It takes a lot to succeed in Croatia, especially when you are bringing a new product. And especially when that product is the largest music festival on the Adriatic coast.
Canadian Croat Joe Basic returned to the Homeland over 25 years ago to try his luck in the newly independent Croatia and to do his bit to help shape the country’s future. Despite many falls along the way, he has achieved considerable success, the most notable of which is undoubtedly the ULTRA Europe Festival, which will be celebrating its 10-year anniversary next year (9th edition, with a break during the pandemic).
Unlike the majority of expats living in Croatia, both Joe and I well remember how Split was ten years ago. It was the year I started Total Split, which was the first meaningful portal in English about the city, with many places written about for the first time in English. Back then, Diocletian’s Palace was a little bit intimidating, especially off-season, when it became a ghost town with a medium-sized drug problem.
Split itself was better known not as a tourist destination but as ‘the Gateway to the Dalmatian islands.’ It was undoubtedly beautiful – with a spectacular UNESCO World Heritage Site and Riva just metres from the ferry – but a far cry from what we see today. Joe, meanwhile, was busy trying to put his country – and particularly Split – on the global map.
Something that the ULTRA Europe Festival most certainly did.
And so, for a few days in July, the Dalmatian capital gave way to the ULTRA party, which attracted 75,000 people in the first year, and which has been growing ever since. Nine years later, Split is beyond recognition as a destination, and the current problems with drunkenness, nudity, and anti-social behaviour are the cause of much discussion. Some point the finger of blame at ULTRA, saying that everything went downhill from there.
I disagree. And for those who have followed me for 10 years, you may recall how against ULTRA Europe I was on my adopted island of Hvar. But for Split, I think ULTRA has been a good thing. It would have been even better if the biggest problem that has arisen had a solution in place – a strategy and operational plan to manage the rapid growth in tourism. Such a thing does not exist, and that is the main cause of Split’s current issues. At least in my opinion.
And the good news is that things are solvable. I have little faith in the current Split Tourist Board, which has been worshipping at the temple of numbers, numbers, numbers for years without coming up with any kind of discernible strategy. But I do have hope in the new mayor, Ivica Puljak, who has recently been returned to power with a much stronger mandate, after calling a snap election to strengthen his position earlier this year. Mayor Puljak’s active participation in the TCN Split Winter Tourism Roundtable initiative is evidence of his involvement and positive engagement.
I thought it would be useful for the debate to get the perspective of Joe Basic. As the man who brought the ULTRA Europe Festival to Croatia and Split, he is very well-positioned to comment. He also understands the scene and the Croatian way much better than I do. Additionally, he understands the trends and can clearly see where Split is going wrong – and how to (relatively easily) fix it. I will be tagging Mayor Puljak and the Split Tourist Board when I publish this, in the hope that they will take on board Joe’s insights and recommendations.
A Canadian-Croatian returnee, it was only when I sat down with Joe that I realised what a proud Croat he is, and how much he is working on several fronts for a better Croatia.
Our conversation took us back a decade, a time when Split was not recognised globally or in Europe as a travel destination. Back then, Split was seen as the biggest Croatian city on the Adriatic coast, a city known for its sports teams Hajduk, Jugoplastika, and the home town of athletes Goran Ivanisević and Blanka Vlasić. A city people only visited on their way to other destinations such as Hvar, Bol or other Dalmatian islands connected by ferry in Split. When the ULTRA Europe Festival was presented as an event to be organised In Split, many locals commented that they could not see how this event could be organised here, and that there were many other locations more attractive than Split for this event.
Split was a VERY different place to today. The average stay for tourists was less than two days, and as I pointed out in last week’s editorial, there were less than 5,000 registered private beds, with hotels also lacking. The spreadsheet above, provided by the Split Tourist Board, shows just what an (uncontrolled) explosion there has been, particularly in private beds.
According to Basic, the ULTRA Europe Festival recognised that Split offered an attractive destination with access for guests from around the world by plane, car, train, boat and other means of transport. As the largest city on the coast, it ensured potential local support and attendees of the event. With its historic old town, beautiful sea views, beaches, and other attractions, it provided the opportunity to create the first destination music festival where guests not only attended the music festival but had an opportunity to experience all that the destination offered. A chance to maximise the overall experience of festival goers with all that the city of Split offered.
Pulling off the first ULTRA Europe
Given the fact we live in a bureaucratic country where foreigners have to produce an original birth certificate no more than 6 months old for their annual residence permit renewal, I can only imagine the nightmares he must have had pulling this off for the first time.
