July 26, 2019 – Named the top destination in former Yugoslavia in 1983, many locals are complaining of the worst peak season in Jelsa for quite some time. So what is the situation on the ground and – more importantly – can tourism be improved? A TCN case study concludes that it can, quite easily.
It is almost 17 years since I took the ferry from Drvenik to Sucuraj on August 15, 2002 to visit the island of Hvar for the first time in search of a house. Having driven through the empty villages of eastern Hvar, arriving in Jelsa in full swing in peak season was a joy. It was love at first sight, and less than 48 hours later, I departed, having found a small house in the old town that would soon become my home.
The town has been very good to me over the years, and I lived in Jelsa with my lovely wife and two gorgeous daughters, before moving to Varazdin County a couple of years ago. Over those years, it has been sad to watch the lack of development of tourism in such a beautiful spot, but nothing was quite as bad as what I experienced returning this summer. When I say bad, I mean in terms of the number and quality of tourists – Jelsa this summer is as gorgeous as I have ever known it, and if you are looking for a late holiday, there are plenty of options. Come visit!
Obviously the Mayor of Jelsa’s decision to publicly announce that he was suing me last summer put a cloud on things somewhat. I am sure I will find out what the lawsuit is about when it finally arrives, but in the meantime, I would like to pay tribute to him for the significant success he has had with EU funds and improving the infrastructure and look of the town, including the new waterfront. I won’t pretend that I like all the improvements, but a lot has been achieved.
When it comes to tourism, however, the same is not true – at least in my opinion.
Several years ago, a small lunchtime blog of mine became the number one story in Croatia for the day, as well as the subject for local discussion for weeks. The Politics of Christmas Decorations: We Don’t Celebrate Christmas Here Some locals objected to the fact that the main square had a five-pointed star symbolic of Yugoslavia. It was taken down one lunchtime and replaced with a Star of Bethlehem, an act I witnessed and blogged about. The reaction was huge, and right down the main faultlines of Croatian society. I felt for the Mayor, as he really was in a no-win situation, but I immediately advised him not to do what he planned. It was a nice idea, but…
HIs very sensible compromise was to put both stars up, which was all very well in a non-tourist town.
“It is a nice idea but if you do that, you will be officially launching the first two-star tourist destination in Croatia.”
The two stars stayed, and so too has the two-star tourism strategy. Which is why Jelsa tourism is in such an impoverished position.
It doesn’t have to be.
I can understand that the Mayor’s focus has been more on the grand plans to develop Jelsa and its infrastructure, and that the focus has been less on tourism. After all, we are now on our fourth Jelsa Tourist Board director in 5 years, and the new website is at least 4 years in the works.
I have spent a couple of weeks talking to LOTS of people in Jelsa about the destination, getting their views. I have documented parts of the current season, and I have applied some of my knowledge and observations with a foreign eye, and I offer up a set of recommendations and solutions to make tourism in Jelsa better as early as next season. In order to get to the recommendations, I think it is important that we see openly and honestly how bad things have become. Only then can we acknowledge the current situation and look at ways to improve.
Fasten your seatbelts.
Where is Jelsa now?
As the Minister of Tourism has decided to restrict access to the transparent, internationally award-winning eVisitor system, it is hard for me to say with authority how bad the season is, but there are plenty of clues if you look around.
Jelsa is not blessed with the best hotels (more on that later), but their locations are fantastic. And so are the prices. Book today and you can get 7 nights half-board, free WiFi and parking, for a couple and child under 12 for a total price of 3980 kuna, or 535 euro total for the family of three. No need to spend any money downtown, you have all you need at the hotel with the beach and some drinks and supplies you brought with you. And that family of three clocks up 21 overnights for the Temple of Record Overnights statistics.
These are the prices today when I was preparing this article. If you are looking for a late booking, then please come. Jelsa is GORGEOUS at the moment, and this is really great value right by a fantastic beach. Here is a link to the agency selling the package. Once you take off the agency fees, taxes and operating costs, I am guessing there is not that much left. But at least we have 21 overnights for the hallowed spreadsheet.
