Hvar Town is in the international media again, for all the wrong reasons, on May 30, 2017. A town in danger of losing its cultural identity for the quick buck.
Hvar Town, home to the oldest public theatre in Europe, the birthplace of organised tourism in Europe (150 next year), the sunniest island in Europe, and named one of the top 10 most beautiful in the world. An island with more UNESCO heritage than any other in the world, whose fabulous wines are exported across the globe, and whose natural treasures from its fields and the sea combine to produce an enviable gourmet offer.
An island which has everything.
But sometimes, for some people, everything is not enough – there has to be more. Once considered to be among the elitest destinations on the Adriatic, historic Hvar, with its imperious Spanish Fortress overlooking the jewels of the Pakleni Islands which only add to the town’s appeal, Hvar in recent years has been at war with itself as to its true identity, as the cheap and quick bucks of party tourism slowly but increasingly took hold. Having adopted the island as my home for 15 years, it was an issue I felt quite strongly about, as readers of Total Hvar over the years will testify, but with the benefit of distance here in Varazdin, it is something I now look on with resignation and profound sadness at how this fantastic destination is changing for the worse.
The tragic death of a 20 year-old tourist this week has brought Hvar and its party image once more into the international spotlight. Initial reports were that the young girl from Northern Ireland died after becoming comatose outside a club in Hvar Town, having taken a mixture of drugs and alcohol. I received an email from a local source today saying that she was a diabetic and no drugs were involved – her medication combined with the alcohol to devastating effect. The real story will presumably become apparent with the imminent autopsy. Our condolences to her family, a horrible thing.
The story broke in the UK media almost as quickly as it did in Croatia. Here is how Hvar was described in that media:
Hvar, located in the Adriatic Sea, is best known for its nightlife attracting young Brits and tourists to the island.
Hvar, a Croatian island in the Adriatic Sea, is best known as a summer resort and is very popular with tourists for partying.
It has numerous beaches, as well as many bars and restaurants.
The Daily Mail
British girl, 20, dies on Croatian party island
This is how Hvar is portrayed to the masses in the UK, one of Hvar’s most important markets, in 2017. No mention of culture, of heritage, of any of the quality that sets Hvar apart from the rest, but just one common theme – party.
Take those headlines and descriptions above and replace the words Hvar, Croatia, Adriatic for corresponding words for Mykonos or Magaluf. Is there any difference? Is this how Hvar is now being presented to important international tourism markets – the Croatian equivalent of Magaluf or Mykonos?
The party chiefs have only strengthened their tentacles in Hvar Town in recent years, and while business may be booming these days, you will be hard pressed to find any local who will honestly tell you that the town is better now, or the tourism better quality than ten years ago. Let’s make that five years ago. Or two. A hostel owner told me cheerfully last summer that the town had no hostel in 2008, but these days has 29, of which 16 are official. The party discussion is almost like a dirty secret in the town – everyone agrees that it is making Hvar less of a quality destination, but look at the money! The short term money, especially as if Hvar Town does level out to be the equivalent of Mykonos or Magaluf, it will struggle to compete on price.
But Hvar is an A-list celebrity destination, surely. Tom Cruise, Demi Moore (ok let’s not dwell on her Hvar visit), Beyonce. Locals are proud of their rich heritage – and rightly so – but the notion that one can combine that rich history with party tourists and cancerous invasions such as the drunkenness of The Yacht Week is absurd, to say the least. The residents of Palmizana put a petition to the mayor and town council a couple of years ago, requesting that the town ban The Yacht Week from the town and marina at Palmizana. The town councillors voted unanimously to support the petition, leaving the mayor to implement their decision and ban The Yacht Week.
The mayor did nothing, and the party got louder.
That same mayor won the most votes in the local elections 10 days ago, and he will go head to head with his nearest rival this Sunday. If the people of Hvar vote for the man that did nothing to stop the party, despite the entire local council voting to put a stop to it, then the direction Hvar tourism is the direction that the people of Hvar choose, and who am I to suggest otherwise? I have nothing against the current mayor, have never met him despite several attempts to interview him, and he was generous enough to pay tribute to the work of Total Hvar once at a public meeting.
The sad thing is that many of the tourism providers know that the current practices are contributing to a dumbing down in tourism in Hvar Town, but they have no short term interest in changing things.
“In five years, Hvar Town will be second to Stari Grad in terms of quality tourism,” I joked with a Hvar Town tourism businessman recently on the ferry. “You guys are ruining that town.”
“Ha ha,” came the reply. “Stari Grad will never be number one, because no matter how bad things got here, we always have the Pakleni Islands in our offer, which Stari Grad does not.”
One of the great strengths of the island of Hvar is that it has something for everyone. For those who fear it is a party island, it is not. It has a party town, but travel just a few kilometres, and you will find the timeless Dalmatian magic for which the region has become known, and in Stari Grad (and also Jelsa and Vrboska to a lesser degree), the Hvar experience is altogether different.
Stari Grad in particular looks set to shine. The announcement of the Four Seasons Hotel and accompanying luxury resort with villas, the start of infrastucture works on the luxury Olive Bay Resort, and the imminent purchase by Valamar of the stricken Helios Hotels mean that in just a few years, the centre of the top quality accommodation will move to the former capital of the island, where it all began with the Ancient Greeks in 384 BC with the founding of Faros, the first name for Stari Grad, whose UNESCO World Heritage Site dates back to those settlers from the island of Paros.
And – if planned carefully – the Stari Grad Hvar experience, even without the Pakleni Islands – can produce the quality tourism experience for the upscale market to showcase the magic of the island of Hvar, leaving the party to continue through the tunnel in Hvar Town. An island with something for everyone.
It is not too late for Hvar Town of course, although the tourist board did itself no favours when it finally branded Hvar as the island of ‘Genuine Hedonism’ (I know what they were trying to say in the Croatian context, but the meaning in English only plays into the party image), but time is surely running out. Sunday’s vote is of course one way to effect change, and it will be interesting to see the result, especially with locals in uproar and once more petitioning, this time because a new directive is forbidding them to park downtown during the season.
But it is also not too late in international branding. When I write about Hvar for Google News and elsewhere, I try where possible to point out the UNESCO heritage, the sunshine, the oldest theatre in Europe. I did the same with our report on the tragic death this week, a report The Daily Mirror linked to in the article where they named the dead girl, linking to Total Croatia News after reading our article. There was a subtle change in the way they described the island.
The first report.
Hvar, a Croatian island in the Adriatic Sea, is best known as a summer resort and is very popular with tourists for partying. It has numerous beaches, as well as many bars and restaurants.
Hvar, a Croatian island in the Adriatic Sea, is best known as a summer resort and is very popular with tourists for partying. It has numerous beaches, as well as many bars and restaurants, as well as having UNESCO heritage sites.
Small steps, but if one fat British blogger in his bathrobe and with a pint in rural Varazdin came make a tiny difference, what could a coordinated approach and strategy by the Hvar Town tourism geniuses, with their fat budgets, achieve?
Hvar Town is at a crossroads with its future, with its destiny very much in the hands of the people who live in the town, starting with the election on Sunday. Don’t hold your breath.