Here Be Dragons, a Croatian Tourism Private Partnership Blueprint

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January 6, 2018 – Unlocking the potential of Croatian tourism – how much more could be achieved by engaging the private sector? A Game of Thrones case study with Here Be Dragons and the Enchanted Village at this year’s Advent in Zagreb. 

A couple of years ago, I was having a beer with a friend of mine who was just back from Zagreb in the run up to Christmas. 

“Advent in Zagreb,” he said, “it looks pretty but all it is in reality is sausages and mulled wine.”

And I guess that until quite recently, that is what Advent in Zagreb was to many people. Of all the new tourism initiatives which have been launched in Croatia in recent years, I cannot think of one which has been more of a success than Advent in Zagreb. Put aside the Best Christmas Market in Europe vote three years in a row, and just look at the numbers. I recently wrote an article about the marketing campaign behind Advent in Zagreb,which included this impressive slide of tourism arrivals and overnights for December in the Croatian capital.


Let me add this year’s numbers to the slide. Tourist arrivals, 110,097, overnight stays 199,752. Yes, that’s right, Zagreb’s tourism numbers for the month of December – in terms of overnights and visitors – have TRIPLED in just six years. To put the numbers in context, Hvar Town had a great year, up 15%, with some 197,000 arrivals in 12 months, less than double what Zagreb managed in the last month of 2017 alone. 

I don’t think I was the only one who was very surprised when Zagreb was named best Christmas market in Europe two years ago, and I don’t think I would be too wrong by saying the quality of what was on offer did not really match up to the title. Having said that, Advent in Zagreb had improved beyond recognition from its few stalls on the main square a few years before. The more important part of the story is what happened next. 

Rather than sit back and enjoy the praise, the Zagreb Tourist Board has worked hard to improve the market, and with considerable success. The PR campaign has worked a treat, and people have come and enjoyed. This was the first year that I felt that Zagreb really deserved the award, and it was a real joy to visit various locations throughout December. And as I visited, I chatted to various stakeholders, and I realised that there was one important thing which was playing a significant part in the success of this year’s market – the engagement and innovation of the private sector. 


One example will suffice – the Enchanted Village run by Here Be Dragons, a private business based in Zagreb, which specialises in the licenced official merchandise of brands such as Harry Potter, Game of Thrones and Star Wars. Here is how one of Advent in Zagreb’s biggest hits came to be – and notice the timeframe. 

On November 15, they received a call from the guys running the Fuliranje section of Advent in Zagreb, encouraging them to take some space at Fuliranje. After a little thought, the creative guys from Here Be Dragons negotiated a deal and a very cool concept – an enchanted wooden village to entice Harry Potter and other fantasy fans. With Advent set to open at the beginning of December, time was very short. The Here Be Dragons team set to work, building 6 wooden houses in Karlovac, starting on November 22, as well as a host of accompanying touches to give the village enchanted authenticity.  As per the agreement, the houses had to be on site and painted during the first week of December. The Enchanted Village opened on December 9.


Something for everyone. We all have our favourites, and it was good to catch up with WonderWoman after all these years… 

The village itself was a fantastic addition to Fuliranje, but the guys from Here Be Dragons wanted to take things a little further. Harry Potter fans were thrilled with the Ministry of Magic workshops, with the Minister conducting numerous workshops creating magic potions. There was even a Harry Potter treasure hunt on Christmas Eve. But which fantasy attraction with a Croatian connection could beat all others? There is only one answer to that:


The Iron Throne!

On December 22, just 37 days after the original suggestion, and amid all the stress of building, stocking and manning the Enchanted Village, a pitch was made to HBO to get the famous Game of Thrones iron throne as a centrepiece of the Enchanted Village. Putting aside the speed with which Croatian bureaucracy works for a minute, getting HBO to agree and facilitate the idea in such a short space of time was a huge success, and there were queues of visitors waiting for their photo op on the famous chair.


Some of whom were less stylish and more burned out before Christmas than others…

Which got me thinking, and led to a little research which led to this editorial. 

What if Croatian tourism embraced the successful aspects of the private sector, worked with them to bring their ideas to fruition, and opened the way for a more creative and fulfilling tourism experience? Look what Here Be Dragons had created from a standing start in just 37 days. Although I have never watched a minute of Game of Thrones, these guys managed to get the throne to Zagreb, a city with no Game of Thrones connection, at very short notice. 

What could be achieved with a Here Be Dragons partnership with Croatian tourism at a national level, for example? The playing field was not a six-house village in the middle of Advent in Zagreb, but all the Game of Thrones filming locations in Croatia. The timeframe was not 37 days, but considerably longer – time for some true vision – and with a budget to match. 

