June 30, 2023 – Split party tourism is making headlines for all the wrong reasons. A closer look, and how to fix it.
When I first moved to Croatia back in 2003, Split was known as the Gateway to the Islands. Tourists would transit through from the airport and head to the islands of Hvar, Brac, Solta and Vis. Diocletian’s Palace back then was something of a scary place at night, with a drug problem in the Ghetto area of the palace, and I did not like to linger. So underdeveloped was the nightlife that when two Australian Croatian businesswomen opened the first hostel in November, 2004, they had to take their guests to the bar at the bus station for a drink, the closest working bar in the evening in the off-season.
How times change, and Split party tourism is now an established thing, to the considerable displeasure of a growing number of locals who are getting more vocal in their opposition to the late-night noise, public drinking, urinating, sleeping in the street, and more. I don’t plan of publishing images of these things in this article, as it is supposed to be constructive, but you can check out the Get Getanima Facebook group for plenty of photos, videos and commentary.
Ultra Europe Festival and Split Party Tourism
When I started the Total Split portal back in 2012, tourism was starting to take off, but the city got a huge international promotion as a beautiful and cool city with the first-ever Ultra Europe Music Festival in July, 2013, just days after Croatia joined the EU. Here was a country the younger generation knew little about that was now part of the EU. It was beautiful, its people were beautiful, it was cool, and it was cheap.
And while there was a lot of skepticism about Ultra, there is no denying that the locals loved the money that poured into the city. In stark contrast to many of the drunken tourists who are coming today, the average spend of an Ultra fan including travel is 3,000 euro, according to Ultra Europe CEO Joe Basic, who gave this excellent in-depth interview for TCN on Split party tourism last year. It is still current today and full of great analysis of where the problems are – and how to fix them.
While many people benefited a lot from the Ultra effect, there are also many who lay the blame for Split party tourism at the door of Ultra. I disagree, although I do think it was a mistake to brand Ultra with Hvar, as I wrote a decade ago. Ultra undoubtedly helped to brand Split as a very cool city, but what happened next is where the current problems lie, and where the solutions are too.
Ultra Europe 2023 takes place next week, and tens of thousands of festival lovers will head to the Dalmatian capital. I don’t anticipate any major incidents as Ultra invests a lot in the one thing that Split is doing very poorly at the moment – controlling their guests so that they do not misbehave, as well as providing ample toilet facilities.
Does Split Have a Tourism Strategy?
The natural progression of the excellent promotion of the destination of the Ultra Europe Festival is for the destination to implement a strategy to manage the increase in tourism. And this is where Split has failed miserably in the last ten years.
As far as I can see, there has been no strategy whatsoever, and in many ways, Split is the King of Accidental Tourism, worshipping at the altar of numbers, numbers, numbers. And so what we have today is a free-for-all which is threatening to ruin one of Europe’s top destinations. For no reason.
It is easy to put all the blame on the young drunken Brits who are coming to Split these days, and I certainly don’t condone their behaviour. But, as I will outline below, it is a two-way street, and it is worth exploring how much Split has changed due to the actions of locals, not tourists.
Firstly, a look at the accommodation numbers of the last 13 years. As you can see, private accommodation beds have gone up fivefold from 4454 to 22783, a number of them in the historic centre, which has become more of an AirBnB capital than the local neighbourhood it used to be. Nobody was forced to turn their place into tourism rental accommodation, but it makes complete financial sense given the tourism boom. And when we talk about strategy, those units all needed licences, and so the authorities knew the numbers. And let it happen.
It seems crazy that those hostel owners had to go to the bus station for a drink all those years ago when you look at the numbers of bars, restaurants and clubs in the centre now. Many are rented out by locals for good money, aware what the business will become. Again, it makes great commercial sense. And again, they can’t operate unless they get permits from the authorities. So was this the strategy – to allow a huge increase in private accommodation and more bars and nightclubs that we could handle?
Or was there no strategy at all?
Marmontova Street is one of the most beautiful streets in Croatia, and one which I had always associated with style and class. Walking down there last month, I was saddened to see how the profile of the shops had changed. Less designer brands, in favour of fast food outlets, cheap alcohol stores, an Irish pub, and now a big nightclub which is proving very popular with our young guests.
Again, every renter knew the purpose of the new store, and again, the authorities gave permission for them all to open. Was this a deliberate strategy to cheapen the historical centre?
Or was there no strategy at all?
“The Best Night You Will Never Remember”
In addition to this, there has been a surge in pub crawls around the historic centre, where multiple groups of 20 tour several bars in and around the historic centre where they can drink as much as they can for two hours (with free pizza) before being taken to a club to continue the party. For the price of 20 euro.
