A Tourism Blueprint for Croatia, from the Oldest Town in Europe

Total Croatia News

Did you know that the oldest continuously inhabited town in Europe is in Croatia? That and several other thought-provoking ideas from Goran Rihelj, founder and driver of Croatia’s best tourism portal HRTurizam. TCN caught up with Goran on March 16, 2017. 

You come from a town which is the oldest consistently inhabited town in Europe, and yet most people outside Croatia have never heard of it. Explain!
Incredible, but true. People still look at me in wonder when I promote and tell that story.

Sad, but not even most Vinkovci residents know they are living in the oldest town in Europe and the cradle of European civilization, so why expect someone from Zagreb, Istria or Dalmatia to know this, not to mention tourists from the entire Europe.

Unfortunately we Croats do not respect ourselves, our tradition and culture. Just the opposite, as if we are ashamed although this is our biggest value and comparative advantage. Croatia doesn’t have one story, but thousands of stories as well as thousands of islands and I wonder when will we finally understand that tourists want our story. This is the essence of tourism – meeting and exploring new cultures and ways of living, history, identity, gastronomy, experience… this is why people travel, this is tourism, is it not?

We have to tell our indigenous and credible stories, be proud, respect ourselves and our rich history, way and culture of living and in the end be and sell the fact that we are Croats.

This is the story which we must tell and this must be our main tourism product.

To summarize, is there a better motive to travel in Europe than the cradle of European civilization? Absolutely not. And yes, I stand by the claim that Vinkovci can attract a million tourists each year and that the salvation of Slavonia is not in agriculture nor large industries, but in tourism.

Your website HRTurizam is probably the most popular dedicated tourism website in Croatian. Why did you start it, and how is it going?
It all began with one idea, one letter and one blog. First at Medium.com and after a few blogs in Večernji’s blogosphere.

After another absurd situation in tourism I decided I would write a blog as I simply did not understand why so much absurdity happens in our tourism, and I felt the need to share my opinion of tourism with others. By the way, I had never written before nor had similar experience with journalism or blogs, in fact I didn’t really know the true form of a blog. But, we live in the 21st century, large knowledge is completely free and it is only a question if we want it or not. I decided to make use of the endless tool of free knowledge to learn something new. After a year and a half of writing blogs I decided to start the first expert tourism news portal, researched the market, made a concept and business plan and began a new adventure. Today the portal is positioned as the leading tourism medium and main source of information in tourism for tourism workers in Croatia. Also, I solved a market issue and based the business model as a direct channel of communication toward the tourism sector.

I am personally very proud of the results, especially since I do everything on my own. The portal has outgrown one person, but after 15 months I push on, writing five articles per day, managing sales, researching and fighting. There is plenty of room to grow, but now the main focus is to have the entire project self-sustainable so I can live off of it and develop it further. I have many more ideas, but am taking it slow as I began, long-term and quality, step by step.

You are obviously very passionate about your home town and Croatian tourism in general. Explain what it feels like to be surrounded by such a great tourism story like Vinkovci, which nobody knows about?
Frustrating in the least.

“Greetings from the oldest town in Europe!” is how my every e-mail ends for the past eight years, ever since I moved from Zagreb to Vinkovci and found out Vinkovci is the oldest town in Europe. Since then until today I sent thousands of e-mails with a clear and direct message, come and experience the oldest town in Europe. Such a banal thing, but yet so powerful.

One ordinary, every day and simple message or greeting which is part of my personal everyday private and business communication, whether through e-mail, Facebook or LinkedIn, even SMS. But, this “ordinary” greeting has such a large meaning, power, symbolism and story I could write essays on the topic. This greeting tells a story of identity, history, culture, way of life, self-respect, belonging and in the end, not less important, a huge potential, vision and future of Vinkovci.

Why don’t other citizens and entrepreneurs communicate in the same way in the town on the Bosut river, also the only river in the world that flows both upstream and downstream? Shouldn’t we all aim to promote local tourism and destination, especially those who are in tourism, catering and economy? All entrepreneurs, small, medium or large, would benefit from this. Firstly and primarily they would be ambassadors of Croatian tourism, while promoting and supporting Vinkovci as a tourism destination and oldest town in Europe would bring them benefit – income.

If Vinkovci are visited by thousands or millions of tourists annually, tourism spending is generated which disperses horizontally and vertically to other town industries, including entrepreneurs, who don’t have a direct connection with tourism. The generated income would remain in Vinkovci and citizens will spend it to build homes, buy furniture, education, culture and all other products and services in town. This is the largest power and advantage of tourism.

But, an even greater problem is this story is not told locally. Is it not logical when you first arrive to a hotel in Vinkovci to be greeted with “Welcome to the oldest town in Europe, how may I help you.” Then you hear the story, get positive reactions and great starting position for further communication, maybe even sell an Orion souvenir and create additional profit for the hotel.

I am absolutely certain that “every” European tourist wants to see and experience Vinkovci, the oldest town in Europe with continuous inhabitation over 8.300 years, as well as see Orion, the oldest calendar in Europe, far more advanced and 350-400 years older than Stonehenge.

We have absolutely the best motive of traveling in Europe, and when tourists are here than we sell and tell all our other stories from Baranja to Ilok, of excellent gastronomy and culture, heritage and rich history. All these stories must be well packaged into a complete tourism product and told, i.e. sold.

We have something to be proud of, but must firstly and primarily respect ourselves, for others to respect us. It is tragic that Vinkovci and Vukovar are not on the tourism map of the world as a place where European civilization was born and developed. The potential and story is here, the rest is up to us if we will know how to make use of it.