It was time to look at Game of Thrones tourism in Croatia, a topic which is the subject of many ridiculous claims, such as it is destroying tourism in Dubrovnik (did nobody notice the cruise ships?), and for which official promotion of this golden gift from the sky is questionable at best. Just how questionable, I was about to find out. 

A couple of years ago, I did an article on the Lord of the Rings effect on New Zealand tourism. Game of Thrones arguably has a bigger draw, and Croatia is certainly a lot closer for many tourists than New Zealand. With a proper strategy, Croatia should be really able to cash in on Game of Thrones tourism, which is not summer-dependent, and so it could be an important factor in realising the Holy Grail – year-round tourism. So how is Croatia doing in terms of a strategy to take advantage of the huge PR created by this global hit show? Not so good…


I went to the New Zealand Tourist Board website, and I googled ‘Lord of the Rings’ and here is what I found – an impressive 361 results.

How does its Croatian counterpart compare with ‘Game of Thrones’?


A mere 360 search results less than in New Zealand. Just one result. I was a little surprised, but headed to the official tourism promotion arm of King’s Landing itself, the Dubrovnik Tourist Board, expecting to find a section on Game of Thrones filming, sights, something. Absolutely nothing. 

An interesting article in Forbes on the Lord of the Rings effect in New Zealand:

“According to the general manager of Western long-haul markets for Tourism New Zealand, Gregg Anderson, “We’ve seen a 50% increase in arrivals to New Zealand since Lord of the Rings.””

The ‘Game of Thrones effect’ on tourism in Croatia has been a little harder to quantify. A recent research paper on the impact Game of Thrones has had on tourism in Dubrovnik claims:

Due to the filming of GoT alone, the Dubrovnik-Neretva County registered 60 thousand more tourist arrivals every year in the 2012–2015 period. Cumulatively, throughout the entire analyzed period, Dubrovnik-Neretva County registered 244,415 more tourist arrivals. This figure translates into almost one and a half million more overnight stays (1,441,359 to be exact). Motivated by GoT, guests visiting the county spent 126 million euro in the analyzed period.

I will confess that I have not paid the US$6 to read the entire study, but the assumption that 100% of the increased number of tourist arrivals is due exclusively to Game of Thrones is a little questionable. Even if it were true, it is a lot less impressive than Team New Zealand. 

Official private partnership and promotion with the official tourist board is not as straightforward as it should be, as I have found out with not a little frustration over the years. A couple of years ago, for example, I wrote an article, 25 Reasons You Should NEVER Visit Croatia, which was all over the media and got a million hits in the first 24 hours, but was not shared by the national tourist board on Facebook, just as none of our articles on TCN has ever been shared on the national tourist board Facebook page and its 1.5 million fans in more than six years. The reason, I am led to believe, is that there are rules preventing the promotion of commercial websites, something which I have accepted over the years.

And then, two hours after launching Total Slovenia News last month, this happened:


You can’t blame Tito for that one… 

In order to move its tourism forward, Croatia needs to find a way to embrace the private sector, to engage its creative and contacts for the good of all. Year-round tourism in Croatia is actually quite easy to achieve if the will is there. Look at the neighbours, for example. A staggering 40% of overnight stays in Slovenia came from spa tourism in 2017, a section of tourism which is not weather-dependent. With the outstanding exception of Villa Magdalena in Krapinske Toplice, I have not really come across anyone aggressively trying to assert Croatia’s position on the spa tourism map. 

Add to that Croatia’s market share of gourmet tourism compared to France, Italy, Spain and even Germany – another huge 12-month potential which is being missed.  

For gourmet tourism, read congress tourism – Croatia has many competitive advantages to significantly improve its conference tourism, if only it could arrange the appropriate flight connections out of season, although it should be stated that things are MUCH better than even five years ago in this regard. (Why does Dubrovnik not organise an out of season fantasy conference, was a question I was asked recently? The chance to have a conference in King’s Landing – the people would come).

For congress tourism, read adventure tourism. 

For adventure tourism, read medical tourism (and here is why Zagreb is set to be the next medical tourism hotspot).

In all these sectors – Game of Thrones, gourmet, congress, adventure and health tourism, there are experts in the private sector ready and willing to develop tourism into Croatia into what could – and should – be a lucrative 12-month money generator, which would greatly improve life on the coast out of season, generate thousands of jobs and slow the depressing tide of emigration. 

It is time to engage with the private sector. 






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