Cruises, Crowds, GoT through the Eyes of a Dubrovnik Tour Guide: Ivana Sepak Interview

By 17 January 2018

Ivana Šepak is one of the owners of Experience Dubrovnik, a Dubrovnik-based tour agency and she is also an active licensed tour guide since early 2015 and she has been in the city council since summer 2017.

  1. Lots has been written about how busy Dubrovnik has become in recent years. As a tour guide, how have things changed in the last five years?

Dubrovnik went through an incredible transformation. From a war-ravaged sub-Mediterranean town to one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Even before the war, Dubrovnik was Croatia’s landmark. I remember a decade ago, Dubrovnik had the same problem as the rest of the Croatian coast – June, July, August and the season was over. There were almost no more guests mid-September. There were no inventive restaurants, international cuisine was almost non-existent, Dubrovnik was getting tourists by inertia, guests knew the city has the old town and its walls, great weather, friendly locals, prices lower than in Italy for instance – our major competitor, and we were not doing much in terms of promoting and renewing our offer. Finally, after some time, the tide was about to change and the destroyed cable car was brought back into function, new restaurants opened, the neglected clubbing scene was back in major style, international studios recognized our town as the perfect filming location, and finally the numbers of visitors grew. The season starts much earlier and finishes much later than it used to, I’d say it starts around mid-March and finishes mid-November, that’s the biggest change we experienced since 10 and 5 years ago.

ivana-sepak (4).jpg

  1. Game of Thrones is a huge magnet for Dubrovnik. How much of an impact has it had on tourism numbers, do you think? And could Dubrovnik be doing more to take advantage of the opportunity?

Well, I’ve seen the numbers presented in some study (244,415 over four years, 2012-2015), I think they are blown way out of proportion. It turned out every single increase in the number of visitors got attributed to Game of Thrones, I don’t think that’s correct.

I haven’t had the time to go deeper into their methodology, but I’d certainly like to know what it was. I’ve had a chance to talk to guests from all over the world, one of the perks of what I do for a living. Some of them watched every Game of Thrones episode multiple times and they did not realize until they set foot to Dubrovnik that in fact it was the capital town in the series and the majority of those kinds of guests come from the Middle East, they tell me Dubrovnik’s promotion in their countries is nonexistent. Again, I’ve guided guests not wanting to hear a single word about the actual history because of their infatuation with the show. I am certain more could be done, and the first step would be an online presence, a website at least. Once again, we are counting on inertia until that ship has sailed past us.

We have the visitor center in Lokrum which is stunning, but it’s not sufficient. In my opinion, we have 3 more years of taking the best from being King’s Landing because this year the show will not be aired – the crew is coming back to film in our city though very soon; next year the final season will be out, the year after will be the first year without Game of Thrones and I think that’s when the magic will slowly dissolve. We should look up to New Zealand, Lord of The Rings is ancient history by now, but thanks to Kiwis’ being featured in the film, they still get crazy numbers of visitors, in spite of their remoteness and other drawbacks. Dubrovnik’s location is amazing, we are connected with entire Europe and further in the season, I don’t think we’re taking all positive aspects into account the way we should. 

ivana-sepak (2).jpg

  1. The hot potato - cruise tourism. How is it affecting the city, and how would you like to see the balance between Dubrovnik and cruise tourism in the future?

Oh boy… this is one of my soft spots and I have divided opinion about this. When the season comes, I don’t know what day of the week it is, but I do know if it’s a “cruise ship day” or “no cruise ship day”. The crowds sometimes are unbearable. When I feel I am about to burst with anger, I take a deep breath and repeat to myself: “These are our guests… They came to enjoy the town and spend some money, learn more about us and come back another time for more days… They are not ignorant or savage…” and I count to 10, if I’m still mad, then I count to 10 backwards. Usually it works, ha-ha.