You have been critical about several aspects of Croatian tourism promotion. What is your vision?
The answer is so simple, we are still not managing tourism but stumbling upon it. Hence, we must begin to deal with it through strategic development of tourism destinations and long-term. We don’t know what we want, where we’re going and what we’re selling. We also don’t develop destinations strategically so everything is due to inertia, without a long-term plan. We must know what our tourism product is, this is key. Tourism is too complex to be developed by inertia or accident. One of the main problems is seasonality, and the solution to this problem is quality and diverse substance, not selling sun and sea.

First and foremost we must begin to respect ourselves, sell ourselves and begin to sell authentic tourism stories. When our heads and in the field we arrange these three elements, we can move on to strategies, promotion and quality development, i.e. finally dealing with tourism through strategic development of tourism destinations.

But, first things first – if viewed through the prism of tourism we definitely don’t respect nor value our culture, history or heritage, just the opposite, as if we are ashamed of it. Paradoxically, this is our greatest advantage. The motive of travel is not accommodation, but tourism destination. Tourism destination must begin to respect its customs, culture, identity and offer it to guests as the main tourism product. This is the point of tourism, experiencing and meeting new cultures and ways of living. Respect ourselves as this is how other will respect us.

When we understand and settle this, we must final be and sell what we are – Istrians, Dalmatians, Slavonians… Croats. Be who we are – authentic and credible! This is the story we must tell and this must be our main tourism product. In the end it must be well packaged and tell our authentic and credible stories. Tourism is about emotions, experience and stories. Let us tell stories. Every region has so many incredible authentic stories, we just have to tell them. This is the point of tourism.

Also, the essence of tourism is to maximize local resources, to have it self-sustainable and for local residents to get a better quality of life. Is this the case with us? The issue is with tourism content, not just pure form and counting overnights and arrivals.

Only a rounded tourism product, strategic development and quality content can we develop tourism long-term and with quality. First strategic planning, then building and developing, not the other way around.

When people think about Croatian tourism, the coast usually comes to mind, perhaps understandably. Tell us about continental Croatia, and why tourists should visit.
A theory going around for years is that continental tourism cannot attract millions of guests. A theory which has no basis nor arguments, in fact reality is quite the opposite – continental tourism can and must attract millions of tourists.

We are unfortunately far from this vision and continental tourism holds about 2 percent of tourism traffic. The largest problem is that we are not dealing with tourism, as well as continental tourism, strategically. Sea tourism has a secure base of tourists each year, while with continental tourism this is not the case. The one who consumes continental tourism, comes with a purpose and it must be much larger and better, as there is no sea and a thousand islands.

Continental tourism can have a tourism season of at least 10 months in which we can make as much income as three months of sea tourism. In fact, I am certain we can make even more. The only problem is that we only have stories, without services and infrastructure – audio without the video.

Yes, it cannot be today, it cannot be tomorrow, nor in three years, but certainly the potential of continental tourism can be turned into a rich resource in five or more years. It all begins with a passionate idea and vision. Naturally if we want it to.

Bavaria, Austria and Switzerland are excellent examples how to develop continental tourism. In Croatia during 2016 we had 16.3 million arrivals and 91.3 million overnights, while Austria during 2015 made a total of 113.7 million overnights.

It is interesting how Austria makes more overnights in the summer than in winter. In 2015 in winter Austria was visited by 17 million tourists who made 64.5 million overnights, while in the summer 20 million arrived and made 67.2 million overnights. Total income of Austrian tourism is 22.7 billion euro, 12.7 billion in the winter, slightly more than in summer as these are guests with better financial status.

In 2016 we expect a record income from tourism of around 9 billion euro, with a plan to reach 14 billion by 2020. Hence, there is more than enough room to grow, but we must deal with tourism strategically, long-term and self-sustainably. Tourism is too complex for it to develop accidentally or by inertia.

Switzerland and Austria have no sea, but can make money from tourism. London sold and branded rain, and we don’t know how to sell sun and sea, let alone continental tourism.

We have the most important substance of continental tourism – incredible stories. Tourism is about emotions, experience and stories. We just need to package them well. Slavonia is lacking investments in infrastructure, development of a rounded tourism product and branding and promotion, a call to action.

When talking to people they find Slavonia exotic and want to come, but unfortunately don’t have a rounded tour product.

One of the issues, in tourism generally, and Slavonia as well is that we are not branding and selling the region. To Zagreb residents and the rest of Croatia, not to mention foreign tourists, Slavonia goes from Baranja, Osijek, Požega, Slavonski Brod, Vukovar to Ilok. Just like Šibenik, Zadar and Split are Dalmatia.

Tourists don’t have the borders we set for towns, counties and tourism does not know boundaries. Also, if we were to brand entire Slavonia as a region we would have clear communication, more financial means, clear development strategy and defined brand. Most importantly, we could offer a rounded tourism product of 7-14 days full of content, experiences and stories. And the motive of travel is not accommodation, but content of the tourism destination.

The entire Slavonia takes up around 12.500 square kilometres, while popular Tuscany holds around 23.000, almost twice as much. But does anyone know Tuscany is made up of towns Arezzo, Florence, Grosseto, Livorno, Lucca, Massa-Carrara, Pisa, Pistoia, Prato and Siena. No, as the entire region was branded as Tuscany.

And finally, three of your favourite places which tourists should visit, but almost never do – and why are they your favourites?
First and foremost let’s explore ourselves and all the wonderful stories and corners of our homeland which is still unexplored. Be a tourist in your own town or county, you will be surprised by the things you don’t know. But if I must choose three destinations then I recommend you meet and experience Slavonia, the continental area of Croatia and inland Istria.

We have thousands of incredible stories, as well as islands, we only need to discover and experience them.

Greetings from the oldest town in Europe.


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