Croatians to vote on golf in historic referendum

Published on NewsOK Modified: April 27, 2013 at 7:18 am •  Published: April 27, 2013
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DUBROVNIK, Croatia (AP) — 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.