Croatian Tourism: The whole Europe in one country, The land of plenty

Text:  Žikica Milošević

Immediately after the First World War, famous poet Jovan Dučić, who engaged in politics, and loved Dalmatia nevertheless, expressed his discord with the “unwise decision” of then-King to include Dalmatian coast to his realm, depicting the coastal regions generally as impoverished fishing areas. How little old Dučić knew about tourism! No matter how brilliantly he depicted towns and cities, he completely missed the point when it came to the summer tourism. And it is crucial nowadays, and, of course, there are few places in the world which can offer as much as Croatia, as far as the seaside-goers are concerned.


It all started in the 19th century, of course, when the doctors decided that bathing is “good” and not “evil”, and when spas mushroomed around Europe.The tradition of organised tourism in Croatia dates back about 150 years, although even before that, at the beginning of the 19th century, some forms of travel, similar to tourism, did exist (such as pilgrimages or trips to spas for cures), so the first inns, hotels and spas were built for that purpose (Daruvarske Toplice, Stubičke Toplice and Varaždinske Toplice). Apart from the spas, the doctors noticed that the sea air and salt water, combined with prolongued stay in the sun can improve your health. Maybe they did not know about the ions, but they were right. Since the whole Croatian coast at the time was under the rule of Austria-Hungary, it meant that the first visitors would be from the Empire itself. And the first region to be developed was so-called Austrian Riviera, which stretched from Rijeka (which was in Hungary then) up to the border with Italy, comprising many today’s Italian lands. But in the heart of the Austrian Riviera there was Istria, which is even today the pearl in Croatian tourist offer. Riviera was the closest point in coming by train from Vienna, and there was yet another reason for the popularity of Opatija instead of, say, equally or more beautiful Split, Zadar, Šibenik or even Dubrovnik. Since then casual dressing was not that casual as today, the warm climate of Dubrovnik was not suitable for wearing ball dresses and tuxedos, while fresh Opatija was perfect for that. O tempora, o mores! Nowadays people tend to be so in love with the sunshine and the warmth that the centre of tourist activities has shifted a bit to the south, but nevertheless, Istria remained one of the most important ones.


The Adriatic Coast emerged as a national treasury first in Yugoslavia when in the 50s and the 60s the first visitors started bathing in front of the baffled fishermen, culminating in the end-60s when almost every factory or state-owned company had its “odmaralište” or a company resort in Dalmatia. It was obligatory: all families were almost pressured to go for summer holidays with their children, to benefit the health. Of course, the tourism was in mass. After 1990, there were plans to shift towards the more exclusive segment of the seaside tourism, but the unfortunate war has cut the roads and sent the message that it was not too secure to be there, but after 1995, actually beginning from the summer of 1996, Croatia emerged as a superpower. After a self-confident approach showed that there are new competitors, like Turkey, Egypt, Greece, Bulgaria or even Ukraine and Georgia, not to mention Portugal, Dubai or Tunisia, Croatia noticed that being the former superpower cannot fulfill the dreams of tourist workers – Turkey had “the income of Mali Lošinj in 1989 and in 2003 it became the major player”, Croatian magazines noticed in 2003. Something changed and it was hugely successful, since in the last 13 years, Croatia made a name. Now everybody know about it. Dubrovnik is still the pearl of the Adriatics, and the producers of The Game of Thrones have seen it, including Dubrovnik in the fantastically popular show. Now, a certain over-reliance on tourism is visible, like in Montenegro, for that sake, since tourism in Croatia is concentrated in the areas along the Adriatic coast and is strongly seasonal, peaking in July and August. It all lead to adopting newer, better strategies for developing and braodeing of the Croatian tourist offer and prolonging the season.

