The new Riviera? No, the old Mediterranean

Posted: 6 August 2004

It's summer in the northern hemisphere, and millions of people are heading to the Mediterranean's hottest new destination: Croatia's beautiful Dalmatian Islands. But while they've often been dubbed "the new Riviera", a growing number of local people are working hard to ensure the holiday hype doesn't come true. Emma Duncan reports on how one tiny island is tackling mass tourism.

Lastovo Island, Croatia. Photo: WWF-Canon / Emma Duncan
Lastovo Island, Croatia. Photo: WWF-Canon / Emma Duncan
The unspoilt nature of Lastovo Island, Croatia, makes it popular yatching destination. © WWF-Canon / Emma Duncan
Sails down, a yacht cruises into the small sheltered bay, the chugging of its motor drowned out by shrilling cicadas. It glides along the rocky shore line, the dazzling white of its hull contrasting starkly against the brilliant blue of the water and the green pine forest behind. After setting anchor, the holiday makers board their dinghy and make their way over to the harbour-side restaurant of Augusta Insula. There they are welcomed by Vanja Jurica. Slim and impeccably dressed, she's the perfect host, serving up plates of octopus salad, char-grilled fish, and freshly baked bread with an ever-ready smile. You'd never guess that Vanja produces the restaurant's fruit, vegetables, and olive oil herself, not to mention its award-winning wines. Or that she works on her farm every morning from 4 until 9, before the sun gets too hot. And even less that she runs a small organisation, Spasimo Lastovo, dedicated to saving her Croatian island paradise from mass tourism. "I love Lastovo," she says. "Why should we make the same mistakes here as in other parts of the Mediterranean?"

'Double-edged sword'

Lastovo village, , Lastovo Island, Croatia. Photo: WWF-Canon / Emma Duncan
Lastovo village, , Lastovo Island, Croatia. Photo: WWF-Canon / Emma Duncan
Lastovo village celebrated its 1000th birthday in 2000, Lastovo Island, Croatia.© WWF-Canon / Emma Duncan
Tiny Lastovo is part of the Dalmatian Islands, the southern group of the more than 1,000 islands that stretch down Croatia's coast. Closed to the outside world for much of the last 50 years, a visit to the islands is like stepping back in time - medieval stone towns, terraced fields still worked by hand, large expanses of untouched forest, quiet coves and beaches, and very few people. No wonder they're the hottest new destination for tourists weary of the crowded resorts and overdeveloped coasts of Italy, France, Spain, Greece, and Portugal. The influx of visitors is a boon for the islanders. In the 1990s, almost 50 per cent of the population left for the mainland or to emigrate following the collapse of communism and the area's fish processing industry. Employment opportunities are now limited, and services such as schools and ferry links have been reduced. Most of those remaining see tourism as a way to revive the local economy. But the tourists are a double-edged sword. While they supply much-needed income to the small island communities, they also threaten the natural beauty that attracts them in the first place. The potential for damage is huge. The Mediterranean is already the world's leading tourist destination, with 220 million visitors each year. The number is expected to rise to 350 million by 2025 - more people than the entire population of North America. Although Croatia currently only receives a small fraction of the tourists, the country is expected to be amongst the top three destinations by 2020.
Illegally built apartments on Lastovo Island Photo: WWF-Canon / Emma Duncan
Illegally built apartments on Lastovo Island Photo: WWF-Canon / Emma Duncan
Illegally built apartments on Lastovo Island.© WWF-Canon / Emma Duncan
"Tourism is the most direct way for people to make money," explains Marina Radic from Sunce, a local environmental group. "But unless it's developed carefully, we'll see the Dalmatian Islands go the same way as many other parts of the Mediterranean - covered in concrete."

Tourism development

Already, holiday homes and tourist apartments, many of which are built illegally, are spreading out from the island towns. Developers too are buying up land, presumably to build large resorts. It's not hard to see that if the building continues unchecked, then the Croatian side of the Adriatic Sea could eventually look the same as the Italian side: completely urbanized from north to south.

