April 6, 2018 – Another bumper tourist season awaits on the Adriatic coast, but what kind of tourism is Croatia trying to attract?
As TCN spreads its wings beyond the borders of The Beautiful Croatia, I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel extensively in the region so far this year. Budapest, Belgrade, Ljubljana, BiH, many parts of Montenegro and, of course, around many delightful parts of this beautiful but complicated land.
Moving my focus from Croatia to the region has been quite an education. Somewhat naively, perhaps, I had expected that while some countries in the former Yugoslavia would be performing better than others, there would not be too many stark differences. And so it has been fascinating to learn that while Croatia is experiencing mass emigration, the population of Slovenia is actually increasing. More interestingly, the net surplus is due to the number of foreigners moving to Slovenia, some 13,760 in 2016. This compares to a total of just 30,000 foreigners living full-time in all of Croatia, according to official statistics from our friends at the Ministry of the Interior.
I have written previously about how much investment is going into Montenegro while almost nothing is happening in Croatia in the luxury tourism sector, and Lessons from Montenegro: Why Luxury Lustica Bay Will Never Happen in Croatia has been the start of quite a journey of discovery about bigger investments in the region. And with a more regional perspective, it is possible to look at Croatia and its tourism ‘strategy’ through different eyes. I speak to hundreds of people every week these days, either face to face or via messaging and email. A couple of sentences stayed with me from conversations in Montenegro a few weeks ago.
“We need more hostels in Montenegro for all the young people.”
“Isn’t it better to have one guest spending 10,000 euro a day than 100 guests spending 100 euro?”
Ah, hostels, one of the symbols of the new generation of backpackers who are coming to the Croatian coast in increasing numbers. Very useful things, hostels, and a great way to travel and backpack around Europe as I and millions of others did in their youth. Using the mentality of Build It and They Will Come, it is interesting to document the explosion of the hostel scene in Croatia over the last 10-15 years. Ten years ago in Hvar Town, for example, there were zero hostels in the town. Today, according to HostelWorld (the number is actually higher), there are 29. From zero in ten years. In that time, although some hotel renovations have taken place, no new hotels have opened. The effect? Hostels are changing the dynamic of the destination. Split opened its first hostel back in 2004 – today it has 110 listings on Hostel World.
Montenegro, by contrast has just 49, for the whole country, covering Kotor, Budva, Podgorica, Ulcinj and Zabljak – it sounds like they do need more hostels. By contrast, here are the number of hostels currently listed on Hostel World for Croatian destinations, almost none of which existed 10-15 years ago:
Split – 110
Dubrovnik – 98
Zagreb – 52
Zadar – 37
Hvar Town – 29
Montenegro – 49
Backpacking tourists are of course very welcome to Croatia, and they are fuelling the huge growth in tourism numbers. Never likely to be the biggest spenders, the huge numbers are contributing to the very crowded tourism hotspots on the summer months, and I for one am glad I will be nowhere near places like Split Airport or Dubrovnik this summer.
But Croatia needs all the tourism cash it can get. With tourism contributing to 21% of GDP and the economy is some trouble, cashing in on the tourism opportunities is important. And important to get the strategy right. With 326 hostels (above) opening in just 5 destinations, mostly in the last 5-10 years, the message of the kind of tourist Croatia is looking to attract seems clear. And despite the inevitable overcrowding such a strategy will bring, I wish them well.
I was having a beer with my Total Montenegro News writers at Porto Montenegro the other day on a glorious day in the first week of April, a project which should have been built in The Beautiful Croatia, of course, but… Looking across the harbour at these two little beauties above, I was reminded of that second sentence – isn’t it better to have one guest spending 10,000 euro a day, rather than 100 spending 100 euro?
It would certainly take the congestion out of the coast each summer…
The fact is that Croatia has several FANTASTIC high-spending tourism jewels which could bring significant revenue, a high quality of guest, none of which is season-dependent, and about which it is doing almost nothing.
1. Gastro Tourism
It is six years since Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations show about Croatian cuisine was seen by tens of millions.
“The next big thing is Croatia.”
“This is world-class food. This is world-class wine. This is world-class cheese.”
“If you haven’t been here, you are a ******* idiot. I am an idiot.”
And so, with such a fantastic global endorsement some six years ago, where is Croatia today on the gourmet tourism scene?
Organised gourmet tourism is huge business in countries such as France, Germany, Italy and Spain. Not dependent on the season (indeed often out of season is perferred), gourmet tourists generally spend more and are usually away from the tourism hotspots. As locals never tire of telling me, Croatian food and wine are the best in the world, with their 130 indigenous varieties etc. I don’t disagree, but then why are we not telling the world and bringing gourmet tourism to the same levels as these other countries? Dalmatia doesn’t even have a wine road. But Hercegovina does.
2. Spa and Wellness Tourism
I know it is not popular to hear good things about the neighbours in this region, but the fact is that spa tourism in Slovenia accounts for 40% of all overnights in the country. Yes, I know that it is a much smaller country, but now compare the spa tourism of Croatia versus Slovenia. And the potential of both. No contest. What makes it even crazier is that for Croatian spa tourism businesses (there are so few of them) which offer a very high standard, such as the magnificent Villa Magdalena in Krapinske Toplice, the biggest market is from Slovenia, because the prices are so good. High-spending tourists not dependent on the season.
3. Medical Tourism
One of the most interesting research features I did last year was into the Croatian health tourism sector. To be honest, I was not expecting too much in terms of high quality, certainly nothing world-class. How wrong was I! Health Tourism is Coming Home: Why Zagreb is the Next Big Medical Tourism Destination took a much closer look at three outstanding Croatian clinics and hospitals who are opening a new front in tourism for the country, as well as spreading the reputation for medical excellence – Bagatin Clinic, St. Catherine’s Specialty Hospital and Svjetlost. With very little official support. And the more I looked into things, the more I was amazed by the quality Croatia has to offer in this field, how far people are prepared to travel for that quality… and how little official interest there seems to be. The story of this American citizen is possibly one of the finest promotion materials for Croatian tourism in any sector – Zagreb Dental Tourism Changing Lives: From US Hell to Bagatin Clinic Life Transformation.
Health, wellness, food and wine – three lucrative tourism sectors where Croatia is badly underperforming. But as long as we keep opening more hostels on the coast and stuffing overcrowded destinations with yet more of the same, the tourism arrivals and overnights will increase and fulfil the Five Year Plan – Stalin would be proud.