Aerial photos of a cruiser passing under the Peljesac Bridge Aerial photo of the passage of the first large cruiser under the Peljesac Bridge in Komarna, Croatia on June 23, 2022. The cruiser Bolette under the command of Dubrovnik Captain Jozo Glavic with just over a thousand passengers passed this morning under the Peljesac Bridge on its way to the Neum waters. It is the first large ship to pass under the newly built bridge, whose official opening is expected in late July. MilanxSabic/PIXSELL

The six pylons tower high over the still untouched bridge asphalt into the blue Adriatic sky. The nameplates on Croatia’s largest sea bridge are mounted. Only the access roads to the new Peljesac Bridge are still being hectically finished.

A Croatian-made whisper car by electric motor pioneer Mate Rimac is scheduled to be the first vehicle to roll over the new sea bridge this Tuesday, which will finally connect southern Dalmatia with the rest of the country.

The opening of the 2404 meter long bridge from the Croatian mainland to the Peljesac Peninsula, which is planned for this Wednesday, is not only a tourist turning point for travelers on the way to Dubrovnik: The residents of southern Croatia can also avoid time-consuming border controls when driving through Bosnia’s nine-kilometer wide sea access save in the future in the village of Neum.

An Adriatic detour as a shortcut: The bypass of the Neum corridor plus a good 30 new kilometers of motorway will not only shorten travel times and better connect southern Dalmatia with the rest of the country. The Adriatic state is also hoping for an economic revitalization of the Dubrovnik region and the South Dalmatian islands of Korcula, Lastovo and Mljet, which are plagued by emigration, from the costly sea bridge.

Bridging the Bay of Mali Ston was by no means easy. Because of financial problems, but also because of resistance in neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina, which feared for its free access to the sea, the construction work on the first bridge project, which began in 2007, was initially delayed – and finally stopped in 2010. Only Croatia’s accession to the EU in 2013 brought movement to the bridge plans that had been put on hold.

The Neum Corridor, which requires crossing an external EU border twice, proved to be one of the biggest obstacles to Croatia’s planned entry into the Schengen zone. Alternative options such as the construction of a sea tunnel, new ferry services or considerations of creating an extra-territorial EU corridor through Bosnia were discussed. And all discarded.

Instead, in consultation with its Bosnian neighbors, Zagreb had the Slovenian engineer Marjan Pipenbaher design a bridge concept, the realization of which is largely due to Brussels. In 2018, the EU agreed to cover 85 percent of the costs estimated at 418 million euros. Alongside the metro in Porto, Portugal, the Peljesac Bridge is one of the most costly infrastructure projects the EU has ever funded.

Although the bridge was largely paid for by Europe, it was built by the Chinese. Because of the cheapest offer and the shortest construction period, the Chinese state-owned company CRBC was awarded the contract for the construction of the prestressed concrete bridge. The Austrian Strabag and the Greek Avax group were commissioned with the very complex construction of the access roads due to the necessary tunnels and viaducts.

The bridge builders had to consider numerous conditions and pitfalls. On the one hand, the bridge was only allowed to cross Croatian waters and, at Sarajevo’s urging, had to be high enough so that larger ships could still head for the Bosnian Neum. On the other hand, the bridge was built in an earthquake area with regular storms. In addition, their construction must under no circumstances endanger the oyster farming in the bay of Mali Ston, which depends on clear water.

High windbreak walls on the lanes should allow passage even on stormy days. At least the bridge survived the first involuntary earthquake tests during smaller earthquakes in nearby Bosnia. Nevertheless, the EU neighbors in Bosnia, who are now being bypassed, are also becoming concerned: the loss of transit tourism is likely to result in a loss of income for the catering trade in Neum.

However, the long lead time has enabled Sarajevo to cushion the negative consequences of the bridge construction. With the help of cheap loans from the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the World Bank, a highway was built from Stolac to Neum over the past two years, improving the connection to the Bosnian hinterland and to Mostar.

Bosnia’s sleepy coastal town has already experienced an unprecedented boom in the past Corona summers due to the increased influx of local and Serbian tourists. Croats, on the other hand, have been heading to the unadorned Neum for several years because of the lower costs for family celebrations: the flourishing “wedding tourism” alone should compensate for part of the loss of income from transit tourism.

The better connection to the hinterland makes Bosnia’s coastline, which has hardly been visited until now, now also interesting for the cruise giants: thanks to the new road, day trips to Mostar, the Kravica waterfalls or the pilgrimage site Medjugorje can be easily organized from Neum.

Even if the Peljesac Bridge itself was completed on time, the pandemic caused construction delays, especially on the access roads – and prevented the opening, which was actually planned before the start of the summer season. The consequences of the Ukraine war also left their mark on the construction work. Due to the sharp rise in prices for electricity and building materials, the original cost calculation will probably not be met.

Like the tourists who will soon be thundering over the bridge, the residents of Ston will also have to be patient with the completion of the new, eight-kilometer bypass road: Transit traffic through the small medieval town will be tormented until the end of the year. In 2029, the new bridge is to become part of the planned motorway to Dubrovnik. “We connect our territory,” says Minister of Transport Oleg Butkovic.