Marina Radic, from Croatian NGO Sunce. Photo: WWF / Emma Duncan
Marina Radic, from Croatian NGO Sunce. Photo: WWF / Emma Duncan
Marina Radic, from Croatian NGO Sunce.© WWF / Emma Duncan
This would not just destroy the character of the islands - it would also destroy one of the largest contiguous stretch of pristine nature in the entire Mediterranean. "The biodiversity of the Dalmatian Islands is incredibly well preserved," says Paolo Guglielmi, who heads the Marine Programme of WWF Mediterranean office of WWF, the global conservation organization. "The waters are home to important fisheries, dolphins, endemic Posidonia sea grass meadows, and loggerhead turtles, while the forests are home to many rare and endemic plants, animals, and birds."

Water shortage

Vanja is one of a growing number of islanders who recognize that there must be a balance between preserving this natural wealth and making a living through tourism. "We must be clever when we make decisions about how to make money," she says.

She points out that Lastovo, like most of the islands, simply doesn't have enough water, infrastructure, or transport links with the mainland to support the kind of intensive tourism common in other parts of the Mediterranean. "Many people think that all we need to do is provide beds for tourists," she explains. "But building a hotel for 2,000 people on an island that only has 400 year-round residents doesn't make sense. Where will the water come from, and where will the garbage go? And how can a big hotel that's only full for one or two months help us to survive the whole year? We need to develop something more sustainable that won't destroy the resources we have."

Nature park

As a first step to saving the island from uncontrolled development, Vanja has spearheaded efforts to have Lastovo declared a Nature Park. Helped by Sunce and WWF, this local-led initiative is a first for Croatia, where protected areas are generally viewed with suspicion. "The nearby island of Mljet is a National Park," says Marina. "But the local people don't like this. They can't do anything without permission, and they're excluded from managing the park. A Nature Park is different - it allows for human activities and so makes more sense for island communities."

As part of the process to becoming a Nature Park, the carrying capacity of Lastovo will be determined. This will provide an established limit to the maximum number of tourists who can stay on the island at one time. In addition, Nature Park status will help control illegal building, which is already occurring. The designation, which is expected to be official next year, will also directly help the islanders by committing the Croatian government to improving ferry links and other services. This is extremely important - it's not just the island's nature that needs to be saved, but also its people. "Local people are the most valuable resource for protecting biodiversity and landscapes," says Marina. "If there are thriving communities on the islands that benefit from nature, then protection will be sustainable. But it won't be if the communities die."

Preserving culture

This is another argument against mass tourism. "Mass tourism often destroys local culture, and doesn't contribute significantly to local income," explains Paolo. "In many cases, most of the profits flow to foreign tour operators and investors. For example, 2/3 of the income from Mediterranean tourism over the last three years went to fewer than 10 tour operators from northern Europe."

In addition to its natural heritage, Lastovo Island has a rich cultural heritage as well. Photo: WWF / Emma Duncan
In addition to its natural heritage, Lastovo Island has a rich cultural heritage as well. Photo: WWF / Emma Duncan
In addition to its natural heritage, Lastovo Island has a rich cultural heritage as well.© WWF / Emma Duncan
Vanja is determined to keep Lastovo's culture and spirit alive. With support from Sunce and WWF, she has created information panels that describe the island's nature and long history, which goes back to pre-Roman times. She also runs a camera club for the islands' children. "I want the children to look at Lastovo, not just pass things by. This way they'll be proud of their home, and more interested in it's future," she says. WWF and Sunce's support to Vanja is part of a wider project in the Dalmatian Islands to establish a "Blue Corridor" - a 4207km² stretch of islands and water that will include different types of protected areas and zones, all managed by local people. Within the zone, WWF and Sunce are helping islanders to develop responsible ecotourism and other sustainable livelihoods, not just to help conserve biodiversity but also to help the people in the long term. "Mass tourism can only bring short-term benefits to this area," says Paolo. "The key attraction of the Dalmatian islands is their natural beauty and cultural heritage. We're not trying to prevent people from enjoying this, but rather trying to preserve it for everyone's advantage, now and in the future." Emma Duncan is Managing Editor at WWF International, based in Gland, Switzerland.

Related links: More on tourism in the Mediterranean News: Expanding tourism threatens Mediterranean water resources

News: Mediterranean loggerhead turtles threatened by uncontrolled tourism

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