Makarski Jadran – 12:30 on July 20
The other major source of tourism – actually the main, these days – are the tourist boats that come from Makarska for an hour or two. The general itinerary is a fish picnic with stop-offs in Bol and Jelsa (sometimes Vrboska), then back to Makarska. The best-known of these is the legendary Makarski Jadran, which certainly wakes up the town as it enters and leaves each day. Get a taste of that and also how Jelsa looked at 12:30 o July 20.
Each boat pays I think 25 kuna per metre to come to Jelsa (it used to be one kuna per passenger, I think, but someone please correct me if I have that wrong) – although someone told me that stays of less than two hours are as low as 2 kuna per metre. If anyone knows how much Makarski Jadran pays, for example, please send me into with link, and I will amend.. There are about 1000 visitors to Jelsa each day in the season on these boats. I have watched them for years. They get off, not knowing exactly where they are, or what to do. They tend to head to the main square as that looks like the centre. Then they walk into the old town but soon come back, stopping for an ice cream or beer until the boats leave one or two hours later. And then, as you see above, the town goes back to sleep. It is gorgeous, especially in this era of overtourism.
Main square – 20:45 on July 8
With our price-conscious hotel guests safely enjoying a stunning sunset back at the hotels, there is plenty of space in the bars and restaurants. Apparently, more restaurants in Jelsa shut than opened for the first time in a number of years. The main square at 20:45 on July 8.
Main square and the entire waterfront and visit to Lavanderman – 20:30 on July 21
As the special offers at the hotels were further reduced in July, more of those hallowed overnight stays were created, which sadly were not translated into full restaurant tables. A fuller length tour of the main square and the waterfront at 20:30 on July 21.
Main square – 22:40 on July 21
Maybe everyone was busy and could not make it down until later? The main square at 22:40 the same evening. I posted quite a few of these on my Facebook wall (apologies to my FB friends) because I wanted to document the reality when the inevitable will happen when the statistics are announced. We will be blinded by science and spreadsheets about numbers and overnights. Those Ukranian 21 overnights will cover up the real situation to save some ministerial embarrassment. As the hotels are filling with low-cost half-board tourists, the restaurants are complaining that the higher-spending guests, such as Norwegians, are a lot less this year. Does 21 Ukrainian half-board overnights equal 21 Norwegians in private accommodation and eating in the restaurants and drinking in the bars? For the spreadsheets, they are the same. For tourism revenue to Jelsa businesses, I would put the ratio at 21:3.
And please don’t think I have anything against Ukrainians – I love Ukraine and enjoyed my time there (and we have a lovely Ukrainian Jelsa story below), and you are very welcome in Jelsa. You found a great deal in a great location with a great beach. Enjoy.
So it seems that the current state of tourism in Jelsa is that we have about a thousand boat passengers in the morning which generate a few thousand kuna in fees (or perhaps considerably less) and whatever they spend on an ice cream, the hotels are possibly not even breaking even with the deals they are offering, and the restaurants are desperately trying to attract a shrinking number of higher-quality guests.
It doesn’t have to be that way. And now that we have an overview of the situation, how do we improve things?
What is the brand of Jelsa?
Tourism began in Jelsa in 1911 with the opening of Hotel Jadran. One hundred years later, in October 2011, I started Total Hvar, the birthplace of TCN. One of the first articles I did was about Jelsa and 100 years of tourism. Apart from one short article in Slobodna Dalmacija, there was no mention of the centenary whatsoever, which struck me as strange.
As I got more into writing about tourism on Hvar, I found myself asking what kind of destination was Jelsa selling itself as, and what is its brand?
It is a question I am still asking 8 years later, and still nobody seems to know. And if we don’t know our brand of what we are selling, in an increasingly competitive market both within Croatia and globally, how can tourists?
So I posted three questions on Facebook – my own wall and a closed Jelsa group which someone had obviously added me to.
