In the first week of March, Mayor of Dubrovnik and RIT Croatia alum Mato Franković visited Rochester for his very first time. In an hour-long talk, Franković recounted his journey from recent RIT grad to his rise in the tourism industry to his involvement in politics and the recent election.  

“What RIT means personally to me, I cannot explain in words,” he began. “Throughout Croatia in many occupations in hospitality and other industries, there is always at least one RIT member.”

After graduating from the university in 2002 with an associates degree in Applied Science in Hospitality, Franković went into the industry that dominates Dubrovnik’s economy: tourism. After a handful of years, he had built up the most commercially successful marina in all of Croatia. Then, he turned his attention to politics.     

“I ran for mayor two years ago and I lost by 470 votes. I think sometimes you need to lose in order to gain and learn. You can never expect that you are always going to win — it’s just not going to happen,” he said. “So I am very proud of my loss because, today, I know much more about the city and the people than I did two years ago.”

With that added knowledge under his belt, Franković ran again in 2017. This time, he was successful. It wasn’t all smooth sailing after that, however. Shortly after his arrival in office, the Daily Telegraph published a damning report about the town he loved.

“Five days after I become the mayor, they [The Daily Telegraph] put out an article to the public about Dubrovnik. And it said, ‘death of the Pearl of the Adriatic, Dubrovnik is dying because of overcrowded tourism,’” he recalled.

Hot on its heels was another scathing article, this time published by CNN. Titled “12 Places Travelers Might Want to Avoid in 2018,” the article lambasted Dubrovnik for its overcrowded streets.

“I was scared at the beginning. I was scared about what was happening, and what I was going to do,” said Franković. “I was afraid that Dubrovnik would become the victim of its own success.”

Few could have anticipated that Dubrovnik would have risen from the ashes in such a spectacular fashion. From October 1991 to May 1992, the city was besieged by the Yugoslav People’s Army during the Croatian War for Independence. Parts of its treasured Old Town were shelled during the conflict, and its tourism industry plummeted during the following years.

“At least at the end of my four year term, I want to say that I left some traces in making Dubrovnik sustainable,” Franković said.

Fast forward about 25 years, however, and Dubrovnik is booming. UNESCO has declared its Old Town a world heritage site and Game of Thrones has filmed numerous seasons in its streets.

However, as Franković astutely pointed out, Dubrovnik is now at a crossroads. The number of tourists flooding its streets has become too much for the city’s inhabitants and infrastructure to handle. With a population of only 40,000, Dubrovnik can sometimes see crowds of up to 10,000 tourists per day during the peak tourism season.

“We needed an action plan,” said Franković. “So [when] looking at what to do, what to change — unfortunately, there was no unique solution. The biggest problem is overcrowding.”

Right away, Franković knew that he wanted to decrease the number of tourists that were coming into the city on a given day. That being said, he was also cognizant of the fact that 90 percent of Dubrovnik’s economy was supported by the tourism industry.  

“They [the locals] mainly rely on tourism — they live off it. So maybe making the change at the same time means you’re lowering their profits.”

For a while, Franković had to wrestle with the fact that his decisions for the city might not be very popular.

“Undoubtedly, making these changes means that you will lose a lot of votes for the next round. So those are the traps that were put in front of us in order to make a decision,” he said. “At that point, I said, ‘listen, I’m not going to think about running for the second term. Let me do the best for my first term. It might be my only one. But let me do it the best I can.’”

So, Franković and his team got to work. One of their first steps was identifying their long-term goals and needs.  

“The first thing we do not want to do is reject the tourists,” said Franković. “But what is crucial is communication. We need to communicate when is the best time to come to Dubrovnik,”

With that in mind, Franković founded “Respect the City,” a project devoted to preserving Dubrovnik for future generations.   

“It is not just a program for tourists. It’s also for the locals. We never can forget that locals are living in the town,” said Franković. “And without them, we won’t have the tourism. So we need them to work with us, otherwise we will not succeed.”

One of Franković's first steps was writing a letter to the Cruise Line International Association (CLIA). Because cruise ships often bring in thousands of passengers within a short window of time, Franković’s team had identified them as one of the main problems.  

“We said, ‘please, spread the cruise ships. Please, do that for us in 2019. There are free days a week — Mondays, Tuesdays — that there are zero cruise ships at one time. They are concentrated on Thursday, Friday, Saturday. Six of them, at the same time,’” he recalled.

Franković was surprised by CLIA’s willingness to work with the city. After some communication back and forth, CLIA agreed to work out a system for 2019 where only two cruise ships would be docked in Dubrovnik’s harbor at a given time.

Franković also decreased the number of visitors to its historic city wall — the one prominently featured in Game of Thrones — to 4,000 per day, which is well below UNESCO’s recommendation of 8,000.

His team is now also looking at means of reaching out to day trippers that don’t come to Dubrovnik via cruise ship.  

“For the daily visitors, we’re working on a computer program where travel agencies have to pre-book times to come in to Dubrovnik,” he explained. “Once again, Dubrovnik is open to tourist, but there needs to be pre-booking — that way we control the number of people in the city, and in the old town.”

Lastly, Franković’s office is looking into building an app that will allow both locals and tourists to learn more about the city. The app will also act as a means of communication on behalf of the city.   

“Maybe one app, an official Dubrovnik app can be useful. For tourists, you’d have all sort of service information, like discounts for the restaurants and stuff. But the most important thing it will have a messenger so that we as a city can directly communicate with those guests,” he explained.

Franković went on to provide an example of what a message might look like.

“It will offer a hint — it won’t say ‘please don’t come today at noon in Dubrovnik Old Town,' but rather saying ‘at two o’clock in the afternoon, you will have a greater experience in Dubrovnik Old Town,’” he said. 

Only seven months into his tenure as mayor, Franković is uncertain whether his plans will work, but he is ready to give it his all.

“At least at the end of my four year term, I want to say that I left some traces in making Dubrovnik sustainable,” he said. “How much will it succeed? I’m not sure. But I will give it my best.”