July 19, 2019 – While Croatia is enjoying – officially at least – another record season, many locals report it has never been quieter in peak season. Why? A look behind the scenes in the Kingdom of Accidental Tourism.
I have had a LOT of requests recently to comment on the current tourist season in Croatia. Depending on who you believe, it is either another record year, or a total disaster. Having announced record numbers for the first half of the year, the Ministry of Tourism then took its transparent, internationally award-winning eVisitor reporting system offline. Meanwhile, there were many locals complaining of empty destinations and, more importantly – to them at least – empty apartments.
It was a classic clickbait opportunity to write sensationalist stuff, in order to get those clicks, but TCN has never been that kind of site. Despite what our many critics say, we want the best for Croatia, and constructive criticism is a healthy medicine. Learning best practices from other countries is a good thing, although it is almost never perceived that way in Croatia.
Rather than have a quote here and a quote there, I decided to accept the kind offer of an interview with the largest news portal in Croatia, Index.hr. Ranked in the top 3,000 websites in the world, they have traffic that only this fat Englishman can dream about.
The interview was published last night, and this morning it was the number one news story in Croatia. I am not sure if I am allowed to mention the number of hits, but it was a LOT. You can read the article in Croatian on Index here. Many thanks for the exposure – I have never had an inbox as fruity as today.
And now, for the original English version – with a few more photos and videos.
1. How long have you lived in Croatia? What was your first impression of Croatia and what did you learn in the meantime about your impression – was it wrong or right?
I came to Jelsa in August 2002 after watching a Croatian National Tourist Board video ad on CNN in Somaliland, where I was working as an aid worker. I arrived in Jelsa in peak season and I had truly found Paradise. It was even more divine in the shoulder seasons. My friends accused me of being a war junkie (my aid work had taken me to jobs in Rwanda, Georgia, Abkhazia and Tajikistan), and so they assumed Croatia in 2002 was one more war zone. They were stunned when they saw the pics and my house was full for the entire summer. I lived in Jelsa permanently for 13 years before moving to Varazdin County a couple of years ago.
Croatia will always be the most beautiful country I have lived in, and Jelsa is still Paradise, although a little less so for me these days, which has probably more to do with the fact I understand how things work in modern Croatia, once you go deeper than the sun and relaxed lifestyle.
2. You describe Croatians as “kings of accidental tourism”. What do you mean by that?
Not Croatians, but the Croatian tourism chiefs. One of the joys of being a foreigner with an opinion in Croatia is that a criticism of Croatian authorities is perceived as an attack on the Croatian nation. The two are worlds apart. Croatia has the best tourism potential of any country I know, but there is very little content apart from the sun and the sea. And with climate change hard to deny any more, will Croatia be able to guarantee even that? If we abolished the Croatian National Tourist Board and the Ministry of Tourism and made Nikola Tesla the Minister of Tourism, do you think any less people would come for the sea and the beach? At least Tesla is a brand and he wouldn’t cost much in salary.
Let’s look at a few sectors of tourism where the Kings excel. In the latest tourist strategy plan from the Ministry of Tourism (2013 – 2020).
By 2020, Croatia will have 30 new golf courses. In the second half of 2019, not only have none been started, but Croatia is being sued for $500 million from the Srd investor. But the Kings are busy – there are three golf tourism conferences this year alone.
Nautical tourism – 15,000 new berths. I have not checked, but are we close to that number? “Focus on ecology” – as the obsession with cruise ships continues. Numbers, numbers, numbers. But even the numbers are not that good – Austria has more tourists in summer than Croatia the whole year.
It is 8 years since Anthony Bourdain told the world about our ‘world-class wine, world-class cheese, world-class food’. And how have the Kings capitalised on yet one more gift? They are proud that the original Zinfandel comes from Kastela, but the great Dalmatian wine region has no wine road. When I contacted MINT to ask why, they told me there were several wine roads in Dalmatia, including the Wine Road of Biokovo. If you can name a good winery to try on Biokovo, you are a better man than me.
Game of Thrones Season 8 was probably the most anticipated global TV show in history, and over 100 brands teamed up with HBO to take advantage, with Johnnie Walker even producing a Winter is Coming limited edition White Label. And the home of Kings Landing? Not even a mention on the CNTB Facebook page. Check the CNTB and Dubrovnik tourist board websites. Neither have a GoT section. Now look at Northern Ireland for GoT and New Zealand for Lord of the Rings. When I didn’t find any info on the CNTB site, I used their searchbox to search ‘Game of Thrones’ and got information about Trsat and a fruit festival in Zagorje.
I informed CNTB about it two months ago and they recognised the problem, but their IT Kings are working on higher priority things. Before the Index article was published yesterday, I checked again, and nothing had changed. But then, miraculously, just hours after publication, we got this:
Not even a fruit festival in Zagorje.
But, in fairness, more of a true reflection of the Game of Thrones promotion by the Kings of Accidental Tourism.
