November 22, 2018 — The Croatian tourism apparatus will now endure its annual post-summer evaluation.
Statistics must be dissected: How many arrivals? How much was spent?
The service industry exchanges anecdotes en masse: Which nation sent the most visitors? Who were the biggest spenders?
Yet rarely does one get an intimate look into the experience of a Croatian tourist from beginning to end. Until now.
The unnamed traveler matches a coveted demographic within the Croatian tourism industry: an American millennial from the suburbs of Washington DC earning upper-middle-class wages.
The resulting travel diary and/or expense report offers a rare look into the experience of a first-time visitor to Croatia — warts and all.
The piece offers a holistic picture of the Croatian tourism experience: A reasonable traveler guided by word of mouth and not jingoistic advertising campaigns can experience unanticipated delights and exceeded expectations.
Croatia’s Infrastructure: The Dalmatian Sardine Can
Throughout the diary, a theme emerges: Croatia’s crowded. Especially during the height of the tourism season. It spills over into infrastructure headaches.
Immediately on her second day, our unnamed tourist encounters the infamous crowding at Dubrovnik’s Pile Gate, a familiar scene for locals and repeat visitors alike. The traveler must let two busses pass before she finally finding room to hop aboard.
Later during her stay, a warning about four cruise ships depositing its crowds onto Dubrovnik sends her hightailing to Montenegro. She spends close to $150 just to escape for a day, trading the “Pearl of the Adriatic” for an daylong jaunt through Perast, Kotor and Budva.
The hordes make cameos again in her travelogue, in Split, Hvar, Plitvice and later in Zagreb.
This sense of overcrowding reemerges in her jaunts from one location to the other. Her trip from Dubrovnik to Split took nearly six hours because of congestion on the highways. Ditto a bus trip from Zagreb to Plitvice, also extended by crowded roadways.
It was all enough to culminate in a catch-all warning to potential visitors:
“Be prepared, in high tourist season it’s very expensive and crazy-crowded on the Croatian coast,” she writes at the end. “If you’re going to Dubrovnik, pay attention to the cruise schedule and try to avoid the days where there are lots of ships.”
Croatian Service: Delightfully Bespoke
The writer often valorizes locals going beyond a yeoman’s effort to please visitors.
For example: during a trip to the Pakleni Islands, she raves of fresh sea urchin “that our guide plucked from the ocean and pried open right in front of us.”
The pattern repeats itself over and over: an Airbnb host in Hvar takes pains to handle logistics; a hotel restaurant in Split makes an off-the-menu pašticada on a whim; a solo tour goes from worrisome encounter to a delightful friendship.
Along the way, the author learns about the life of a local dependent on tourism: “They work 24/7 during the tourist season and it sounds incredibly stressful, but you’d never know.”
Is Croatia Expensive?
As the travel diary continues, a picture emerges of a conscious, selectively frugal spender. Our unnamed narrator carries her own collapsable water bottle; keeps snacks on hand; and chows on hotel breakfasts whenever possible.
“I am not a fan of hostels or shared accommodations, am willing to pay for good location, and the hotel stays included breakfast so this is where I spent the most,” she writes.
This precise spending reveals itself in her trinket and souvenir expenditures: magnets galore, as well as lavender soaps. But also something more authentic, preferably local. In Dubrovnik, she shelled out extra for filigree earrings and rose moisturizer.
“The earrings and rose cream are very touristy purchases,” she admits, then adds, “but are also so typical of Dubrovnik that they are perfect reminders of my trip.”
She’s also a cost-conscious eater. At no point during her trip does a meal come close to the triple-digit range. Granted, a solo traveler must either splurge on a Michelin Star meal or pig out in excess to cross the $100 threshold in Croatia. She often expresses disbelief at sums on her bills.
Her first meal in Zagreb sets the tone. After people-watching (another cheap-yet-fun experience) on Britanski Trg, she eats at Heritage, a tiny joint specializing in Croatian cuisine which emphasizes the food’s local origins.
The bill offers a delightful sticker shock. “When I finish I’m stuffed, and when I get the bill and figure out the cost in USD I’m shocked how much I got for so little.” She paid $9.
Compare that to the $30-plus meals she regularly eats in Dubrovnik and Split.
Price disparities pop up in a myriad other ways. A cab from the airport to the hotel in Zagreb is $30; the same trip cost her $17 with Uber. (Not surprise anymore.)
All told, the traveler spent $4,603.74 in total. That includes airfare, travel, meals, souvenires and accommodations. That’s about $230 per day — days which included trips to neighboring Montenegro and Slovenia.
So… Has Croatia become too expensive?
Avoiding Well-Worn Paths
The tourism industry in Croatia often feels almost obsessed with online ratings and website recommendations. Yet our traveler’s piece limits her tech-guidance and dependency to three main apps: Airbnb, Uber and Viator.
The rest of her decisions are largely based on serendipity and word-of-mouth — either from locals or fellow travelers. It leads her to unexpected places you won’t find in many brochures or promotional videos.
While in Split, she visits Froggyland.
Yes, Froggyland, “a weird little tourist trap of a museum, but worth the visit and entrance fee,” she writes. “It houses the largest collection of taxidermied frogs, all posed in dioramas performing different activities.
“It was bizarre, but I kind of loved it.”
She takes a small group tour of the Pakleni Islands run by a husband-wife duo which owns and operates “Amazing Hvar”.
The traveler then goes zip-lining in Omiš. It ends up being one of her favorite and most-dissected parts of her trip, with paragraphs-long descriptions. (Plitvice, by comparison, gets a few cursory and well-worn sentences about natural beauty.)
The tail end of her stay in Zagreb inadvertently coincides with an international street performance festival called “Cest Is D’best”, which provides a fallback diversion on quieter days. She also takes a Secret Zagreb tour, which explores the lesser-seen parts of the city.
Yes, there are obvious overtures to Croatia’s natural beauties and pitstops at all the usual hotspots; Dubrovnik’s city walls, Diocletian’s palace and Plitvice all make an appearance.
Yet it’s the strokes of logistical luck which pepper her travelogue with unique and rewarding experiences.
So what can one learn from this singular, yet instructive experience?
A few choice lessons:
There’s a difference between a traveller and a tourist: Many attempts to guide tourists’ gazes can often backfire, or at least distract people from what they set out to experience. The piece’s author seemed most keen on understanding where the locals ate, hung out and found cool. Some restaurant or dish suggested by a local became a must.
People want to understand and experience the lives of locals and fellow travelers. The traveler in this story seemed willing to assimilate, for however little she visited. She even shelled out $55 for a Croatian language audio course.
“It was surprisingly easy to learn enough to speak conversationally and ask directions,” she wrote (she’s in the minority). “But I rarely actually needed to since most people I cam in contact with spoke perfect English.”
There are too many Game of Thrones tours: “I’m going on a Game of Thrones walking tour and am supposed to look for my guide in the square outside the gate holding a GoT flag,” she writes, “which isn’t super helpful because there are at least 3 of them.”
Perhaps Croatia’s entire tourism industry can collectively take a few notes.
To read more about tourism in Croatia, check out TCN’s dedicated page.