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Enticed by Game of Thrones, throngs threaten a magical Croatian city

In recent years, the crowds have grown so bad that Dubrovnik in July has become synonymous with "over-tourism"

Katja Seref, who leads Game of Thrones tours, dressed in costume in Dubrovnik. Officials in the city are starting to push back against the hordes of tourists in an attempt to find the right balance of welcoming them - and their money - without being overwhelmed.

Dubrovnik, Croatia

WINTER is coming. But Katja Seref feels neither dread nor fear when she hears those words, uttered as a warning in Game of Thrones.

"I feel relief," she said, still wearing her blue khaleesi dress, the costume of one of the characters vying to rule the Seven Kingdoms, after a gruelling day leading yet another Game of Thrones tour. "It means I can get a break."

Every summer, the hordes descend upon Dubrovnik, a gem of a Croatian city nestled on the Adriatic Sea.

The crowds are drawn by the same magical beauty that has long appealed to Hollywood location scouts, like those who chose the city as the setting for the fictional King's Landing on Game of Thrones, a hit show on HBO.

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But the annual invading army of tourists toting selfie sticks threatens what attracted them in the first place.

After all, it is hard to feel the sublime majesty of this place when crammed in an interminable line simply to gain entry into the city.

In recent years, the crowds have grown so bad that Dubrovnik in July has become synonymous with "over-tourism", a plight shared by many of the world's most beautiful places.

From the boulevards of Barcelona, Spain, to the canals of Venice, local officials have been struggling to deal with a similar problem: being loved too much, almost to death.

In addition to the crowds, the complaints of residents in tourist hot spots include the effect on the local property market and concerns about loutish, disrespectful visitors.

Local anger is likely to grow apace with the number of travellers. The United Nations' World Tourism Organization estimates there will be 1.8 billion international tourist-related trips by 2030, up from 1.2 billion in 2016.

Officials in Dubrovnik have started to push back against the throngs.

This summer, they have cracked down on street vendors, limited the number of outdoor restaurant tables crowding the ancient alleyways and - most important - have sought more control over the cruise ships that send thousands of passengers flooding into the old town, a Unesco World Heritage site.

This year, the city has limited the number of people who can disembark from the cruise ships at a given time.

Next summer, for the first time since they started pulling into port nearly two decades ago, cruise ships will face restrictions on when they will be allowed to dock.

It is an attempt to find the right balance of welcoming tourists - and their money - without being overwhelmed.

"There is no unique solution for every destination," said Dubrovnik mayor Mato Frankovic. "But it has to start with recognising the problem."

Just as there is no single solution, there is no single kind of tourist in Dubrovnik. You can find day-trippers, families on holiday, people on cruise-ship excursions, history buffs, party people and, in a relatively new phenomenon, "set-jetters".

These are people who travel the world in search of the real-life location of their favorite fictional universe.

In recent years, there has been no more powerful lure than the sites used as the Seven Kingdoms on Game of Thrones.

In 2015 in Dubrovnik, there were some 300 show-related tours. In 2017, there were 4,500. This year, that number is already up 180 per cent, according to tourism officials.

Ms Seref, who led historical tours of the city before the Game of Thrones boom, is always amazed at the questions she's asked.

For instance, she's lost count of how many people have asked how long it took HBO to build the city's walls. She politely informs the show's fans that the defences date from the 13th century.

She makes it a point to not just lead people to the sites of the show's famous scenes - like the "shame" steps where Cersei Lannister, a queen portrayed by Lena Headey, was paraded naked before an angry public in Season 5 - but to offer a peek behind the curtain, a funny and observant take on what it feels like to live in a place turned into a stage set.

Later, after the day's tour was done, she described the city's relationship with Hollywood as complicated but good. She complimented HBO for the respect the crew showed the people and the city.

And she noted that for some six years, the show had provided a needed lift during the winter, when the crowds are long gone.

But while the winter's empty streets present their own problems to city officials, it is the summer crush that is the immediate, pressing problem - and it is the cruise-ship industry that is a focus of much of the frustration.

Soon after winning election in June 2017, Mr Frankovic took steps to reduce the number of daily cruise passengers sent to the old city to 4,000 a day by next summer - half the 8,000 recommended by Unesco and a dramatic drop from the more than 10,000 who might show up on an average day this July.

Sitting in his office in the old city, Mr Frankovic recalled a time when it seemed Dubrovnik might not survive, let alone become a global tourism magnet.

During the Balkan wars, Croatia was an early battleground as it sought independence from Yugoslavia, and in 1991 Dubrovnik was besieged by the Serb-dominated Yugoslav People's Army.

For months, residents who did not flee hunkered down as the old city came under sustained artillery bombardment. More than half the buildings were damaged, and hundreds of people died.

It was not until 1997 that tourism started to pick up, the mayor said. In 2000, the cruise ships started to arrive, and their numbers have continued to grow unabated since.

"The crucial problem was that tourism was not managed," he said. "It just happened."

After taking office, he sent a letter to the Cruise Lines International Association, which represents some 60 lines, including Carnival and Royal Caribbean, expressing the need to cut the number of ships docking at the same time.

He said that the cruise industry needed time to readjust schedules, but that by next summer, the city could expect to see a dramatic difference in the number of visitors swarming its streets. NYTIMES

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