1. What is Jelsa’s brand and target market?
2. What is Jelsa’s unique selling point?
3. What direction do you think Jelsa should take with its tourism?
I was struck by the answers that nobody had any clear defining brand of Jelsa after more than 100 years of tourism. There were some comments and relaxing, wine, family-friendly and the general feeling was summed up by this answer, for me at least:
1. Jelsa today is not “branded”. Now regarding the type of destination, I’d say it’s a reasonably pleasant, family-friendly town
We had a very good discussion in the closed group until the admin came on (it turned out the group was run by the Deputy Mayor, who accused me of self-promotion and something else – I forget what). When I asked what her views about Jelsa’s brand, the thread was deleted. I have heard many people talking of the suppression of opinion in recent years in Jelsa, but had not realised it also extended to closed groups. Thankfully, technology is our friend, and the Snipping Tool really is useful in these situations.
So the number one early problem for Jelsa is that it does not know what it is, and so nor does anyone else. Without a brand, or a unique selling point, why would anyone consider coming unless they already knew about it?
So let’s give Jelsa an identity and a brand. How about…
Relaxed Family Lifestyle in the Dalmatian Wine Capital
The Dalmatian wine capital? Is there really any special wine story in Jelsa? Well actually, a lot more than you might think. And there is no town in Dalmatia with such a wine tradition as Jelsa. Or with so many quality producers in the town. Croatian wine is growing in popularity, and wine tours are on the rise. And there is no better place than Jelsa to explore. Yesterday, I wrote a big piece related to this on how to develop gourmet tourism on Hvar without spending much money. Learn more about the concept of Hvar Wine Time Traveller and the island of the Dalmatian Wine Capital with UNESCO Mediterranean Diet.
You see what I did there? Jelsa is no longer just a reasonably pleasant family-friendly town, but one famous for wine, healthy food and relaxed living. Tell me more!
How to optimise the Makarski Jadran tourist boats?
But while we wait for the branding to take effect, what can we do to maximise the tourism we already have? Let’s look at those 1,000 people on the morning tourist boats. Currently, they are left to wander around like lost sheep. Most have no idea what to do, or even where they are. So let’s give them some content. If they are staying in Makarska, maybe they could fall in love with that brief introduction to the Relaxed Family LIfestyle in the Dalmatian Wine Capital. Maybe they are still undecided where they are going next and could even come this season.
But if Jelsa accepts this kind of tourism, let’s give them opportunities to spend money and fall in love for the next time. There are SO many things that those tourists can experience in that 1-2 hours, then leave more contented and with a greater awareness for next time. The amazing Gamulin chocolate store, an introduction to the wines of the capital of Dalmatian wine, a folklore performance at St. John’s Square, a walking tour of Jelsa to get an overview, a tour to the OPG on the road to Pitve with all the island herbs and plants. a greeting from Lavanderman and tour of Dalmacijaland. And so on. Prepare a leaflet with 10 things to do during your first visit to Jelsa and get the boats to distribute them. It will take some effort (unfortunately proper tourism does), but visitors will leave with a better knowledge of Jelsa and what it has to offer for next time. If one could get very organised, perhaps the boats could get numbers of who wanted to do what in advance.
Stop hiding behind poor hotels as an excuse for poor tourism
The hotels are not great, and some good 4-star hotels would help transform the town in the same way as happened to Bol.
But there are plenty of other destinations which do not have great hotels and they manage. Vis does not have that many hotel beds or many of high quality, and it does more than ok. Solta only has seven hotel beds on the entire island.
The key to moving Jelsa forward if the hotels will not change lie in the private accommodation sector, which seems to me to be well down this year.
Create your own quality hotel in time for next season – and include the neighbours
So why not combine the two? Create a diffuse hotel and work with the 4-star apartments and villas in Jelsa, Vrboska and even Stari Grad. Those private renters would want to contribute to the project – there might even be EU funding for it. In the days of technology, hotels can exist almost as a website, which tells you where to check in – directly at your apartment. Build a concierge service and a reception area downtown where they can come for more information. Keep it open 24 hours a day and provide good service.
