Croatia on Tuesday celebrated the opening of a long-awaited bridge that links its southern Adriatic coast, including Dubrovnik, with the rest of the country, bypassing a narrow strip of Bosnian territory.
The 2.4-kilometre span stretches from the Croatian mainland to the Peljesac peninsula that connects with the southern part of Croatia's coastline nestled between the sea and the Dinaric Alps.
Festivities lasted from the early morning into the evening, with boat races, fireworks and pedestrians gathering along the bridge to take pictures as musical performances added to the air of celebration.
“This bridge represents the unification of Croatia, joining of the south and the north,” said Ivan Vranjes, 45, a native of Split, who was visiting from abroad.
As the sun set, a formal ceremony inaugurating the bridge took centre stage, which included a speech by Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic and a video address by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.
Mr Plenkovic said the opening of the bridge marked a “historic day for Croatia” and lauded the new infrastructure as a “project of a generation, a project of pride”.
The link will bring an end to the untold hours spent by commuters, merchants and tourists at the Bosnian border and is one of the country's most ambitious infrastructure projects since Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.
A bloody dissolution of the federation, however, left a patchwork of divisions across the Balkans, with the frontiers between its six former republics transformed into international borders.
Bosnia maintained its coastal access in the end, but its small outlet leading to the Adriatic Sea cut right through Croatia.
As a result, about 90,000 people, including residents in the country's tourism hot spot of Dubrovnik, were cut off from the rest of the country until now.
The hard border brought lines and red tape for traders, and headaches for tourists hoping to get south by road.
Inhabitants of the picturesque region of red wines, pebble beaches and oyster farms are looking forward to the end of their geographic isolation caused by the Bosnian border.
The lengthy waits at the border and fears about missing the day's last ferry will now become a thing of the past, they say.
“It was really exhausting and made people living here bitter,” said Sabina Mikulic, owner of a hotel, glamping site and winery in Orebic, the peninsula's largest town
The opening of the bridge has been a long time coming and not without controversy.
Croatia took its first stab at building the bridge in 2007, only for the project to stall five years later owing to budgetary constraints.
In 2017, the European Union, which Croatia joined in 2013, allocated €357 million ($365 million), about 85 per cent of the cost.
A Chinese company was selected in 2018 to build the bridge, marking the first significant Chinese involvement in an infrastructure project in Croatia.
On Tuesday, China's premier said the completion of the bridge marked a new era of cooperation between Beijing, Zagreb and Brussels.
“The bridge also reflects co-operation between China and the EU,” Mr Li said in his video address.
But not all were happy with the construction of the bridge, with officials in Bosnia claiming it would hamper its maritime access by preventing high-tonnage vessels from entering its only port.
Zagreb eventually agreed to increase the height of the bridge to 55 metres in an attempt to quell the dispute.
The opening of the bridge comes with Croatia angling for a tourism rebound this year as it hopes to attract pre-pandemic levels of visitors.
The country of 3.8 million people attracts millions of tourists every year hoping to soak up the sun along its stunning coast, dotted with more than 1,000 islands and islets.
As well as tourism, the bridge will be a boon for businesses and traders.
For decades, oyster farmer Mario Radibratovic was subjected to hours of extra travel to bring his perishable shellfish north to market because of waiting times at the border.
But with the opening of the bridge, the journey time north will shrink dramatically.
For the 57-year-old, the opening of the bridge will bring “immeasurable relief”.
“We are finally becoming part of Croatia,” Mr Radibratovic, who farms oysters and mussels in the village of Mali Ston, told AFP.
“Until now we felt like second-class citizens.”