March 25, 2019 – TCN in the Croatian media, as Goran Rihelj of leading tourism portal HR Turizam interviews TCN owner Paul Bradbury on life in Varazdin after Hvar, running a Balkan media business as a foreigner, and why Nikola Tesla would be a great Minister of Tourism. You can read the original article in Croatian on HR Turizam.
1. Firstly, for readers who perhaps do not know you, can you introduce yourself quickly?
I am a fat Brit who moved to Hvar from Somaliland in 2002 after seeing a Croatian National Tourist Board advert on CNN. I started a blog called Total Hvar back in 2011, and things grew a little and now we run the largest English-language media in Croatia (as well as news portals in Slovenia and Montenegro). I met the girl of my dreams on Hvar and I can honestly say that life in Croatia is a lot of fun.
2. Thirteen years on Hvar and then you moved to a village outside Varazdin. That must have been quite a change.
A lot of people were surprised when we moved. After all, if you discover Paradise, why would you want to leave? Hvar is an exceptional island and will always be in my heart. It is also absolutely the best place on the planet to bring up kids for so many reasons.
But the realities of full-time living on an island, the distances from the centres of business, and the lack of entertainment and travel choices meant that full-time living on Hvar was not as glamorous as the long summer holiday. The kids were also older and we wanted to give them more exposure to different aspects of life.
Varazdin County, what can I say? I absolutely love it, and I sincerely mean it when I say I think it is the best place in Croatia for full-time living. Zagreb in 1 hour, Graz in 1.5, Budapest in under 3. The mentality of the people is a lot easier to deal with, there are four distinct seasons, so many places to explore. And Hvar is always there when we need it. Easters and Summers will be on the island. It is the perfect combination.
3. Let’s talk about Total Croatia News, the largest English-language media in Croatia. What’s it like running a news portal about Croatia as a foreigner?
Ha ha. Well you need very thick skin to start. The levels of abuse are insane! I honestly had no idea what I was getting into back in July 2015. I had never even heard the word ‘uhljeb’ when I started Total Croatia News, that is how naïve I was. I saw an opportunity to start a news portal to fill a niche, but knew nothing of your Croatian politics. It was a baptism of fire!
I absolutely love what I do and Croatia is a fascinating place to write about as a foreigner. I have the most amazing team of dedicated writers, expat and local, and they really help with the balance and direction. We are slowly becoming the de facto bridge between Croatia and the international community, which comes with its own responsibilities. But I am very proud of what we as a team have achieved and the level of international respect. We brought both the New York Times and The Sunday Times to Hvar, and I have just had my first article published in The Daily Telegraph.
Our mission is to promote Croatia, but not to do so blindly. There are many problems here, and constructive criticism is something we engage in. It is rarely well-received.
4. You are sometimes very critical about Croatian tourism. As a foreigner, what issues in particular attract your attention?
Every time I criticise, I do so not for the sake of criticising, but in the hope that the issue can be improved and we can move forward to a better future.
Naively, I assumed that official tourism bodies would be interested in promoting tourism as their priority. It has taken me some time to figure out how Croatia works, and nothing is quite as it seems to the foreign tourist at the beach!
Croatia has phenomenal potential as a tourist destination, but when the emphasis of officials is protecting their interests and enjoying life rather than doing what they are paid to do, there is not much hope that Croatia will realise that potential. A simple example will suffice.
Medical tourism is FINALLY attracting the attention of the powers that be. All international experts agree that Croatia has the potential to be in the world’s top 10 for medical tourism within 10 years – this is a multi-billion dollar industry.
In October last year, anyone who was anyone in tourism descended on Hvar for Days of Croatian Tourism, 3 days of self-congratulatory partying and relaxation. The next week, a really important boutique health tourism seminar was held in Zagreb, with an expensive (and excellent) consultant flown in from the States.
