Is Croatia Finally Becoming the 12-Month Tourist Destination It Should Be?

Total Croatia News

Whisper it quietly, but a number of factors are turning ‘The Mediterrean as It Once Was’ from a summer beach destination into one of Europe’s most exciting and diverse tourism countries going into 2017, 12 months a year. Meet Croatia. 

After almost 15 years living in Croatia (the last third working in tourism), and with not much pause for breath, when one finds the time for reflection, it is truly astonishing the change which has come to this stunning little paradise on the edge of the European Union in just a few years. Change which, as most locals have also been busy with their lives, has largely gone unnoticed in tourism terms. 

For I think it is fair to say that Croatia is finally becoming a year-round, 12-month destination, something that by rights it should always have been, but which a combination of factors are now contributing to a new and exciting phase of the Croatian tourism story, and if the tourism chiefs can strike while the iron is hot, there are happy days ahead for this gorgeous little country. 

But I am getting ahead of myself with my story, so let’s go back to the beginning, to 2002, in the dusty suburbs of the Somaliland capital, Hargeisa, where I was working as an aid worker when an email came through from the UK informing me that I had sold my house. I had already decided to buy a house somewhere outside the UK (was I then a Brexit visionary…), and coming down from the sunset on the terrace for a gin and tonic refill, I was arrested by an advert on CNN as I hunted the precious ice cubes. This is what I saw:

It looked gorgeous. A summer sunshine paradise. I was hooked, and just three months later, in mid-September, I emerged from the public notary in Stari Grad on Hvar with an impressively stamped and sealed contract to prove that I was the owner of my own little slice of Dalmatian paradise in Jelsa.

Which was about when the problems started. My favourite restaurant closed at the end of September… until May! (WTF???). So too the Internet cafe, and then the cafe I frequented, and then the shop, until soon I was wondering if I would be the only thing alive in the town by Christmas.

And while my connections to Britain were not essential (my work was in Tajikistan, Rwanda and other impossible to reach destinations), I was surprised at how hard it was to reach this tourism paradise. To be clear, before the regional conflict in 1991, former Yugoslavia (aka the Croatian coast) was the number two destination for British tourists after Spain, some 440,000 making the trip annually, mostly with Yugotours. Just 11 years later, trying to arrive in Jelsa in October meant a Ryanair flight to either Trieste or Graz, the former followed by a bus to Rijeka and an 11-hour bus to Split plus ferry, the latter a train to Zagreb and overnight train to Split and onward ferry. Not ideal.

And so the announcement today of year-round flights from Dublin to Dubrovnik, coupled with ever stronger rumours that Ryanair are close to a year-round service to Dubrovnik, as well as potential internal flights within Croatia gave me pause for thought, to assess where we had come to since those heady days in 2002. And when one stops for a minute to contemplate, Croatia has come a VERY long way, and the future – properly handed – is rather exciting indeed.

Back then, the tourist season was May to September, if you were lucky, and if the sun wasn’t shining…

Back then, the flight connections were TOTALLY season orientated (let’s not forget that the first low-cost flight into Croatia, with Ryanair to Zadar, was only nine years ago).

Back then, the message was The Mediterranean as It Once Was, those unforgettable three months of summer.  Did the rest of Croatia even exist?

Back then, Croatia had little more to offer in the international perception than sun, sea, beaches and beautiful people. Croatian wines, adventure tourism, inland Croatia? These were concepts yet to be grasped. 

And then something – many things – changed. I am sure there are those who would like to claim that it was all a coordinated plan, but the reality is that there were a series of totally arbitrary factors which happened in close proximity which turned the Mediterranean as It Once Was from a 3-month beach holiday into a viable 12-month destination that few people have grasped, even today. 

In no particular order… 

Anthony Bourdain paid a visit, one of the most impressive PR pieces any country could ever hope to get. Croatian food and wine was suddenly very much on the map.

The Croatian wine story has so much potential, and international expert interest is growing by the week. With those alleged 130 indigenous varieties and a wine tradition which pre-dates Christ, Croatia has something truly unique to offer a wine world which is weary of the same stereotypical international varieties. Fast forward a few years, and the first Master of Wine is making her own wine on Hvar from indigenous Hvar varieties. Croatian regional cuisine slowly opened up to the world. With fantastic variety – from the heavy meat dishes of Slavonia and the truffles of Istria, to the seafood heaven of Dalmatia – the tantalising potential of gourmet Croatia was exposed. Gourmet Croatia – a 12-month tourism heaven just waiting to be discovered. And the international gourmet agencies, looking for something extra to offer to their standard tours of France, Spain and Italy, are getting interested.