These cruise ships are not our enemies. Vast amounts of those guests return, and a lot of them stay at 5* hotels. Sometimes, when one reads what’s presented in the media, it would turn out Dubrovnik’s locals wouldn’t want anyone in the town. That’s preposterous! These guests, just like all other guests, bring us income, in fact, quite often at the beginning of the season, the cruise ship guests are the only guests in Dubrovnik at all. After the war was over, the initial cruise ships were welcomed with traditional music, dances, roses and sweets, it seems people have forgotten about those times. It’s not the cruise ships, it’s our unsubstantial infrastructure which cannot bear 6.000 people on a same day from the ships, plus guests coming for daily excursions from Neum and Montenegro, individual and agency guests coming by smaller boats, buses, ferries, rented cars, airplanes and the locals on top of it all and public transportation. I didn’t even mention the high-end visitors, such as Tommy Hilfiger, a prince from Dubai, and other VIPs who require privacy and extra care.

We should have a planning center connected with: Franjo Tudman bridge; airport; border crossing with Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro; ferry port and cruise ship port. This way, we’ll know estimated traffic every day and we can plan routes. The step before that would be being familiar with arrival schedules before the season itself. Then, all these guests, once they are in Dubrovnik, are dropped off at Pile. Why is it so? There are many more locations where the drop off could be done. Can you drive directly to the Eiffel Tower? Brandenburg Gate? I don’t think so, and neither should Pile be the only drop off place for tourists in Dubrovnik. I am sure experts came up with numbers suitable for our current infrastructure, for instance, we know the limit for the old town is 8.000 guests at once.

It’s winter now, there’s a lot of time to start planning ahead. Of course, we could expand our roads, but it would take a lot of money and space which we don’t have in my opinion, but I am no expert in those fields and I think the experts should have the final say. Generally, cruise ships – yes, by all means, but with better planning and strategy. It’s no longer 1995, Dubrovnik has little more to prove, it is time we took matters back into our own hands. I have a feeling like we’re always subduing to someone from abroad because we’re perceiving ourselves as small, insignificant, unable to stand up for what is right for us. It should no longer be so, and the rules must change, otherwise we’ll have a jungle and an ant farm at once and the ones getting the short end of the stick will be the guests. We mustn’t allow for that to happen!

ivana-sepak (1).JPG

  1. Dubrovnik as a 12-month tourist destination - potential and reality. Discuss.

Potential is immense, reality is something else. Tourists are not likely to travel to destinations when the weather is bad, and our winter is not so shiny. Dubrovnik’s biggest obstacle in my opinion is its open-airiness. Once it rains, and rains here in the winter tend to be monsoon-like, it’s highly unlikely anyone would leave their hotels or accommodations and if you’d like to organize any event, it would be somewhere out in the open. Still, rain does not last here for too long and actually there should be no excuses for not visiting Dubrovnik in winter time, especially because on most of the time, you have the city to yourself. Regardless, we desperately need a multi-purpose hall which would be able to host sports events and concerts. Dubrovnik still perceives itself as a summer/autumn destination and until our own perspective changes about ourselves, probably not much will be set in motion. Various employees and business owners work long hours in the summertime, and in the winter, they relax, it’s been the modus vivendi for decades. On the other hand, we don’t have as many visitors in the winter – how would we, we’re not promoting the destination overly much, half of the businesses are closed and there’s very little incentive for guests to come. I’ve named the obstacles and what we don’t have, but there are advantages as well – Christmas market which will only grow in the following years and I am sure guests will follow. While roaming around Dubrovnik’s Christmas booths, you don’t need gloves or scarves on most of the days like you do in Vienna, Zagreb, Germany or other northern destinations. I am certain that in 3 years from now, we’ll be reading about Dubrovnik being the first Croatian all year tourist destination.


  1. Game of Thrones, Robin Hood, Star Wars, Bond - what is your opinion on the pros and cons of film tourism. Are your guests sometimes lost in the filming fantasy and miss the historical heritage of Dubrovnik?

Well, it depends on the guests themselves. Those real hard-core Game of Thrones fans, I don’t think they’re travelling much. Most of the guests taking Game of Thrones tours are interested in light versions of Dubrovnik’s history, I think they’re afraid if they take a regular historical tour that they’d be condemned to two hours of pure boredom and that they’d have to fake a sprained ankle halfway through the tour just to get off the hook. By taking a Game of Thrones tour at least they’ll see the filming locations if the tour itself is dull, I think that’s the logic behind it all. A lot of the young guests are taking GoT tours which is phenomenal.