How many official stakeholders came to that seminar? I won’t name and shame, but the lack of attendance told its own story. It was the same at the 5th Annual Medical Tourism Conference in Zagreb last week – apparently about 50 members of the Croatian National Tourist Board went to ITB Berlin, but not one could cross the road to Hotel Westin in Zagreb to learn more from global speakers on health tourism, including from the Cleveland Clinic.
Sadly, the Kings of Accidental Tourism still run Croatian tourism, and tourism happens not because of them, but in spite of them. If Croatian tourism was handed over to the private sector, the results would be phenomenal.
5. How do you see the branding of Croatia, and do you think tourism is moving in the right direction in Croatia?
I interviewed Nenad Bakic at the Varteks factory recently. What he and his team are doing to this majestic 100-year-old Croatian company is nothing short of sensational. Small budget, massive vision, with a very focused digital strategy.
I thought about it a lot after the interview, and how Bakic’s approach is what we need for Croatian tourism. It is an accepted fact that tourism just happens in Croatia. Imagine a situation where none of the tourism ministry or tourist board structure existed, and we appointed the late Nikola Tesla as the minister of tourism – at least he is a brand. Do you think the number of tourists would go down?
Now imagine the national tourist board budget and all the salaries of people working there who contribute less than nothing. Give that money to a team with a vision like Bakic has for Varteks. The results would be so much better. And think how much money would be saved.
There are so many examples where we are doing nothing with the potential. Croatia has amazing wines, the original Zinfandel, 130 indigenous varieties. All true. Anthony Bourdain was not the only one to be blown away with the ‘world-class food, world-class wine and world-class cheese.’ That was 7 years ago.
The Holy Grail is 12-month tourism. Gourmet tourism is one of the greatest possibilities we have (along with health tourism). So with all this amazing food and wine, how is the Croatian gastro-tourism market developed compared to say, France, Italy, Germany and Spain. We have almost zero, while they are raking in tens of millions. Why?
6. You have been actively involved in the promotion of medical tourism in Croatia. Tell us about what is happening in this sector – it seems like a real opportunity.
I was stunned when I learned what is happening in the Croatian medical tourism sector, and I have to thank Ognjen Bagatin of Bagatin Clinic for introducing me to it 18 months ago. Did you know, for example, that three of the top dermatology clinics in Europe (including Bagatin, the number one) are in Zagreb? Or that St Catherine Specialty Hospital is the only hospital in all Europe to partner with OneOme, the Mayo Clinic revolutionary pharmacogenetic test?
The best of the Croatian medical tourism industry competes on a global level. The challenge is to get the story out there. More international experts are concurring, saying Croatia has a very bright future. ‘All’ that needs to happen is for the stakeholders to unite and come up with the right strategy and finance the big push. The results could and will bring a huge boost to the economy. But the concept of officials working together for the common good…
7. You have recently launched a new Croatian tourism information website, Croatia in 100 Pages, on http://www.total-croatia.com/. Tell us more.
The concept of the new Total Croatia site is very simple – Croatia in 100 pages. A quick and easily navigable site answering all the questions tourists are googling – how to get from the airport, what is the currency, how much to tip – that kind of thing.
We have huge destination pages – Hvar in a Page, for example – where we aim to give readers all the information in one place. With more than 30,000 articles on TCN over the years, we have plenty of links to send them to the very best information.
The site is aimed primarily at tourists, but also to local renters and tourism businesses as well. We are constantly updating the site and so we offer a very reliable source of information. Many apartment owners have websites and the stress of keeping them up to date with information.
By linking to Total Croatia, not only does the stress go away, but the apartment owner has even better information for his guest.
We launched last week and already have some articles with more than 2,000 Facebook shares, without any promotion apart from Facebook posting. We are happy to work with anyone who has an interest in promoting their business. Our aim is to grow traffic on the site, add various languages and hopefully become the number one source of tourist information about Croatia in English, as we are already with the news. If that happens, perhaps we will appoint Nikola Tesla as our Minister of Tourism and see where we go…