The 2nd International Conference on Diaspora Tourism opens in Split on May 17, 2019. In the build-up to the conference, TCN meets some of the returning diaspora who have made a success of life in Croatia. Meet Mate Begonja from near Zadar.
With so many young people emigrating from Croatia due to lack of opportunity, there are a number of the Croatian diaspora looking to move in the opposite direction and return to the Homeland. Few actually make the move, for a variety of reasons: the uncertainty of what awaits, lack of much available information of the realities of the process and experiences, and a reluctance to move from successful Western economies to the struggling Croatian economy.
One man who has successfully made the switch and has been living here for six years is Mate Begonja, who now lives with his family near Zadar. Also known as Mr Chasing the Donkey for his supportive role of his wife’s successful blog of the same name, Mate now runs a successful transfers business covering the whole country.
1. Born in Australia, returned to Croatia, something that many diaspora dream of doing. Tell us briefly about your journey
Our journey begins back in 2010 when my wife, SJ, and I took a sabbatical to explore Europe with Zadar being our base for our adventure. We had a tough few years in the lead-up to the holiday with the sudden death of my father, closely followed by me getting the big C – Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and then relapsing six months later and being hospitalized for months at a time. Those two years of being sick, made us both reflect on what’s important in life and dramatically changed our perspectives on life.
Following this, significant changes were made; we saved a heap of money, quit our jobs and were off to Croatia. In the six months, we spent in Croatia, we fell in love with the lifestyle and the sea and decided we would return to live here permanently and give Croatia a shot!
Fast forward to 2013 and with our 9-month old we finally made the move and with our first plan being to build a house. Once we achieved this, I set about finding a business I could start in Croatia, we tossed up dozens of ideas, wrote many business plans – but many just did not stack up or were impossible to get off the ground with all of the permits and or legal requirements.
Having a private transfers business was one idea we had early on, but with all of the required paperwork involved, we parked the idea (see what I did there?!). Then after some time, I found a local business partner, and we joined forces. With his driving experience, and our sales and marketing knowledge we are now headed into our third season with Octopus Transfers Croatia, achieving significant year-on-year growth with a fleet that covers the entire territory of Croatia.
2. Looking back, what were your hopes, expectations, and fears about moving to Croatia?
I was really excited about the move. The idea of sea change was something I had longed for many years; I guess it was my inner Dalmatian itching to get back to the sea. I was also drawn to having a stronger connection to my ancestral homeland and building something new with my family. I was a little worried about starting a business here, as all I had ever heard were horror stories. So, we took a long time to get going, and we have been extremely cautious with our businesses expansion as a result of those ongoing concerns.
3. How supportive was your Croatian community back home at the time?
My immediate family was very supportive, particularly my mother. As for everyone else, they were mostly supportive to our faces, but behind our backs, we heard how crazy they thought we were for moving here. Many people told us directly how we’d fail, and it was a mistake to leave Australia. Some people still think it’s only a matter of time before Croatia chews us up and spits us out and we return with our tails between our legs – even after six years of enjoying and succeeding at life here.
4. What were the main differences in what you expected to find in Croatia and the reality of living in Croatia?
I was definitely overwhelmed by the negativity. I knew there was a culture of complaining, but not to the extent that I experienced. On a positive note, I never expected winters to be so pleasant on the coast. No tourists, peace and quiet and all those beautiful places you see in the pictures are so much nicer when no one is around.
5. Many diaspora think of returning, but few do. In truth, there is little information out there about real-life stories and help/info about the process. What advice do you have for those who are thinking about making the move?
Before you consider moving you need to know how you will finance your life in Croatia. Currently, there are lots of jobs, but the salaries are not what you may expect or need to live the life you are accustomed to.
My wife also likes to tell people to come and stay for at least six months during the offseason (like we did), to really see what life is like here. And, to speak to lots of people – various types of people who have lived here for 12+ months, I agree with that, as summer and fulltime living in Croatia are not the same.
Starting a business is relatively easy but ensuring you comply with all the relevant laws is not, and navigating the bureaucracy is extremely frustrating. You need to be a dog with a bone and expect the frustrations and inefficiencies – but keep on keeping on no matter what.
6. How were you perceived in Zadar as foreigners/diaspora moving back – was the welcome warm?
Some people were great – we made some great local friends, some continue to be perplexed by our choice to live in Croatia, and the others just think we are downright stupid. To some extent, I understand their point of view but I am very persistent, determined and adaptable and I don’t let their thoughts impact me.
7. Through a lot of hard work, you have been very successful, while many foreigners have given up and left Croatia. What are the keys to success in doing business in Croatia in your opinion?
It’s actually no different to anywhere else in the world. You need to have a great product or service, killer marketing, advertising, a motivated & empowered team, top customer service and consistently deliver on all of these things.
8. What is the diaspora community like in Zadar and how integrated is it with locals?
I always hear that there are a lot of diaspora here in Zadar, but, the diaspora community in Zadar is somewhat fragmented in my experience. We have lovely local friends and great diaspora/expat friends, though I am not aware of a community that effectively connects the two. If there is I’d like to know.
9. And finally, a word on this conference. What are you hoping to get out of it?
I’m hoping to meet others like myself here in Croatia and share experiences and ideas about the future of Croatia. There are some truly inspirational people attending the conference who have really kicked big business goals in Croatia, so I’m interested to hear them speak and learn a thing or two. And maybe, just maybe, inspire another young family to come to join us in Croatia.
To learn more about the 2nd International Conference on Diaspora Tourism in Split on May 17-18, check out the official programme in English and Croatia.
For the latest TCN coverage of the Croatian diaspora, check out our dedicated section.