For years it was touted as Europe's best-kept secret, its ancient stone houses and encircling medieval walls blissfully free of the tourist masses that have smothered Venice and Dubrovnik.

But the tiny town of Kotor in Montenegro now risks the same fate as those more famous destinations, as cruise ships deliver huge numbers of visitors.

From being barely known a decade ago, the walled citadel, a World Heritage site located on the shores of a dramatic fjord, is currently visited by around 430 cruise ships a year.

The old town, renowned for its well-preserved 14th century ramparts and Romanesque churches, is now almost entirely devoted to tourism, with some locals complaining that it has sold its soul to consumerism.

Advertisement

Ana Nives Radovic, the head of the town's tourism organisation, said: "There are now 85 to 90 souvenir shops in Kotor. The city has completely changed in the last decade because of the cruise ship industry."

"Over the winter, our only book shop, which was an institution, was closed down. We have to be honest and say that the cruise ship industry is not the perfect type of tourism; it does have negative impacts."

As grocery shops, hairdressers, ironmongers and fruit sellers are closed down and replaced with knick-knack shops selling tourist tat, ordinary life becomes almost impossible - something long-suffering Venetians have often complained of.

Kotor also shares much of the appeal of Dubrovnik, both were trading outposts established by the Venetians, and in both towns the winged lion of St Mark, the symbol of Venice, still looms over stone gates and battlements.

But Kotor, located 50 miles to the south, now shares many of Dubrovnik's problems. Around 10,000 tourists arrive each day in summer, often leaving the old town packed.

Two years ago, Unesco threatened to revoke Kotor's World Heritage status, warning that its appeal was being ruined by too many tourists and rampant construction.

In response, local authorities imposed a temporary ban on construction, but the cruise ships continue to anchor in the bay, pouring thousands of day-trippers into the town.

Two years ago, Unesco threatened to revoke Kotor's World Heritage status due to overtourism. Photo / Getty Images
Two years ago, Unesco threatened to revoke Kotor's World Heritage status due to overtourism. Photo / Getty Images

A victim of its own beauty, Dubrovnik also attracted hordes of visitors after being used to film scenes in the HBO series Game of Thrones.

Advertisement

Sandra Kapetanovic from Expeditio, a local architecture group that advocates sustainable development, told AFP: "Kotor was once known for being more authentic [than Dubrovnik], but now they're in the same place."

Like many other popular destinations around the world, Montenegro is trying to strike a delicate balance between making money from tourism and ensuring that the very things that tourists come to see are not snuffed out in the process.

Tourism now accounts for nearly 25 per cent of Montenegro's GDP and many people in Kotor have also grown wealthy from the cruise ship trade.