Personally, when I do a GoT tour, I stick mostly to the show because I have a lot of behind the scenes stories and I still get to mention Dubrovnik briefly. When I have a historical tour, I don’t mention Game of Thrones unless I’m asked about it. Personally, I think Dubrovnik’s history is much more interesting than GoT and together with my partners, we’re thinking of new tours that’ll be offered to Dubrovnik’s guests to prove our point. We’ll see what the market says.

I am curious about the Robin Hood film, I was an extra and I got to experience what it was like behind the cameras for the first time. Everybody is being very silent about James Bond and I am sceptical it will happen at all. I would really enjoy seeing Dubrovnik playing itself for the first time. The biggest pro of the filming tourism potential is: worldwide promotion. Game of Thrones went to the most remote parts of the globe, the executive producers mentioned Dubrovnik and Croatia wherever they could, it is amazing to listen about us in superlatives on a world stage. Additionally, when the filming crew comes, it’s not 5 or 10 people, it’s at least 50 people and they always need local assistance which means earning possibilities for the locals. Their team members need to sleep somewhere, eat… It means income for the town in the lower season.

The cons would be – it’s not clear how much we’re doing for the filming crews in terms of giveaways. As far as I understood, money paid by the international productions goes to the Croatian Audio-Visual Center, why doesn’t it go directly to Dubrovnik? How is it distributed from them to us? I tried getting the answers by reading the media, but I was more confused in trying to do so. Again, this is our internal issue, not something the filming agencies should worry about, I’m just thinking out loud. When Robin Hood was filmed last year, photos appeared online saying their crew damaged our central street Stradun. Then it was stated those damages were done much earlier and the crew was not to blame. Whatever the truth is, all filming crews, once setting foot in the old town must realize: we are sensitive about our heritage and we expect it to be treated with utmost respect. I am sure they all get instructions from Ministry of Culture and there should be no problems when those rules are followed.

  1. Which is your favourite month to visit and why?

Definitely September. It’s still lively, the weather is gorgeous, and the majority of the crowds are gone by then, but the city is not dead or empty. Perfection!

  1. Three great things to see and do away from the crowds?

Ah yes, how to get off the beaten path, the dream of every Instagrammer and travel-savvy visitor. Old city and the city walls, all that is too mainstream. I mean, the old town should be the first place to start with once visiting Dubrovnik, but I myself like exploring less familiar things when I’m in a new town, so I’ll lay out some proposals what to do and see besides the historical city’s core, a lot of the proposals below are not too present in guide books or on the internet. Dubrovnik has a lot to offer. Sticking to 3 things is rather difficult, so I’ll name a few of my favorites which should get more attention.

Lapad area and its promenade that stretches all the way to Babin kuk, very picturesque. Then, Petka area, our park-forest, protected area, great for joggers and nature lovers, ideal for clearing your mind. Lokrum island, another protected area, it is a nature reserve and a special forest vegetation reserve, to be more exact. If there were 1.000 people on that island at once, still you’d be feeling like you have Lokrum to yourself. Cable car would be one of those mainstream things to do, but if you figure out when it’s not so crowded (it is usually at 5pm or as soon as it opens in the morning at 9am), you’ll have a spectacular view. Besides, at the top, you have a café, war museum, restaurant… if you’d like to get to the top differently, you can also take the Srđ hiking trail, that would certainly be less mainstream. Dubrovnik’s surrounding area is also exciting, Konavle conceals Sokol (hawk) Fort, a medieval defense fortress recently restored and open to visitors and it lies in the middle of nature. Croatia has 1244 islands and Dubrovnik has some of them not so far-off, island hopping is also something worth your time. Our wines are tasty and quite strong, and getting to know our wine cellars at Pelješac and Konavle should be a part of every gourmands’ itineraries, just like oyster tasting in Pelješac. Lastovo is an island municipality, a group of islands in Dubrovnik-Neretva county, quite remote, it’s a park of nature and perfect for a Robinson holiday, there you’d definitely be away from the crowds. Narona museum next to Metković where you can walk among ancient Roman artifacts, eel, frog and river shrimp tasting around Neretva river… and this is not nearly all I’d like to mention. If I’d have to single out three things that aren’t getting as much attention as they should, it’d definitely be Narona, Sokol Fort and Konavle in general.

You can contact Ivana via her Experience Dubrovnik website.