Return to Jelsa’s sporting roots: Create the first Run Croatia Week – they are ready to do it!
Jelsa used to be a popular destination for sport, and Hajduk came for winter training, as well as others I can no longer remember. It has one of the best rowing clubs in the country, one of the best chess teams in the country, and good sporting facilities, including football pitch and large sports hall. What can we do to return some focus to Jelsa’s sporting traditions?
One of the most successful tourism start-up businesses I follow is called Run Croatia. They are slowly building a national network of races and a healthy living lifestyle, working with airlines, hotels, clinics, restaurants etc. It is impressive to watch them grow. You can read more about the project in this extended TCN feature. I asked Bero and Iva how they would feel about working with Jelsa to make it their first-ever Run Croatia Week. And they said yes!
A week in Jelsa, with access to the sporting facilities and the relaxed family lifestyle in the Dalmatian capital of wine, with perhaps three races for adults – a 5km, 10km and 21km or trail, as well as some runs for the kids. They are waiting for Jelsa’s call.
Recognise that neighbouring destinations are not competition but add value
The tourism offers of your neighbours add to yours, and they are not competition. Imagine someone coming to the Dalmatian capital of wine to explore as many different experiences in a week. Wouldn’t a day trip to Bol to try the Stina and Senjkovic wineries be a great addition?
Use the tourism budget to promote tourism not reward nepotism
It took me quite some time to figure out how Croatian tourism works, and that the budgets for promotion are not necessarily used to promote tourism. Or if they are, there is an element of nepotism there. You do this for me and I will make sure you have money for your event, that kind of thing. I am also constantly amazed at the ratio of locals (lots) to tourists (few) at many of the official tourism events. Of course there should be things for locals, but shouldn’t the emphasis of the tourism budget be on entertaining tourists? I have heard lots of tourists comment on how much they enjoyed the wine tasting events with live music at St. John’s Square, but am yet to hear of one who was raving at the dialect poetry nights in the park.
Join the digital revolution and steal a march on the others – here’s how
Earlier this summer, I met a very nice Russian/Ukrainian couple from Munich. They had been living in Jelsa for three months from April 1 – June 30, and they wanted to return for the same dates next year, renting our apartment. They took Croatian lessons, were active in the community. Their day consisted of an early swim and coffee, then online office work in Munich. When they closed their laptops, they went for another swim and then went shopping for food or out to dinner. Working in Munich, spending in Jelsa. You can read much more about this and why Croatia is perfectly poised to take advantage of an industry which will have an estimated 1 billion digital nomads by 2035.
A little like being first with Run Croatia Week, why not do something bold. Talk to the regional and national authorities and offer Jelsa as the first digital nomad island destination in Croatia. Invite 50 nomads to come for a month with free accommodation (max two from each country) and then work hard to make them happy. They will tell friends, fellow nomads, and their social media posts and hashtag #DigitalJelsa will give Jelsa great exposure. Get some funding to open a Jelsa co-working space, so people can get their business done while here if they need to.
Highlight the strong bonds over the years through stories
The relaxed family destination in the Dalmatian wine capital. Tourism these days is so hurried, as people rush from place to place. If Jelsa really is the relaxed family lifestyle destination – and it is – then let’s tell some stories which highlight that. Bring out the warmth and the love of those tourists who have been coming for 20 years and more. Talk about the friendships made, and let the people who can present Jelsa the best have their say – the tourists totally in love with Jelsa. A relaxed family lifestyle in the Dalmatian wine capital with loyal and happy visitors. They are your best ambassadors.
Develop ties and tourism with the other Jelsa… in Norway
Did you know that there is one other Jelsa outside Croatia – a fishing community in Norway? Over seven years ago, when Norwegians were coming in greater number to Croatian Jelsa, I thought that this would be a cool way to develop tourism ties between the two Jelsas. And so I wrote to them, and received a reply:
“Some time ago I received an e-mail from the tourist office in Suldal. I understand that they had received a mail from you, but unfortunately I have not read your mail myself. I am sorry you had to wait so long for an answer, but here it is. I am a teacher at the local school in Jelsa, Suldal. Our school is quite small, 19 pupils (six to twelve years old) and four teachers + one head master.
