Cycling Tourism in Croatia, What to do With the Potential?

Total Croatia News

INterview with one of the pioneers of cycling tourism in Croatia Martin Čotar

Photo credits: HTZ. TZ Istria, TZ Gorski Kotar

So far, Total Croatia News has covered various types of tourism, their potential, future and shortcomings, and now it’s time to turn the spotlight on cycling tourism. This tourism niche is recording a 20% growth globally, and since more than 650 000 people were employed by this particular branch of the industry in Europe alone, we can see how influential it is. Apart from direct effects on tourism, cycling tourism has other significant effects from development of the local economy, decrease in global pollution to direct positive effect on people’s health. So, where is Croatia when it comes to cycling tourism? Are we fully exploiting our vast potential or should we be looking closely at other successful cycling destinations and following their examples of good practice?

In order to answer those, and many other questions, colleague Goran Rihelj spoke to the pioneer of cycling tourism in Croatia, Martin Čotar, in his extensive interview for

How did the Croatian cycling tourism story begin?

It all started in Istria in 2004, when we started from scratch, we didn’t have much in terms of infrastructure, but we had a lot of energy and we were determined to succeed. Istrian Development Agency (IRA) we founded, and it cooperated with the County and tourist boards from day one. That was a great foundation for future development because without the synergy of all factors, you cannot expect success. We soon realized that the concept was great and that we do have lots of potential so we developed our own know-how with the help of our colleagues from Italy. As cycling tourism grew and developed each year, more and more people started hiring us to help and educate them. A separate department was developed within the Istrian Development Agency that only deals with the development of cycling and adventure tourism in Istria. Today, that separate department has its own sources of financing so now we are developing other adventure tourism niches such as trace, walking and free climbing. All in all, we can serve as a great example of how to develop tourism in a certain tourist destination.

What is the current state of cycling tourism in Croatia and do we still have potential for development and expansion?

Croatia has an amazing potential for cycling tourism, and we already have some flagship examples such as Istria and Međimurje. Personally, I think eastern Croatia has a far greater potential than currently realized and that is the area where cycling tourism should be developed with great care and striving for high quality. Istria has gone the farthest, but that is no wonder considering how many years we’ve been investing in this kind of tourism, the offer is expanding constantly, quality is continuously rising so we have rounded up that story. Dalmatia might have invested less and started working on it a bit later, but along with Istria, it has the most attractive landscape which is the main arrival motif for cycling tourists.

Destinations in the mainland must compensate for the lack of attractive coastal landscape with stories and better offers. Main prerequisites for the development of cycling tourism are, of course, infrastructure and connecting all factors in tourism from cultural institutions to family homesteads. We need to point out that, just like in any other business, it is important to continually work on development, not just in few surges. We have great potential, we just need to package it well and sell it.

In Croatia, cycling tourism became a trend in the last few years, which is of course commendable, but this brings us back to the beginning of our story. When it comes to this segment of our tourism, destinations are prone to ad hoc developments, most of the time it all comes down to simply marking the cycling trails on a county or city map. This is not enough because for us to talk about any sort of quality, we have to have the basic infrastructure. How do we define the necessary infrastructure and what are the real problems in the field?

We have two basic problems. Non existence or very bad cycling signals is the first one. Cycling is closely connected to sport, recreation, transport, tourism and health, but the problem arises in destinations that are not developed enough because they treat cycling as a mere form of transport. This is what separates a good destination for the less developed one because developed ones perceive it as an activity with great effect on tourism. In Croatia, tourism – cycling signalization is either nonexistent or very vaguely defined. Tourist corridors are officially marked as cycling routes and this method is just not applicable for tourism purposes.  

So, to be more concrete, if you move away from the roads, then you are not a vehicle, you are a tourism tool, and a cycling path goes somewhere where tourist and cycling content exists. Once you get off the roads, “official” signalization is not adequate for tourists or cyclists. What we have implemented in Istria is signalization which is minimal on the surface, clearly defined, correctly marked and standardized in the right way. The most important message to portray is that cycling is a form of tourism, not a form of transport.

Second problem we are encountering with the development of cycling paths is that they are defined by content and not per path. Paths are easy to draw on a map – you are cycling a bit along the road, a bit in the woods, but the problem is in our standards, the fact that we are not connecting all the factors and that the development of a real cycling path is quite expensive. There are some half-way solutions, if the destination does not have the finances, then you create a path, develop a GPS entry, description and place those digital maps online, even if the path itself is still not marked out there on the field. 

So, what is the solution, what would be the next steps we have to take to further develop cycling tourism in Croatia?

Until we can invest more and entice investments in proper signalization and infrastructure, until we define general standards, the situation will remain as it is now.

What would be your advice for tourist destinations looking to develop cycling tourism, apart from all the factors we mentioned earlier? How can they be competitive?

Cycling tourism should have some basic components developed in order to make any destination competitive. First component includes signalization, paths, maps, brochures, good websites as well as video and photo materials and of course expert staff –that would be the standard starting point. The second component is the synergy of tourism with all other complementary service and hospitality components. If you are a tourist that arrived to a destination to enjoy the surroundings, yes, you expect to find proper infrastructure and cycling paths, but you also want to eat well, find good accommodation, try the local wines, see the cultural and historical sites – in short, we are talking about the standard forms of tourism with a special accent on cycling.

Every tourism niche is different and complex in its own way, and knowing your target groups is essential. What is the profile of cycling tourists coming to Croatia and what are their main arrival motives?

Their motives are different as well as target groups. We have two main categories – professional cyclists and recreational ones. However, our focus is on recreational cyclists, and we separate them in several categories because their arrival motives are different.  We have families that come during the cycling season and use the entire cycling infrastructure and offer. Active recreational cyclists between 40 and 50 who are in great physical shape, well situated, good spenders with clear wishes and needs, They want good wine, great food and high quality offer – they know what they want and they are willing to pay for it.  We have older groups between 50-60 years of age that usually arrive in pre-season, again, great spenders, they like leisurely cycling programmes and they are interested in the entire tourist offer of a destination. It is important to note that the average spending of cycling tourists is approximately 65 – 70 Euro or more per day.

One of the biggest problems of Croatian tourism is its seasonality, and the development of cycling tourism is one way we can help reduce that is with cycling tourism. Cycling tourism is important in this task because it can fill up our entire season, especially in pre and post season. Ideal weather conditions for cycling in Croatia are from February until November, so we are talking about nine months. This is one of the reasons why cycling tourism is included in the Development strategy of Croatian tourism 2020, and the goal is to position Croatia as one of the leading cycling tourism destinations on the Mediterranean.  

What is the support and cooperation with the Croatian Tourist Board, especially when we know that cycling tourism is one of the key segments of tourism development in Croatia?

As I have already mentioned, cycling tourism is a great way to extend our season and it fits perfectly into the Croatia 365 project. This year we are experiencing an increase of interest for staff education as well as for the development of cycling tourism in general, which is great news. Institutions have finally realized that along with infrastructure and promotion, they need to have qualified and well educated staff, and given that both the Croatian Tourist Board and the Ministry of Tourism are both focusing on active tourism and cycling, they are financing several programmes and seminars. In 2015 we had 5 seminars and educational programmes in Split, Slavonia and Kvarner. I am hoping this positive trend will continue. We really do need educated staff as well as continuous investments and development of cycling tourism.

For the first time, this year we had the “Tour of Croatia” race and because of the great media interest that followed it, it really placed Croatia on the map as a cycling destination. So, the conclusion would be that we do have the prerequisites – potential, experience, people, competence, nature, great surroundings and climate. The foundations are there, now the only question is, do we really want cycling tourism or not?


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