Marco Polo, the 13th century merchant-explorer, has gone down in history as a Venetian. The Italian maritime city-state was at the height of its commercial influence when he claimed to have made his colourful trip to Kublai Khan’s China, as later recounted in a Genoese prison cell. But national designations can be warped over time.
Korcula, a historically rich island on the Croatian side of the Adriatic, also claims a share of Mr Polo’s legacy.
The mainland 2km behind was ruled by Dubrovnik, then a separate maritime republic and today Croatia’s main mass tourism destination, 110km to the south-east.
Along with local tourism officials, Mr Unsworth hopes to capitalise on Korcula’s heritage carefully, bringing in high-spending guests without spoiling the setting.
But his company, Adria-Azija, also intends to invigorate the local economy. The enterprise recently started constructing a boutique hotel in the town, using the stone shell of a decayed medieval palace. Wealthy Asian tourists are always excited by the Marco Polo connection, says Mr Unsworth.
Historians say the veteran traveller was among the prisoners taken by the rival Genoese at the Battle of Korcula (or Curzola), a naval clash off the island in 1298. Local lore also makes the town his birthplace, though the evidence is circumstantial at best.
“Marco Polo’s tower” belonged to a trading family called Polo. “People believe he was born here in 1254 and moved at the age of 12 to Venice,” says Zivan Filippi, a local historian and former travel agent. The living quarters in the tower are soon to be converted into a museum illustrating life at that time, Mr Filippi says.
The surname, meanwhile, survived as “de Polo” and the Slavicised “Pavelic”. Sanja de Polo, a hotel manager, says her ancestors have lived on Korcula since the 13th century and were renowned as builders of wooden ships. The island economy used to revolve around shipbuilding and commercial sailing, both now moribund.
Tourism, which arose after the second world war, is the only source of jobs besides government administration. Young people usually leave to work elsewhere.
The town’s five existing hotels all belong to the same company, which is 79 per cent state-owned.
After the tough 1990s, the company raised limited financing, and the first hotel to be upgraded, the 1,420-bed Marco Polo, reopened in July.
The second, Hotel Korcula, began its refurbishment a few weeks ago.
Korcula town and the surrounding villages receive nearly 400,000 tourist overnights per year, a significant pressure for a municipality of only 6,500. Annual revenues come to roughly EUR20m between the hotels and private accommodation, tourism officials say.
Better tourism management could generate far higher earnings, in Mr Unsworth’s view. “The key is to get the hotel company privatised, and then, eventually, create alternatives to tourism” for a more well-rounded economy, he says. “Island life is sustainable, especially with electronic communications,” he adds. “I can do my work here.”
Adria-Azija has commissioned a Thai interior designer to add touches of the Silk Road – the Middle East, India and China – to its Venetian-Korculan palace, which will open as a luxury hotel containing six apartments in 2009.
“We wanted the ‘wow” factor, but it won’t be so ‘India’ that the building won’t come through.” As more attractive accommodation becomes available, the summer tourism season could be extended year-round. “Asian tour groups are happy to come at this time of year, since they don’t like the sun,” Mr Unsworth says. “But you’ve got to think about keeping the hotels and restaurants open.”
The Venetian-controlled trading port never recovered from the 1348 Black Death, prior to which the population was higher than today.
In a break from the past, however, Korcula now falls under the jurisdiction of Dubrovnik – an arrangement the locals find vexing.
Stanka Kraljevic, director of the Korcula town tourist board, says: “Dubrovnik always puts Dubrovnik first.” Still, local promoters are glad to avoid the overcrowding in the larger walled city.
“I don’t want us to profit in a cheap way from Marco Polo,” Ms Kraljevic says. She was annoyed by national tourism brochures proclaiming Croatia the “Homeland of Marco Polo”, since the explorer “has to do with the whole of Europe and the Far East”.
The 276 sq km island is internally fragmented too. The other municipalities bemoan the lack of a coordinated tourism strategy.
The vineyards produce Grk, an indigenous white wine, yet cannot hope to draw visitors the way Mr Polo does. Little about Marco Polo’s life is undisputed. Yet spinning stories and making money are Venetian traditions. The world famous merchant-explorer lives on as Korcula’s “biggest brand”, Mr Unsworth says. (www.ft.com)