Croatians to vote on golf complex that could change the face of historic tourist town

In 1991, Croatians voted for independence and then last year to join the European Union.

Now, in only the third referendum ever in the country, the residents of the postcard-pretty Adriatic sea resort of Dubrovnik will vote on the construction of a massive golf complex on a hill above their ancient walled tourist city. The implications could be just as enduring.

Although the Sunday vote focuses on local issues, backers hail it as an unprecedented citizen referendum giving voters in post-communist Croatia a direct say in their democracy.

But the project's investors warn it could have serious consequences on future foreign investment in the economically struggling Balkan country, which is to formally become EU's 28th member this summer.

Backers say the 1.1-billion-euro ($1.4 (€1.08) -billion) golf course designed by Australian golfing legend Greg Norman — which includes villas, hotels, tennis courts, a horse-riding club and restaurants — will be a tourist boon and the source of hundreds of jobs.

But others worry that the club will endanger their scenic city of red-roofed stone houses and aquamarine sea, dubbed the Pearl of the Adriatic. Foreign investors have already paid some 100,000 euros ($130,000) to buy the largely barren rocky land from private owners, but opponents say the construction would choke the old town, would represent an environmental hazard and would not bring financial gains for Dubrovnik residents.

"First and foremost, this is not a golf project at all," said Enes Cerimagic, a member of the group campaigning against the project, whose makeshift pro-referendum stand stood out on the city's main street of white stone 17th-century palaces and churches.

"Golf here serves just as excuse for a big real estate development," he said, that at 300 hectares (740 acres) dwarfs the area of the old walled town, would overburden the city's infrastructure and penalize taxpayers.

The private investors say the project would provide 1,000 new jobs in Dubrovnik, would bring wealthier golf-playing tourists to the area and stretch the main tourist season, which currently last only two summer months.

Maja Frenkel, the head of Razvoj Golf, the main Israeli investor group behind the project, insisted that the referendum and the opposition to the project is sending the wrong signal to other foreigners planning to invest in Croatia, which will enter the EU on July 1.

"Unfortunately, the message has already been sent," Frenkel said. "No matter the outcome of this referendum, I think that any other investor will be very carefully watching the development of our project and will think twice before entering the country, which has relatively unclear investment procedures."

Croatia split from Yugoslavia in the wars of the 1990s, and is currently going through a painful transition into a market economy. The privatization and the closure of once prosperous factories led to mass unemployment.

Its economy relies heavily on tourism, which brings some 7 billion euros ($9.1 billion) a year to the nation of 4.2 million, blessed with a spectacular Adriatic coast and stunning islands.

The rocky 415-meter (1,360-feet) Srdj hill currently has only a cable car from the old town to the Napoleon-era Imperial fortress on its top, a large stone cross, a restaurant, a souvenir shop and the small village of Bosanka, with some 30 homes. The Bosanka residents are in favor of the golf park.

"We locals are all against the referendum," said Luko Paskojevic, as he pointed toward the stretch of dry bushes where the project is planned.

"We are against someone else deciding what we are to do with our land. They are saying 'Srdj is ours,' but this is all a private land," he said. "We hope people will see that this golf project is good and that the referendum will fail."

Referendums in the Balkans have in the past been organized by ruling elites and dealt with issues such as secession of their countries from Serb-led Yugoslavia, or joining the EU or NATO. This is the first time that a referendum has been called by a group of citizens to deal with everyday issues.

Dubrovnik mayor Andro Vlahusic says that the Sunday referendum is a sign of Croatia's democratic development. But, he said he hoped Dubrovnik will vote for the golf park.

"That area has been neglected for 15 centuries," Vlahusic said. During that period, there were two ideas of what to build there, he said.

"One was a railway station, the other was golf. Between the railway station and golf, golf is much better."