I have never been a fan of Ryanair the Experience, but have always had a sneaking admiration for O’Leary the Businessman, and there is no denying that his entry into the Croatian market in 2007 opened the floodgates. In my recollection, the first immediate effect for me on Hvar was the increased flights from Scandinavia with Norwegian, an airline which initially brought tourists until November. More airlines entered the market, with easyJet leading the way, offering 35 connections to Croatian in 2016, and pushing Croatia Airlines for the most popular airline. Split had close to 100 connections throughout Europe, and that season kept on extending, with flights from March until late October. Aer Lingus flying to Dubrovnik all year follows Ryanair’s 12-month commitment to Osijek in Slavonia, and other airlines are following suit. 

A South Korean film crew produced a documentary called The Romantic, narrated by one of the country’s top male pop stars, and featuring 10 single gorgeous young Koreans looking for love in a romantic European country called Croatia. The footage was intoxicating, and 16,000 Korean tourists in 2011 became 400,000 in 2016. 

For South Korean, read Japan, China and Taiwan – all these countries were providing a significantly larger number of tourists than before, and with one crucial thing in common – they all preferred to come out of season. So much so in fact that South Korean tourists are the biggest source of tourists in the first three months of the year in Central Dalmatia, if not elsewhere. If Croatia could learn to coordinate flights and open its restaurants at this time of year on the coast, the potential is frightening. And I smile thinking about my UK commutes back in 2002, when today those Asian (and other tourists) have daily connections to Zagreb from 150 destinations via Doha with Qatar Airways, twelve months a year.

Zagreb became cool. I am off to the capital on Friday, and I am looking forward to it, whereas years ago, the trip would fill me with dread. Just a few years ago, Zagreb was named (I forget where) the most boring capital in central and eastern Europe, a claim I would have agreed with at the time, but these days… Congratulations to those who have effected a magnificent change in such a short space of time. And when Zagreb was voted the best Christmas market destination in Europe, I smiled. Richly deserved, but one more example of Croatia’s new-found status as a 12-month destination, building from the other end – starting winter tourism with Advent and making that season a little longer, year on year.

Split became even cooler. Once known as ‘The Gateway to the Dalmatian Islands’, Split has become one of the hippest destinations in all Europe, and the claim that it could become ‘the new Barcelona’ is not far fetched at all. And while many will focus on Split in the summer, the true transformation for me has been in bringing this majestic city to life in winter. I remember vividly walking through Diocletian’s Palace on the way to the last ferry home at 20:00 in November several years ago – a soulless, depressing experience, with nothing open and nobody to give you directions. Fast forward a decade, and it is arguably the most lively old city in Europe all year round, and Advent in Split goes from strength to strength. In all honesty, my favourite time of year these days to visit the Dalmatian capital.

Enterprising private (and some public) businesses and institutions showed there was a different kind of Croatia, with plenty more to do all year than just sit on the beach. It has been a pleasure to watch Croatia’s immense (and untapped) cycling tourism potential being beamed into up to 130 million homes with the fabulous Tour of Croatia race. Don’t tell organisers Ivan and Vladimir, but it was an honour to meet them both, and they were a key inspiration in the decision to start a national cycling portal, Total Croatia Cycling

Cycling is just one of many 12-month sporting activities available in Croatia. Hiking, sailing, kayaking, climbing – the list goes on, and the potential to develop parts of Croatia into a premium adrenaline park, with the bonus of the beach, culture, gastronomy and some of the most breathtaking views in all Europe, is enticing indeed. 

And let’s not forget – because we always do… – the people who have been practising 12-month tourism since tourism began – continental Croatia. Not blessed with the Adriatic, tourism away from the sea has always had to work a little bit harder, but there is an honesty and creativity away from the beach which I truly admire. Continental tourism, with its non-reliance on the beach, is less seasonal, and one of the many things that made me laugh this year was hearing the thoughts of the official tourism to extend the season, also know as Croatia 365, which wanted to extend the ‘PPS’. An unfamaliar term to continental tourism workers, some joked that PPS (Pre and Post Season) actually defined the extended season as ‘Pada Prvi Snijeg’ (the first snow falls). A symbol of how far detatched, perhaps, continental tourism is from the sexy beach and official thinking. 

So there we are. The year is 2017, the ingredients are chopped and ready to mix. With the right chef, the future for Croatian tourism could be far brighter than perhaps any of us could imagine. An intelligent coordination of the current stakeholders, flights following Dubrovnik’s lead, the development of gourmet, cultural and adventure tourism, and ‘the new Barcelona’ could be just the tip of the iceberg, bringing job security and breathing much-needed life into coastal and island communities from September to May. 




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