urban living but a suggestion of something more. And none of that has changed over the years.
Over the past five years we have seen a huge increase in the number of British tourists holidaying in Dubrovnik. Can you put your finger on why the Brits have a love affair with the pearl of the Adriatic?
British people love history, we love a sense of the historic, and a lot of European cities have hidden their pasts away in museums. It is something that you can look at through glass, or read about in history books. To be honest you might as well be looking at that history on a documentary on television as you can’t interact with it. In Dubrovnik history is of the living variety. You can feel, touch and put your hands on the rich history of the city. As you walk along the Stradun or enter one of the churches you can feel the history around you, it is not hidden away.
Safety, sun and history are the packages that in many ways make this the perfect holiday destination - McKelvie
How would you compare Dubrovnik to other Mediterranean destinations?
When most people in Britain think about Mediterranean holiday destinations they think about two things, the sun and the beach. That is where Dubrovnik has an advantage, yes you have the beaches and the islands, and of course you have the weather, but you also have a historic town which makes for an intoxicating cocktail. And there are lots of little things that if you live here you probably wouldn’t notice. The Old City being only for pedestrians makes it and incredibly safe destination for young families. Safety, sun and history are the packages that in many ways make this the perfect holiday destination. It is unique within Europe.
One of the hot topics, as far as tourism in Dubrovnik is concerned, is the cruise ship question. In a relatively compact city the arrival of three, or more, cruise ships causes a breakdown of the entire infrastructure. What are your views on cruise tourism in Dubrovnik?
I would be a hypocrite if I massively condemned cruise ships in Dubrovnik, because I have arrived three times on a cruise ship. I can see why cruise ships come here, and certainly in the embryonic days of Dubrovnik’s recovery the cruise ships were an undoubted plus. They brought in revenue to the port, the city and to businesses. But then Dubrovnik became a victim of its own success. When you get ten cruise ships arriving then of course this has an impact, this is a small city with a fragile infrastructure. It is a “don’t shoot the golden goose” dilemma. One way of looking at it is that the number of cruise ship passengers might put off other tourists. But then on the flip side a percentage of the passengers will come back as tourists in the future. If you are staying in Dubrovnik as a tourist for a longer period of time then yes the cruise ships can be a problem. I remember that I was staying here with my family a few years ago and we ended up just going out in the mornings before the cruise ships arrived and again in the evenings when they had left. I guess that is Mediterranean living anyway. I would expect that in the future we could see a cap of the number of cruise ships that are allowed to arrive in one day.
Another “usual suspect” with Dubrovnik tourism is the length of the tourist season. We cram everything into the summer months and are left with a feast and famine situation. In your opinion how can we broaden into the off-season?
In a word not golf. I think it is a disastrous waste of space; I’m on the side of Mark Twain who said that golf was a good walk spoiled. For expanding the market, certainly by attracting more UK tourists, I would suggest exploring the idea of promoting cuisines. The British are very into their food at the moment and it would help the shoulder season if food festivals and events were held. Wine tourism, for example in Konavle and the Pelješac peninsula, would also be a winner. It has to be a targeted approach, rather than just opening the hotels and bringing in flights.
How would you sum up Dubrovnik in just three words?
Epic, Cohesive, Libertas.
Text and photos - Mark Thomas