Remember this time last year? Croatia was the hottest thing on the planet due to the World Cup, the great team performances, incredible fans and THAT shirt. 60 billion impressions. This was a bigger gift than GoT and Bourdain combined. Branding tourism and sport was so obvious, it was just a matter of when the campaign would start. We are still waiting… Meanwhile tiny Rwanda, a tiny country who has never been to the World Cup or had a player in the Premier League has signed a deal with Arsenal, and Visit Rwanda is now seen on the Arsenal shirt 35 million times a day, every day, as just part of the deal. If Rwanda can do it… More info and video in Lessons from Rwanda.
Medical tourism experts agree that Croatia has the potential to be in the world’s top 10 countries for this rapidly expanding industry – I interviewed a number of them here. Medical tourism is in the 2013 – 2020 plan as well, but my mid-2019, we still don’t have a medical tourism task force.
Compare the approach to wine and wine tourism with Croatia and Macedonia. I could go on and on, but fear I have already… Learning from best practices in other countries should be a positive thing, but in Croatia, all criticism is deflected.
3. What do you think about this season? The first numbers seem to show it’s gonna be a (partial) failure…
Officially it is a record year, isn’t it? Until we hear otherwise, all we have is the official stats until the end of June. I have never seen Croatia emptier at this time of year. Earlier this month I drove on the motorways through the tolls at Lucko and Dugopolje and crossed both Neum borders. Total waiting time was under 10 minutes for all. When I got to Drvenik, there were just 9 cars in the queue and I sailed 40 mins later. A few years ago, I was 182 in the queue (the ferry holds 30).
I don’t think it is a secret that July is looking very empty, but there is one positive about it all which COULD be a catalyst for positive change. Lots of locals have told me how much they are enjoying the beach. They are as empty as the apartments. And that is how it should be. Shouldn’t locals be able to enjoy this paradise without the overcrowded beaches? And the good news is that they can, if we have a complete rethink on the strategy. Rather than obsessing about numbers and how many overnight stays, focus on what Croatia has to offer and build on it. Rather than just criticise, I offer a solution which you can read about in Branding Croatia: 5 Gifts and Trends to Focus On.
But in brief, invest in medical tourism, develop gourmet tourism, connect sport – not just through football, but look at the incredible Run Croatia project, for example – build a Nikola Tesla Theatre of Dreams at Smiljan to make it a must visit for the 21 million electric car drivers on Europe’s roads by 2030.
And embrace the digital nomad revolution. There will be 1 billion digital nomads by 2035 according to one estimate. Is there anywhere better than Europe better placed to serve them with the famous Croatian lifestyle and all other things we have? If Croatia got 2% of that market, that would be 20 million people a year – more than the current tourism numbers – living in communities, working online in the offices by day and spending money in Croatia the rest of the time. And for those who think nomads will only come to Zagreb and the coast, here is a recent interview with a woman from Denver who is absolutely loving life in Osijek.
Medical tourism and digital nomad tourism may not be the classic types of tourism, but they will be. Croatia is perfectly positioned to take full advantage.
Digitalise and make things easier for people to come. Learn some lessons from Estonia, and even save a ton of cash – the equivalent of 2% of GDP just by putting public administration online.
4. How do you comment on the fact that E-visitor has stopped publishing tourist data?
As I wrote on TCN, it reminded me a little of the time I lived in the Soviet Union.
It is also a classic case of the Kings in action, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. People may not know that Croatia won a UNWTO award for eVisitor, for which congratulations. It was praised for its transparency and digitalisation. And when (presumably) the numbers did not work in their favour, the Kings restricted access. That is the Kingdom of Accidental Tourism for you. You can see the eVisitor video introduced by UNWTO.
5. What is your worst and what is your best experience as a tourist and a journalist in Croatia?
My best experience as a journalist and as a tourist is the same – the people and the unique and fascinating stories they share. Unforgettable nights such as dinner on the Lesic Dimitri terrace in Korcula celebrating 20 years of the Bire winery, or 25 years of Festa on Zut with 5 Masterchefs and 5 Croatian top chefs were fantastic, but it is more the experiences away from the lights.
Meeting the last gold panner on the Drava (94 years old) and watching him pan, celebrating 40 years of Croatia’s oldest agrotourism at Zlatni Klas in Otrovanec, harvesting lavender with celebrity snapper Jadran Lazic, and picking grapes with Andro Tomic on the Pakleni Islands. Unique experiences, fascinating characters. Croatia has them in abundance. And picking olives with my punac, of course!
If you want to learn about content and developing gourmet tourism, Karin Mimica and her Gastronaut are the most incredible, content-rich tours I have been on here, discovering Medjimurje, Koprivnica, Djurdjevac, Krk, Kornati Islands, Pag, and several more. Incredible knowledge, incredible content. Hire Karin as a consultant to learn how to do it. 12-month high-quality tourism all over the country.
As a journalist, it was a great honour to win the FIJET Marco Polo Award in 2014 for the best international promotion of Croatia at the Croatian Society of Journalists, and also to be nominated for an award at the 2019 Malaysian Healthcare Travel Council awards in Kuala Lumpur this August.
