Komarna (Croatia) (AFP) – Croatia inaugurates on Tuesday a long-awaited bridge linking its southern Adriatic coast, including Dubrovnik, to the rest of the country, bypassing a narrow strip of Bosnian territory.
The 2.4 kilometer (1.5 mile) stretch stretches from the Croatian mainland to the Peljesac peninsula which connects to the southern part of the Croatian coast nestled between the sea and the Dinaric Alps.
“The importance of the bridge is enormous, and it is not only emotional because of the connection of Croatian territory, but also for tourism and the economy in general,” said Transport Minister Oleg Butkovic at the start of the month.
The link will end the countless hours spent by commuters, traders and tourists on the Bosnian border and is one of the country’s most ambitious infrastructure projects since Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.
It was the bloody dissolution of the federation, however, that left a patchwork of divisions across the Balkans, with the borders between its six former republics turning into international borders.
Bosnia eventually retained its coastal access, but its small outlet leading to the Adriatic Sea ran right through Croatia.
As a result, around 90,000 people, including residents of the country’s tourist hotspot, Dubrovnik, have remained cut off from the rest of the country until now.
The harsh border has brought lines and red tape for traders, and headaches for tourists hoping to get south by road.
“It is indeed a historic project for Croatia,” said Sabina Mikulic, owner of a hotel, glamping site and winery in Orebic, the peninsula’s largest town.
Residents of the scenic region of red vineyards, pebble beaches and oyster beds are eagerly awaiting an end to their geographic isolation caused by the Bosnian border.
Long hours of waiting at the border and fears of missing the last ferry of the day will now be a thing of the past, they say.
“It was really exhausting and it made people bitter,” Mikulic told AFP.
EU funded, made in China
The opening of the bridge was long in coming and not without controversy.
Croatia first attempted to build the bridge in 2007, but the project stalled five years later due to budget constraints.
In 2017, the European Union – which Croatia joined in 2013 – allocated 357 million euros ($365 million), or around 85% of the cost.
A Chinese company was selected in 2018 to build the bridge, marking the first significant Chinese involvement in an infrastructure project in Croatia.
But not everyone was happy with the construction of the bridge, with Bosnian officials saying it would hamper its maritime access by preventing high-tonnage ships from entering its only port.
Zagreb eventually agreed to increase the height of the bridge to 55 meters (181 ft) in an attempt to appease the dispute, although this increased the cost of the structure.
The opening of the bridge comes as Croatia aims for a rebound in tourism this year as it hopes to attract pre-pandemic levels of visitors.
The country of 3.8 million people attracts millions of tourists each year hoping to soak up the sun along its stunning coastline dotted with more than 1,000 islands and islets.
For retired piano teacher Smilja Matic, who spent years vacationing in the Croatian village of Komarna near the entrance to the new bridge, the connection to the mainland is a win for locals and tourists alike.
“It means a new life for the locals and for people who fly to Dubrovnik, like me. It’s a major step forward,” she told AFP.
Apart from tourism, the bridge is also likely to be a boon for businesses and traders.
For decades, oyster farmer Mario Radibratovic has been subjected to extra hours of travel to bring his perishable shellfish north due to border wait times.
But with the opening of the bridge, the journey to the north will be considerably reduced.
For the 57-year-old, the opening of the bridge will bring “immeasurable relief”.
“We are finally part of Croatia,” Radibratovic, who farms oysters and mussels in the village of Mali Ston, told AFP.
“Until now, we felt like second-class citizens.”
© 2022 AFP