Little wonder that so many of them get really drunk and end up passing out in the old town. Quite what this has to do with Split is beyond me. They could be anywhere, not in the heart of a UNESCO zone.
Sustainable tourism indeed. And again, enabled by those giving permits.
For those wondering how these young tourists get so drunk and why they are so unruly at 04:00, here is what is on offer at the Marmontova club, starting at 20:55 each evening:
Choose between beer, rum, whiskey, gin, vodka and mixers and let our bartenders keep refilling your cup!
8:55 – 10:45 PM
That’s right! Drink as much as you want! Make sure to come on time!
Just to keep you well fed, grab a slice of our delicious warm pizza! Or two. Or ten. Who are we to judge?!
But remember, pizza will be there til 10pm 🙂
Party all night long
After we make sure you’re not thirsty or hungry we will continue our party well into the night in Vanilla, one of the best clubs in Split!
All of this enabled by the destination.
Please don’t think I am against having a drink or a party, of course I am not, but does it really matter to these tourists that they are in the heart of a UNESCO World Heritage Site or an isolated beach away from everyone, as long as the booze and the vibes keep flowing? If Croatia wants to have this kind of tourism, how about a strategy to create zones away from the rest of the tourists? A little like Zrce beach on Pag.
Inside the Mindset of the Young British Tourist
This is what, in my view, young Brits are looking for in their two-week holiday. Sun, sea, sex, cheap booze, a party, and a destination that lets them behave pretty much as they want to. Passing out in the street is not seen as something shameful in certain cases, more a badge of honour. So too climbing monuments, drinking in the street, etc.
Traditionally, they head to the Spanish islands, and destinations such as Magaluf have become internationally famous for all the wrong reasons. And Croatia has only been exposed to 1% of what happens there. As an example, a video of an Irish girl performing oral sex on no less than 15 men in under 3 minutes in order to win a free cocktail went viral a few years ago.
Perception is 50% of the Battle
The key thing is “a destination that lets them behave pretty much as they want to.” And for many, that is how they see Croatia. When two Australians were arrested for causing damage on the roof of Hvar Cathedral a few years ago, they told me the next day that of course they would not do anything like that at home. It is just that Croatia is known as a party destination and they felt they could be as wild as they wanted to be. Because… Croatia.
I don’t need to explain why these things don’t happen in Dubai, Singapore, Iran or Saudi. The perception is that there will be a draconian response, which of course there would be. I am not suggesting for a minute that Croatia introduces draconian laws, but enough of a threat and education to deter these things happening. The tourist board flyer below hardly does that.
Currently, Croatia (at least in my opinion) is perceived as the sexy place that it is, where there are few to no rules. Perception is everything, which is why I was stunned 6 years ago as the Mayor of Novalja on Pag decided to cooperate with the BBC to produce a reality show called The Brits Are Coming, following the escapades of young British tourists coming to the Sonus Festival. You can see a 6-minute clip below – and if this is the message Croatia is sending out, then all the blame is not with the tourists. There are other destinations which will gladly take their money, and Croatia needs to be firm and consistent in its message.
And Enforcement is the Other 50%
When Hvar Town introduced signs with fines for public drinking, being topless and eating in public, it became a global story a few years ago, and it helped to curb some of the more outrageous excesses. But once the hype had died down and there for few to no actual fines issued, the threat lost some of its bark.
The same thing is now happening in Split, and while there is increased signage, there is little or no follow through. Asking people to respect the city when they have been plied with too much cheap booze for hours is wishful thinking. Actually imposing a hefty fine, or arresting someone and getting those stories into the international media will have a better deterrent.
I would also distribute flyers at the airport and distribute to young tourists as they land. They are more likely to be sober, more likely to look at, digest and discuss the material with their peers. A few scare stories in the media of what happened to those who did flout the rules will be a very good start to tackle this problem.
Toilets, Toilets, Toilets
Public urination in the historic centre is horrible, and local residents are right to be disgusted. But the reality is that they have to pee somewhere. If Ultra can make temporary toilets available, then why not Split? It may not look as pretty, but surely the lesser evil.
Firm Message AND a Strategy
With the right action, I think the problem could be fixed relatively quickly, but the authorities need to take firm action to send out the message that although Croatia is not Saudi, it has no intention of turning into Magaluf either.
And make a strategy that is transparent and that locals get behind. If all the UNESCO Roman Emporer’s retirement home is good for is pub crawls and the like, then so be it. But perhaps there is a way to shift the narrative for a better tourism experience for our visitors, as well as a better living experience for locals.
I hope things turn around for Split. I will watch from interest from Zagreb, where I spend my summers these days. Find out why in Why I Spend My Croatian Summers in Zagreb These Days.