When I first moved to Croatia back in 2003, my budget travel options from the UK were extremely limited. There was the unenviable choice of London to Trieste, bus transfer to Rijeka, then 11 hours on a bus to Split and the ferry to Hvar. Much preferred was Ryanair to Graz, then 4 hour train to Zagreb and onward bus to Split.
I got to know Graz a little during that time, as I would sometimes stop for a night or two to explore that very pretty Austrian city, but Zagreb always left me a little cold. There never seemed to be much going on, and I remember that the only international cuisine available back then was an average Indian and an ever more average Chinese. For me, Zagreb was always just a transit point, and not somewhere to spend time.
My opinions of Zagreb have changed 100% over the years, but then so too has Zagreb, which was named by Lonely Planet at the best destination in 2017, something unthinkable 15 years previously. Indeed, one German newspaper even labelled it the most boring captial in the EU back in 2014.
I have spent a lot of time in the Croatian capital, having moved from Jelsa to Varazdin 5 years ago, and it has been a pleasure watching the transformation of the city into one of Croatia’s tourism jewels with outstanding potential to develop further.
Zagreb was not really known for tourism until relatively recently, but it has made enormous progress in recent years to become one of the leading destinations in terms of visitors and overnight stays. As the Croatian tourism gurus were trying to figure out how to extend the season, the rise of Advent in Zagreb was meteoric. From a standing start of just a few stands on the main square, within a few years Advent in Zagreb has been voted the Best Christmas Market in Europe, with hundreds of thousands of visitors at a time of year when things were pretty dead in Croatia. The success of Advent in Zagreb inspired other cities to follow suit all over the country, and Advent is now an established part of the tourist calendar in Croatia.
(Photo credit J.Duval)
But the arrival of Ryanair to Zagreb, the first low-cost carrier to offer a signifcant presence in the capital, brings with it untold possibilities to develop Zagreb tourism, and in ways that meet the needs of the modern traveller, not just those heading for the typical beach holiday on the coast. And with Ryanair CEO Eddie Wilson claiming that the Irish airline will bring no less than 700,000 passengers by the end of the financial year, the tourism boast both for Zagreb and Croatia should be significant.
Unlike most visitors to Croatia from European cities, I have long forgotten the luxury of choice with low-cost airlines, especially out of season. Looking at the new schedule, with December flights at bargain fares to destinations such as Cyprus, Thessaloniki, Malaga, Rome, Malta, Milan, Scandinavia, and even my native Manchester, it brought home to me just how significant the arrival of Ryanair will prove for Zagreb. Not only will other destinations be a lot more accessible for those living in Croatia, but now Zagreb will be open to so many more passengers at affordable prices from a number of destinations previously inaccessible. And with Ryanair planning to increase the number of routes to more than 40 by next summer, as well as potentially entering the domestic market, there will be choice as never before.
(Bagatin Clinic was voted the best international cosmetic surgery clinic of the year at the International Medical Travel Journal Awards in Berlin in December 2019)
This new accessibility offers great opportunities for Zagreb in various tourism sectors. Croatia has always had an outstanding medical tourism offer, for example, as good as – if not better – than elsewhere in the region, but the inaccessibility of affordable flights to Zagreb has been arguably the major hindrance to developing the sector. In stark contrast, medical tourism in neighbouring Budapest has exploded, with its dental industry bringing in an impressive US$600 million annually. Choice of low-cost flights form the UK is a major factor in that success, but industry experts predict that Croatia could take 25% of that market if it could become competitive with flights.
Budapest is also worth examining for future Zagreb tourism trends with the budget airline factor. A couple of years ago, I had a very interesting interview with Jost Lammers, CEO of Budapest Airport, on the rise of Budapest Airport after the collapse of state airline, Malev. You can read it here.
(Photo credit J. Duval)
Zagreb is an ideal city break destination, with an enviable offer of parks, culture, musuems, gourmet, events and one of the most chilled lifestyles in Europe. The Around Zagreb concept, connecting the city with the nature, traditions, wine roads and adventure tourism of the surrounding region, offer plenty of choice all year. The missing link – affordable accessibility from multiple destinations – is now in place. Where once Zagreb was a stepping stone to the coast, now it looks increasingly set to become a 2-3 city break destination in its own right.
And let’s not forget this new breed of tourist which has the ability to significantly impact both the tourism numbers and the mindset – digital nomads. Events such as the recent Zagreb Digital Nomad Week have shown the level of interest in Zagreb, but also how much the city has been a pleasant surprise. Great Internet, English-widely spoken, laid-back lifestyle, great gourmet, cultural and adventure tourism scenes, and spectacular nature, even with the city limits. As Dean Kuchel of Digital Nomad World, put it when asked what Zagreb was missing for digital nomads, his reply was ‘More digital nomads.’
(Zagreb’s first digital nomad ambassador, Veronica Mulhall, leaves her impressions of Zagreb on a mural in Art Park Ribnjak)
As the word continues to spread about the cool vibe coming out of Zagreb in 2021, coupled with more budget flight announcements, it is only a matter of time before they come.
Good times are in store for Zagreb tourism. Have you paid a visit recently? Learn more about the city in the Total Croatia Zagreb in a Page guide.