Worst tourism experience – trying to go anywhere in peak season in the heat and traffic. I don’t miss the hours queueing at Sveti Rok, for example.
Worst journalism experience – being informed last August in a public meeting by Jelsa Mayor Niksa Peronja that he was suing me for reasons I assume I will find out if the Croatian Post Office ever delivers the lawsuit.
It was interesting to observe how reactions to me changed in Jelsa after that. Lots of private messages of support, but lots of people publicly looking the other way when I passed, in case they were seen to be supporting me. It made me stronger as a person, and I am grateful to Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic who not only acknowledged my open letter to him on TCN, but called me over for a chat in Jelsa a couple of weeks later, shook my hand and told me that he at least would not be suing me. Many thanks, PM – I don’t always agree with you or your government’s actions, but it was a gesture I greatly appreciated.
6. Is there one big thing that Croatian tourism should stop doing in order to become better?
Stop trying to be a mass tourism destination and focus on quality. Is it better to have 10,000 guests spending 10 euro a day, 1000 spending a 100, or 100 spending 1000? This obsession with numbers is insane. A shop owner in Dubrovnik old town, who is open from May 1 to October 31 said the two worst months were July and August. So many cruise ships and day trippers enjoying the view, those with money to spend avoiding the crowds. How can that make sense or be good tourism?
7. How do you comment on the fact that Croatians from continental Croatia don’t want to work in tourism anymore? And what do you think about bringing tourism workers from the Philipines, Egypt etc.? Is that gonna work?
I completely understand them and would do exactly the same. Why should they work in tourism in seasonal jobs for low pay when they can get a proper job in a real country like Germany or Ireland? As for foreign tourism workers, Croatia reminds me very much of the Ireland my mother grew up in 60 years ago. As the thousands of Croats who now live there today will tell you, a little diversity never killed anyone. I think it could work, but you will have lots of people in Australia complaining about the diluting of the Homeland. As I see it, there are two ways forward – bring in the cheaper foreign labour, or have a complete rethink away from mass tourism along the lines of the 5 things I mentioned above.
8. Almost everyone agrees that Croatia has too many private apartments for rent and too few hotels. What’s your take on that?
Well let’s look at it rationally with the tools we have – statistics from the Kings themselves. I requested statistics from CNTB a couple of days ago, and I would like to compliment the CNTB PR department – the most responsive public institution. Here is what they sent me. Some highlights, according to the official stats:
1990 – Number of tourist arrivals – 8,497,000
2018 – Number of tourist arrivals – 19,700,000
Percentage increase of tourist arrivals from 1990 to 2018 – 131%
1990 – Number of overnights – 52,523,000
2018 – Number of overnights – 106,000,000
Percentage increase of overnights from 1990 to 2018 – 101%
1990 Hotel beds – 142,917
2018 Hotel beds – 130,026
Percentage increase of overnights from 1990 to 2018 – MINUS 9%
1990 Private accommodation beds – 264,092
2010 Private accommodation beds – 428,464
2018 Private accommodation beds – 800,108
Percentage increase of overnights from 1990 to 2018 – 302%
1990 Total beds – 862,680
2018 Total beds – 1,266,785
Percentage increase of beds from 1990 to 2018 – 46%
So a clear oversupply of apartments and undersupply of hotels. 54 million more overnights than 1990 but 9% fewer hotel beds. In 2017, Minister Cappelli told the world – I was there – that Four Seasons Hvar would open in 2019 and hailed the project. Here we are in July 2019, and the project not only has no building permit, but it also has still not finalised the access road paperwork. Minister Cappelli is still in a job. There are dozens of similar cases up and down the coast, running into billions of foreign investment, which are stuck. Perhaps this is not the way forward for Croatia. Fine, but then why sell the land to foreigners, block them and then ruin Croatia’s reputation as a place of foreign investment?
It is not all bad. There has been rapid and sensible growth in villas with pools for example. And the market will correct itself. I think those with quality accommodation will be just fine, and a lot of people who have nothing special and having taken loans will suffer. If managed well, the correction could lead to more affordable housing for locals, which would be a good thing of course.
I love Croatia and I want the best for the country, my Croatian wife and our lovely daughters. I see so much positivity and potential if we could just get somebody semi-qualified to run the country. I am amazed at how many foreigners see the same, despite the problems. One Croatian company in Zagreb I know is a global market leader in its field and has staff from 24 countries in its Zagreb office.
Croatia could be one of the most prosperous countries in the region, but it would need to sever ties with the Kingdom of Accidental Tourism and its other accidental ministries first.
And as all our beloved keyboard warriors love to complain, so I leave you with a question:
Yesterday was the 1-year anniversary of arguably the most incredible day in the history of Croatia, as 550,000 people were on the streets of Zagreb to welcome home their World Cup heroes. What are the chances of our hundreds of thousands of keyboard warriors going offline for a day and getting 550,000 people on the streets of Zagreb to demand change?
No? I didn’t think so.