Crossing carries hopes of Croatia

By CHEN WEIHUA in Brussels | | Updated: 2022-07-25 22:51
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Fireworks light up the sky over Croatia's Peljesac Bridge, as viewed from the town of Komarna, on July 29 last year. Celebrations were held to mark a landmark in the bridge's construction. ASSOCIATED PRESS

For Talman Damtare and Ana Vulic, a couple that helped build the Peljesac Bridge linking two parts of Croatia separated by a sliver of Bosnia and Herzegovina, nothing makes them more proud than driving past the structure from a distance with their young daughter.

Damtare, a customs clearance assistant for the project, said he would always point at the majestic bridge and tell his daughter: "Look, that is the bridge mom and dad built with Chinese friends."

Damtare, from Togo in West Africa, and Vulic, a native Croat, have worked on the project for more than three years. They first met in the summer of 2009 in Nanjing in East China's Jiangsu province, when they were students at Nanjing Normal University.

"The project has not only brought family reunion for us, but the good feeling of participating in a great cause. The bridge means so much for everyone in Croatia," said Damtare, referring to the days years ago when he was working in Shanghai while his wife went back to Croatia during her pregnancy.

The 2.4-kilometer-long, 23.6-meter-wide, four-lane bridge was due to officially open to traffic on Tuesday after four years of construction. It was built by the China Road and Bridge Corporation, or CRBC, for whom the couple work.

Croatian Transport and Infrastructure Minister Oleg Butkovic told local media that on the opening day people can come along, from the early morning, to walk across the bridge and be part of the celebrations. The formal opening ceremony will take place in the evening.

The bridge, standing 55 meters above sea level with pylons rising up to 124 meters high, connects the town of Brijesta on the Peljesac Peninsula with the town of Komarna, a construction feat that opens up the peninsula to the rest of the country by road. The structure crosses the Mali Ston Bay over the Adriatic Sea.

"This will facilitate a smooth flow of goods and people, especially at the peak of the tourism season," the European Commission said when approving the spending of 357 million euros ($357 million) from its Cohesion Policy funds for the project in June 2017. The money accounts for 85 percent of the total cost, with the rest covered by Croatia.

The commission also said the bridge "will significantly improve the everyday life of Croatians, through reducing the travel time between Dubrovnik and Split" and "the seamless connection will also greatly benefit tourism, trade and will reinforce the territorial cohesion of the South Dalmatia region with the other part of the country".

The two hot tourist destinations of Split and Dubrovnik are separated by the Neum Corridor, a strip of the Adriatic Sea coastline that is part of Bosnia and Herzegovina and which, until Tuesday, has been the only land-based transport route between Dubrovnik and the rest of mainland Croatia. That has meant people have had to travel about 9 km within Bosnia and Herzegovina and pass the European Union's external border controls twice, a requirement that can cost a few hours in the summer peak tourist season.

Dubrovnik, on the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites since 1979, draws more than a million foreign tourists each year not only for its outstanding medieval architecture and fortified old town dating to the 7th century but also as one of the sites for the popular US fantasy drama TV series Game of Thrones.

An earlier feasibility study by Croatia of the possible alternatives to connect the two parts of the country concluded that building a bridge would be the most favorable option when it comes to multiple criteria on safety, the impact on traffic and on the environment as well as in cost-benefit analyses, compared with the other options of a highway corridor, a ferry or a tunnel.

The project was assessed by independent experts before its approval by the European Commission. It was also prepared in consultation with the authorities of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Croatia first started the construction of the Peljesac Bridge in 2007 but the project was halted in 2010 due to serious financial strains.

CRBC began work on the project on July 30, 2018, just three months after it led a Chinese consortium to win the public tendering by Hrvatske Ceste, the state-owned company responsible for Croatia's public roads.

Despite the enormous challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic over the past two and a half years, the Chinese company managed to deliver the bridge as scheduled and on time.

The spans of the bridge were connected on July 28, 2021.

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