ZAGREB, Croatia — Croatia on Tuesday opened a long-awaited bridge connecting two parts of the country’s Adriatic coast while bypassing a small chunk of Bosnian territory.
Senior officials and guests gathered in the evening for an official opening ceremony that included a flyover by military aircraft, speeches, performances and fireworks.
Earlier on Tuesday, many Croatians braved the summer heat to be among the first to walk across the Peljesac Bridge when it opened to pedestrians ahead of the official inauguration.
Co-funded by the European Union and built by a Chinese firm, the sleek six-pylon cable-stayed bridge is a rare venture of its kind amid concerns in Europe over China’s attempt to bolster its economic influence through investments in infrastructure.
In a video message shown during the opening ceremony, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said the bridge “illustrates the friendly relations” between his country and Croatia, but also between China and the EU.
“China and the EU present significant political forces and leading global economic powers,” Li said.
The 2.4 kilometer (1.5 mile) bridge spans the Adriatic Sea to connect the Croatian mainland with the Peljesac peninsula to the south, allowing easier access to the country’s most important tourist destination – the medieval walled town of Dubrovnik.
Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic called the day historic for the country, which joined the EU in 2013 after breaking away from the former Yugoslavia and going through a war in the 1990s.
“I’m overwhelmed with feelings of pride, joy and gratitude,” Plenkovic said.
The Yugoslav federation had no internal borders between its six republics, including Croatia and Bosnia. But when it broke up in the early 1990s, the two parts of Croatia’s Adriatic Sea coastline were separated by a narrow strip of Bosnia.
Residents and tourists had to go through border checks, which slowed traffic and left residents of the southern zone feeling isolated from the rest of the country.
This area includes Dubrovnik, a beautiful medieval city listed as a UNESCO protected heritage site and Croatia’s biggest tourist attraction.
The bridge finally became a reality in 2017 when the EU allocated 357 million euros ($365 million), which covered much of the 526 million euro ($533 million) cost. The China Road and Bridge Corporation in 2018 won an international tender for the construction of the bridge.
The project, however, had been criticized by Bosnia, whose officials complained of unresolved border issues and said the bridge would impede access to its stretch of coastline.
Known for its beautiful nature and hundreds of islands in the Adriatic Sea, Croatia is a major tourist destination, attracting millions from Europe and around the world every summer. Tourism is also essential for the Croatian economy, which remains one of the weakest in the EU.