Basic explained that initial support from local authorities to organise the first ULTRA Europe Festival was minimum and almost zero. The city of Split and other government authorities did not financially support the event and ULTRA had to organise everything. The city did not have the infrastructure to support events of this scale, and as a result, ULTRA needed to secure equipment from all over Croatia and Europe. Local services and agencies, including security, cleaning and others, did not have the required number of staff, so they were sourced from other cities, thereby increasing the overall costs. Transfer vehicles, hotel rooms, and presidential suites in 5-star hotels were limited and/or non-existent, making it difficult to meet the expectations of artists arriving to perform at the ULTRA Europe Festival. In the first year, there were over 75 000 people attending the event, in a city with less than 200 taxis available. And of these, very few offered their services after midnight. Today, there are over 2000 taxis are in the city of Split during the ULTRA Europe Festival.
People who arrived to attend the ULTRA Europe Fetvial in 2013 from around the world were, for the most part, introduced to Split and Croatia for the first time. Most people had never heard of Split and were coming to attend the ULTRA Europe Festival, not visit the destination. For instance, many people who attended didn’t even know Split was a coastal town with beaches and arrived without bathing suits. No matter how much Croatians believe everyone in the world knows about Croatia and Split, this was certainly not the case In 2013, especially in countries outside of Europe. Basic says he and his team spent a lot of time and money presenting and promoting the destination worldwide to inform and educate our attendees about the destination.
What was the ULTRA Europe effect?
The ULTRA Europe Festival was very controversial when it first came, but Split locals quickly got to like the tourism boom it brought for a few days in July. I asked him about ‘the ULTRA effect’ in Split during those festival days, including some numbers.
He told me that the ULTRA Europe Festival is very powerful as it generates a high level of awareness globally, generating over 200 million impressions which present Split and Croatia in an attractive manner. It has branded the City of Split as a leading global destination, and today it is clear that Split and Croatia are definitely more well-known, and the ULTRA Europe Festival has a lot to do with this, especially in the young adult segment (18-35). These are the most sought-after tourists in the world and most difficult to attract as they seek relevant and trendy activities to animate them. At the same time, they tend to generate the greatest financial impact as they spend more than the average tourist. This higher level of expenditure and increased intensity of activities when visiting generates a higher level of impact as these guests seek more while visiting. For instance, according to Basic, boat excursions and taxi boats In 2013 compared to 2022 have increased 1000%. Taxis, restaurants and other activities have all grown 10X since the first ULTRA Europe Festival. The average night cost less than 50 EURO in 2013, whereas today the average room is over 200 EURO, with rooms in hotels costing more than 350 EURO / night during the ULTRA Europe Festival.
In 2013, the first two weeks of July were known as SRPANJSKA RUPA (the July Hole/Gap), where there was a drop in tourists and occupancy numbers. This would increase and peak in the season starting after July 20th to the end of August. This was a problem for hotels and apartment owners, and for this reason, the second weekend of July was chosen for ULTRA Europe. Today you have 10x more capacity, and you are unable to find a room in the first two weeks of July. It is now considered to be peak season for many hotels and other accommodations in Split, based on the average price per night. This is not true for other cities in Croatia, such as Dubrovnik, Zadar and Rovinj.
What about the perception of Split as a destination 9 years later and the ULTRA effect on that?
Basic answered that the image of Split has changed immensely since the ULTRA Europe Festival started. It has become a global destination recognised as a vibrant city and a perfect destination to visit. This is especially true for young adults as the ULTRA Europe Festival has made this more attractive and welcoming for these guests. Over 1 million people have attended the ULTRA Europe Festival since 2013, and the positive experience and word of mouth promoting this destination from these guests alone have created a tremendous amount of interest to visit Split. It needs to be recognised that young adults (18-35) are the hardest target group to attract to any destination. They are a target group that tends to spend the most on average and are especially valuable guests as they will repeat their visits over an entire life span, returning with their families and children later In life. Typically, destinations in the world who can consistently attract young adults are those destinations which will become leading world destinations recognised for being trend-setting and top of mind in the world.
Basic also believes that the ULTRA Europe Festival has also been a catalyst in generating changes in the overall offer In Split, with many new restaurants, cafes, shops, hotels and other openings catering to an international market. This was not the case before 2013. When comparing Split to other coastal cities in Croatia in the period since 2013, Split has changed much more by far in its overall offer than any other city.
Which brings us to the problems of today and a younger crowd with access to cheap alcohol and pub crawls through the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Diocletian’s Palace.
