The last time Croatians voted in a referendum it was to decide whether – 21 years after the country broke away from Yugoslavia and declared independence – it should join the European Union.
The consequences of another vote on Sunday in one part of the country may not be as far reaching, but for the residents of the coastal town of Dubrovnik, it is just as important.
They are about to have their say on a controversial building development comprising two golf courses, villas and a hotel that will be built on top of a forest-covered hill named Srdj overlooking the town, which is a Unesco World Heritage site. The Australian golfer Greg Norman – who gained the nickname the Great White Shark for his aggressive playing style – is among the investors in the project. The former world No 1, right, reportedly was involved in the design process for the two courses, and the site will host a Greg Norman Golf Academy if it goes ahead.
Irregular and erratic construction along the Adriatic coast has devastated some of Croatia’s most beautiful spots, with investment in tourism trumping the concerns of residents and those concerned with protecting the character of its old towns. But the golf courses in Dubrovnik appear to be one development too far, and residents of the city known as the “Pearl of the Adriatic” want it to stop.
“We are not against the golf as a sport,” Djuro Capor, from the campaign group “Srdj je nas” (Srdj is Ours), told The Independent. “But, this is not about golf; it’s really about the uncontrolled real estate development we’ve already witnessed for years on the coast,” he said.
The Croatian economy relies heavily on tourism, which earns around £4.5bn every year for the small nation.
Investors in the development at Srdj say the complex – which will include a sports centre, a hotel, tennis courts, horse-riding club, several restaurants, galleries, cycling and running tracks, bars and parks – will boost tourism and bring visitors to the area.
But residents have complained that the area marked out for the development has grown in the past few years from the originally approved 100 hectares to more than 310. Activists allege corrupt local authorities gave the go-ahead for 268 villas and a complex of 1,600 apartments that were not agreed upon at the start. They also took issue with damage to the forest and agricultural land upon which the new complex will be built.
The fact that a referendum is even taking place is a sign for some that Croatia is changing. “People have recognised the idea of taking fate into their own hands” said Ivan Vidjen, a member of the Referendum Organisation Board. Igor Miosic, another member of the board, said: “It’s also a sign that things were not right in the past 20 years and that democracy should go into people’s hands.”
Dubrovnik has been a Unesco World Heritage site since 1979, due to its unique architecture and cobbled streets. It suffered months of siege in 1991 during Croatia’s war for independence and heavy bombardment by the former Yugoslav army. For the development to go ahead, more than half of Dubrovnik’s 43,770 citizens need to say “yes”.