“It would indeed be nice for us to get to know people in the Croatian city called Jelsa. As far as I know the name is not used anywhere else. As I teach English, it would be nice if I can ask my pupils to write letters to children in Jelsa, Croatia, and that we can learn something about your country and city.”
Excited, I replied, copying the then Mayor and tourist board director. The teacher never got a reply. Worth trying again?
Family destinations need content for kids
Just something to think about.
(Photo credit Paolo Buncuga)
Za Krizen procession and tradition – a huge opportunity
The Holy Week Za Krizen (Behind the Cross) procession on Maundy Thursday is one of the most incredible traditions in Croatia. It has taken place year on year for 500 years, and the honour to carry the cross is significant. The actual procession is not meant for tourists but it is quite a spectacle and attracts more tourists every year, and my interview with a former cross-bearer was extremely interesting and educational.
You can learn about the whole process of becoming a cross-bearer in this excellent Hvar TV video above. Well worth the time.
With such an incredible heritage and procession, why not make some kind of exhibition about it for the town’s tourism? There are so many Catholic visitors, and other denominations would be curious as well. And rather than have the 22km path of the procession only used once a year, why not make it available to those who perhaps want to do part or all of the route at another time of year. Information boards along the way is more content to the tourism offer.
Tell the story of Dalmatian wine and make it accessible to tourists
The Dalmatian wine capital needs to tell its story. A wine museum and tasting place would be excellent content, especially on those rainy days…
Sailors tell me Jelsa and its bays is one of the best places on the Adriatic – who else knows?
Nautical tourism has great potential, and it has yet to be fully realised. I am not a sailor, but I was intrigued by this response from a friend:
The bays and coves around Jelsa, from Smočiguzica on the West to Pokrivenik on the East. For those of us who have our small boats in Jelsa, there is an amazing choice of really beautiful places for the typical “day sailing” trip. I’ve been practically everywhere around the Adriatic and you will very rarely find an “akvatorij” as nice and enjoyable as this one.
One more little thing to add to the relaxed family lifestyle in the Dalmatian wine capital.
Please build a new website
It was almost finished three directors ago.
Reengage with Belgrade – a strong Jelsa tourism bond
The relationship between Belgrade and Hvar fascinates me. Before the war, Hvar was one of the most popular destinations for the Serbian elite. The now ruined Belgrade Resort east of Jelsa provided so many lasting memories for thousands of Belgrade children, whose love of Hvar turned them into lifelong island tourists before the war stopped all that.
I understand the post-war animosity between Serbs and Croats, and if that was the whole story, then I could understand that. But if you walk the streets of Belgrade in winter, you will often bump into more people from Hvar than you would on Hvar. One Hvar restaurateur even takes his restaurant to Belgrade each year for Days of Hvar Cuisine in Belgrade. It is a huge hit – here is the Hvar TV report from a few years ago when I also visited.
I interviewed Jasminka Vekic, owner of Restaurant Saran, the host restaurant in Zemun, and she spoke of her love for Hvar and her childhood days in Jelsa.
In 2011, some 16 years after the war, the Croatian National Tourist Board was the main sponsor of the Belgrade Tourism Fair, the largest in the region. Last year, there was not a single tourist board from Croatia with an official stand. When I asked CNTB why, I was informed that Serbia was no longer a strategic market.
It could be a very good market. As Hvar’s restaurateurs will tell you, Serbian guests like to spend. They are also very close, and there is a great chance to catch them as regular year on year visitors.
Conclusion: The future of Jelsa tourism is very healthy if those who run it want it to be
Enough. I went on far longer than I intended. While many may be feeling the pain of this season and the poor quality tourism, the problems are actually very easy to fix and without too much investment. I hope that at least some of the suggestions above may have some merit.
The rest, dear Jelsa, is up to you.