Basic explained that Split has become a GLOBAL TOURIST DESTINATION attracting guests of all ages seeking a vibrant and attractive place to visit. No longer is Split a transit city, where people do not wish to stay and visit. It has now become a primary destination when visiting Croatia. With average night stays exceeding 5 days from less than 2 in 2013, Split has truly become a destination of choice for travellers from around the world. The fact that young, hard-to-attract travellers are visiting Split is a confirmation that Split has become an attractive destination, offering something special and unique. ULTRA has definitely helped to generate this interest and draw people to Split, highlighting its old town, beaches and other attractions in a modern and attractive manner. Basic believes this is what every destination seeks, and this success should be recognised as a positive and not a negative result. However, issues being experienced today in Split are common issues with any city transforming itself and dealing with the changes required in a process of change which Split has faced in the last 10 years. This amplitude of change has happened In Split much quicker than typical due to the high interest the ULTRA Europe Festival generates each year for Croatia and Split. However, it is something that can be managed and is In the interests of all as they transform and improve their overall potential and financial prosperity.
This growth needs to be managed and a strategy defined and put into place to determine what Split desires to become. At the moment, no clear strategy exists, especially a strategy that will unite all key decision makers. The changes occurring are beginning to reveal the weaknesses. One example of this are young adult visitors who are coming to visit Split for a weekend of drinking and low-cost fun. With Split now being recognised as a cool and trendy destination to visit for young adults, tour operators are taking advantage of this and organising trips to Split, focusing on bringing In as many people as they can for the least amount of money. With communication like „THE BEST NIGHT YOU WILL NEVER REMEMBER, “ it is clear that the interests and positioning of this type of event are not In the interest of the City of Split or Croatia. This is the least attractive type of guest for any destination as these guests simply seek to come for 3-4 days, to spend as little money as possible while getting drunk with their friends.
These tour operators are not investing any money or organising anything in the destination; they are simply using the destination and negotiating the cheapest deals possible to maximise the number of attendees. This includes famous PUB CRAWLS, which attract young adults to drink as much as possible for less than 30 USD In 2 hours. ULTRA Europe Festival guests coming to Split on average are spending over 3000 EURO to travel and visit Split. These PUB CRAWL guests are coming to Split trying to spend less than 250 EURO for 3 days of partying. These tours present the worst of Split by bringing people to C-category venues, offering questionable alcohol, and encouraging people to get drunk as quickly as possible. The more the merrier, without any controls in place with security guards or registration of events with city.
By law, events in public places with more than 40 people are required to be registered, and an organiser and responsible person must be defined. Approvals and registration of this event are needed to be allowed to operate, and the organiser needs to have all the required documentation, insurance policies and good standing with tax authorities, ZAMP and others to guarantee a safe and responsible event. Unfortunately, this is not the case with PUB CRAWLS In Split, and organisers are taking advantage of this and basically raping the city as a result of its current popularity, leaving behind all that destinations want to avoid. This is similar to a town where gold is found, attracting people from all over the world to get rich, mining the rich ore while it lasts, not concerned with what is left behind. However, cities and countries where gold mining is regulated and managed invest and develop themselves, prospering from the riches mined and are successful well after all the gold has been mined.
Below are examples of the positioning and offers being presented by organisers of PUB CRAWLS. This is the lowest possible offer that can be made for visitors to Split and is something that is not representative for the city and is potentially dangerous, as these events are being organised without a responsible person or entity. You also need to ask yourself how taxes are being paid for these organised pub crawls.
Basic was keen to point out that as an organiser of the ULTRA Europe Festival, he is responsible for ensuring that his guests are supported and safe. This requires big investments in production, infrastructure and security. Without these investments, approvals and other such things, he would not be able to organise the ULTRA Europe Festival. PUB CRAWLS are below the radar and are being organised without any approvals and infrastructure, and the security required to support this is not being invested and/or required. As a result, this is now out of control, and issues are occurring. This needs to be regulated and or stopped as it is damaging to the city of Split and for all those trying to develop quality and responsible development of the City of Split into a respectable and attractive destination.
Is ULTRA Europe partially responsible for the direction Split has taken?
All the above makes a lot of sense, and the issue of no plan or strategy was one that consultant Mario Seric homed in on during my editorial. But was the ULTRA Europe Festival at least partially responsible for the direction Split has taken?
Basic answered that ULTRA was responsible for generating a high level of interest for Split and Croatia, with over 200 million impressions being generated each year and over 35 million in promotion and advertising to attract people to come to Split for the ULTRA Europe Festival. However, ULTRA is not responsible for the issues the city is now experiencing. This is occurring because nobody is managing or controlling the rapid development of the city into a global destination. Since 2013, the infrastructure and people managing tourism in Split have not changed, while the number of beds registered has increased from 4000 to over 40,000 (see the spreadsheet above). No strategic investments in the city have been made to support or improve the visitor experience by the city, including public washrooms, water stations, or signage. These are crucial investments required to be made by a city to ensure this increased number of visitors can be managed. For instance, PUBLIC WASHROOMS in the city of Split that do exist are usually locked and closed after midnight. Based on this, where are tourists supposed to go to the toilet after midnight other than in public areas? Unfortunately, PUB CRAWLS for the most part occur after midnight, and the end result is clear. For the ULTRA Europe Festival, Basic is aware of this problem, and as the organiser, he invests each year in providing temporary washrooms throughout the city to give his guests options to go to the washroom when walking home from the venue. He claims to have minimal / no issues with this during the ULTRA Europe Festival.
