Star Wars filming reveals the Dark Side of tourism in Dubrovnik

PRAGUE • With Dubrovnik's media- eval promenade choked with floodlights, camera booms and a spaceship parked against a stone pillar, Mr Roger Hamilton and his wife had to dine in a more mundane corner of the 1,400-year-old city.

Walt Disney was filming the eighth instalment of the Star Wars series in the centre of the Croatian port, which has also played King's Landing in five seasons of HBO's Game Of Thrones.

For a week this month, visitors were shunted off the Stradun, the avenue of stone houses, as stagehands lugged blue crates on cobbled walkways and electricians snaked thick cables past outdoor cafes.

"The city looks like a Disneyland stage and it'd be devastating if it becomes just that - a stage," said Mrs Hamilton, after she and her husband, both Britons living in Pennsylvania, gulped down a bland tourist meal in the cramped bistro. "It's been spoiled by the movie shooting. It certainly spoils it for tourists who want to see the city."

As Croatia's most-photographed tourist resort prepares for summer, Mayor Andro Vlahusic is pushing the walled city as a living stage for film and television productions.

Mayor Vlahusic, a former health minister, took over city hall seven years ago. He offered the use of the old town for free to HBO for Game Of Thrones, counting on the tax revenue derived from hospitality.  He also extended the same offer to Disney unit Lucasfilm, he said. Both Disney and Lucasfilm did not respond to requests for comment.

The resulting wave of tourism - and tourist-related revenue - should give city officials the cash needed to keep Dubrovnik preserved and let it invest in museums and exhibitions, he said as he walked past tourists gawking at Star Wars props.

"We want to be a living city, not an abandoned town," he said.

Some city officials and property experts say the strategy may be working too well. Tourists who come because of the films have to fight for lodging and space, threatening to overrun the infrastructure and the hotel industry.

For Croatia, tourism in cities such as Dubrovnik, which was bombed and under siege during the 1991 war for independence from Yugoslavia, will help stabilise economic growth after a six-year recession that ended last year. The European Union's newest member is betting that western tourists will choose Croatia and its 5,800km of seashore over resorts in the Middle East and northern Africa because of safety concerns.

The city is trying to catch up. Outside the walled-in centre, a new electrical substation is beginning operations and a concession has been awarded to develop a cruiseship port in nearby Gruz.

The Belvedere Hotel, owned by Russian billionaire Viktor Veksel- berg, is slated for reconstruction, as is the abandoned Kupari bay resort. Both are being developed jointly by Russia's Avenue Group and the Ritz-Carlton chain.

But that may be too little, too late for a city sandwiched between tall scrub hills and the rolling Adriatic Sea. Rooms and apartments rented out by locals living within and outside the thick stone walls cannot meet the demand.

Dubrovnik Tourist Organisation official Eta Lovic said the city's hotels and rooms have been fully booked every season for the past few years.

At the same time, development inside the historic centre is hampered by a law forbidding new construction above the old town that can be seen from within the walls.

Any renovations in the Unesco- protected downtown are scrutinised by officials and there is no guarantee of approval.

Resident Gina Pecotic, a pastry chef, has played a peasant and a lady-in-waiting in Game Of Thrones.

"I wish we knew how to use the popularity," she said as she watched Star Wars stagehands push equipment past the central coffee house. "This is a new future."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 24, 2016, with the headline 'Star Wars filming reveals the Dark Side of tourism in Dubrovnik'. Print Edition | Subscribe