Croatia opens a long-awaited bridge on Tuesday, connecting its southern Adriatic coast including Dubrovnik to the rest of the country, bypassing a narrow strip of Bosnian territory.
The 2.4-kilometer span 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 emotional not only because of the connection of the Croatian territory, but also for tourism and the economy in general,” Transport Minister Oleg Butkovic said earlier this month.
The link will put an end to the countless hours commuters, traders and tourists spend at the Bosnian border and is one of the country’s most ambitious infrastructure projects since Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.
However, it was the bloody dissolution of the federation that left a patchwork of divisions in the Balkans, with the borders between the six former republics transformed into international borders.
Bosnia retained its coastal approach in the end, but its small outlet leading to the Adriatic Sea cut right through Croatia.
As a result, around 90,000 people, including residents of the country’s tourism hotspot, Dubrovnik, have remained cut off from the rest of the country to date.
The hard border 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 facility and winery in Orebic – the peninsula’s largest city.
The residents of the picturesque region with red vines, pebbly beaches and oyster farms are looking forward to the end of their geographical isolation by the Bosnian border.
Hours of waiting at the border and the fear of missing the last ferry of the day are now a thing of the past, they say.
“It was really exhausting and made the people who live here bitter,” Mikulic told the AFP news agency.
– EU funded, made in China –
The opening of the bridge has been a long time coming and is not without controversy.
Croatia made its first attempt to build the bridge in 2007, only for the project to stall five years later due to budget constraints.
In 2017, the European Union – which Croatia joined in 2013 – provided 357 million euros ($365 million), about 85 percent of the cost.
A Chinese company was selected to build the bridge in 2018, marking the first significant Chinese involvement in an infrastructure project in Croatia.
But not everyone was happy with the bridge’s construction, as officials in Bosnia claimed it would impede access to the sea by preventing high-tonnage ships from entering its lonely port.
Zagreb eventually agreed to increase the bridge’s height to 55 meters (181 ft) to quell the dispute, although this increased the cost of the structure.
The opening of the bridge comes as Croatia seeks a tourism recovery this year as it hopes to attract visitors like it did before the pandemic.
The country of 3.8 million people attracts millions of tourists each year hoping to soak up the sun on its stunning coastline of more than 1,000 islands and islets.
For retired piano teacher Smilja Matic, who has been vacationing in the Croatian village of Komarna near the entrance to the new bridge for years, the connection to the mainland is a win for locals and tourists alike.
“It means a new life for locals and for people like me who travel to Dubrovnik by plane. It’s a big step forward,” she told AFP.
Outside of tourism, the bridge is also likely to be a boon to businesses and merchants.
For decades, oyster farmer Mario Radibratovic had to travel hours extra to get his perishable shellfish north to market due to waits at the border.
But with the opening of the bridge, travel north will shrink dramatically.
For the 57-year-old, the opening of the bridge brings “immeasurable relief”.
“We’re finally becoming part of Croatia,” Radibratovic, who farms oysters and mussels in the village of Mali Ston, told AFP.
“Until now, we’ve felt like second-class citizens.”
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