As a result, a strategic plan needs to be clearly defined, defining what type of destination Split wants to become. Once this strategic plan is defined, it can determine the pace and required investments needed to support this plan. This plan needs to be accepted by the public, and all need to support it in a coordinated method to achieve maximum results to the satisfaction of all participants. When this is achieved, it will also be clear to visitors what expectations are for the City of Split and what it represents. This strategic plan should be organised with representatives from all key sectors of tourism and involve government institutions required for implementation. There is a clear consensus that this is required, and Basic is confident that very quickly a working group of highly qualified and professional people can be developed to tackle the issues the City of Split is facing.
So what kind of destination should Split be, attracting which type of tourist?
Basic thinks that Split needs to become a vibrant and active global destination attracting guests of all ages and walks of life. It needs to become a city with visitors coming all year round to enjoy the historical and cultural attractions the city offers along with organised activities highlighting what makes Split special. The City of Split needs to maintain the importance of remaining a city where locals live and work, as tourists always comment on how friendly and welcoming the people of Split are, while offering accommodations, restaurants and cafes which will make guests feel comfortable. Split needs to focus on international guests travelling by plane, seeking an attractive hotel or b&b, aged between 20-45, who will establish the city as a relevant tourist destination while maximising expenditure while visiting. Split has been able to achieve this in the last 10 years, and now it needs to be supported with infrastructure and support. Without this, it could lose all the benefits gained
I made him Mayor of Split and Split Tourist Board director for a day and asked him about his strategy to develop the city’s tourism.
He was quite clear about what he would do. The first step would be to establish a consensus on what the City of Split wants and desires to become in 2 years, 5 years and 15 years. When this is defined, form a working group of qualified and respected people from each sector of tourism to be joined by public offices from the city and county required for implementation, including the tourist board:
- Large hotels
- Medium hotels
- B&B / apartments
- Tour Operator
- Organiser of large events
- Organiser of small events
- Bus Operators
- Day Trips / Excursions
- Boats and Ferries
When this working group would be formed, its objective would be to develop a 2, 5 and 15-year strategy within 6 months to be presented and discussed In a public forum for final approval. During this process, public debate in the media would be organised to get a better understanding of what the public desires and to challenge certain options. This process would fllter and ensure that the strategy developed will achieve its required objectives and have the public support it needs for success. Once this is defined, a leader / manager needs to be put into place to take responsibility and ensure that the defined objectives are being achieved, publicly sharing results (good and bad) during the process of development. The success of the manager will be monitored based on results and milestones being achieved. This would include qualitative and quantitative objectives like
- number of guests per month
- countries from where guests are visiting from
- % of accommodations In 5-star hotels available and number of apartments
- Managing surveys and feedback from guests visiting the city of Split
- Promotion and advertising messages to support strategy
- Organisation of events and other to support the development and reinforce key communication
- Required infrastructure
How about some quick wins to improve the current situation?
Only three? Here is what he suggested:
Inspection of how PUB CRAWLS are organised and elimination of the same with regulations and controls of venues.
No tolerance policy
Introduction of a working group defined above with clearly defined dates and milestones for development
Improved communication and presentation of issues, results and requirements with the public to gain understanding and support of the process of change the City of Split is going through.
Being such a key player in Croatian tourism, what were his thoughts on the direction of Croatian tourism in general?
He said that he believed Croatia was doing an excellent job in positioning and developing tourism In Croatia. Based on his work with other countries in the world, Croatia is looked upon as a great example of what can be done. However, during this transition, continual changes need to occur and methodology improved. Instead of focusing on numbers of overnights, shift to average spending by guests. Total nights and return visits need to be monitored and communicated to ensure long-term success. Segmentation and specialisation of the market will occur and needs to be supported as certain destinations will transform themselves to certain niches and will not be for all types of guests. This process of change also needs to be managed and supported properly if it is to be successful
And finally, what next for Joe Basic?
He told me that he is currently working on a number of potential major international acts who have not been to Croatia as of yet to perform in 2023 and 2024. Negotiations are positive, and it is clear that these artists desire to perform in Croatia, which is a pleasant change, as it was very difficult to convince major artists in the past to consider or accept Croatia as an option.
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