And it is not everything – Croatia noticed its mountains, finally. The eyes of the skiers were fixed upon Slovenia in the early times, then Montenegro and Macedonia opened, Sarajevo hosted the Olympic games, and Croatia somehow, together with Serbia, omitted to see that it kis the mountainous country full of snow. After Janica and Ivica Kostelić became bright stars in skiing, Croatia became the ski superpower, and even modest but cure Sljeme became a respectable ski-centre, while many others followed. Eight areas in the country have been designated national parks, and the landscape in these areas is afforded extra protection from development. Several companies run flotillas of yachts along different stretches of the coastline, which is also popular with divers. The castles in the Croatian Zagorje and Međimurje, the old cities like Karlovac or Osijek, became yet another source of income, combined with the successful Hungarian recipe “spas and towns”, which proved to be a winning combination for Pannonian part of Croatia, especially Slavonia and around Zagreb.

And someone said “let there be music”, and music there was. Numerous festivals, beginning from INmusic in Zagreb, made foreigners discover the beauties of Croatia. INmusic has shown us the beauties of Zagreb, and Terraneo has shown us the beauties of Šibenik. Zrće was perfectly suited for the electronic music and many others followed. The basic idea in the 2010s is: the sales of music is falling down, the bands cannot earn money by selling music, they have to perform live. Croatia has many fine places, towns and islands, and the summertime is always a time for festivals. And for seaside holidays. So why not combine the two? The recipe visible in Spain and Portugal quickly found its ground in Dalmatia, and what better opportunity is to excel in the vast offer of seaside resort than to say “Hey, we have great sea, but also, come and sea your favourite bands or DJs?”. This is the industry on the rise.


In 2012, Croatia had 11.8 million tourist visitors and in 2013 over 14 million tourists and 73.25 million nights.Croatia aims to double these numbers by 2020 with national strategy to bring in 17.5 million foreign tourist and revenue from tourism exceeding $17 billion. The official website says that “although in terms of the number of tourist arrivals, Croatia cannot compare with major tourism powers such as France, Spain, Italy or Greece, with 11.8 million tourist arrivals in 2012 and a trend of increasing numbers for many years Croatia has certainly become one of the most popular countries on the Mediterranean.” And it is true. After the largely unsuccessful Arab Spring, all the aspiring nations aiming for better life and more democracy ended up stranded and lost their tourist, especially in the case of Tunisia and Egypt, not to mention Syria. Turkey, hit with instability and terrorism, also lost many tourists, and the sudden winners were Italy, Portugal, Greece, and of course, Croatia. The improvement was also shown by some things that have been happening over the past decade, such as: the “discovery” of Croatia in an increasing number of articles in leading world magazines and other media praising its natural and cultural attractions; the obvious rise in the number of tourist arrivals from a growing number of generating countries; the significant share of tourism in the total GDP of Croatia (14%); the rise in the number of objects of protected tangible and non-tangible cultural heritage; the increase in investment in tourism and auxiliary infrastructure; the increasing variety of what is on offer for tourists, etc. As for the recommendations, and the “discoveries”, it happened some ten years ago, when Lonely Planet named Croatia as the top pick destination for 2005, while National Geographic Adventure Magazine named Croatia as Destination of the Year in 2006.

Of the total number of tourist nights in 2012 (63 million), 92% were by foreign visitors. Most foreign tourist nights (32%) were spent in the County of Istria, where tourism is most developed in terms of infrastructure. The other coastal counties follow: Primorje-Gorski Kotar (19%), Split-Dalmatia (17%), Zadar (11%) and Dubrovnik-Neretva, Šibenik-Knin and Lika-Senj (together 17%). All the others, that is, the continental counties, accounted for 4% of the total number of nights. Accommodation is distributed according to these figures, mainly along the Adriatic coast. It is a indicator that many more things have to be done in the future to make this less uneven.


But whatever you say about the uneven structure of Croatian tourism, the fact is: countries like Montenegro, Malta, Portugal and even Bulgaria or Albania you can explore in one or two years during summertime holidays by the sea. On the other hand, Croatia, Greece, Italy or Spain require many years of repeated visits to numerous regions of their coast. If someone is fed up with Istria, try the Islands? Korčula is a place of Marco Polo’s family, John Malkovich is popularising Zadar and the area since his family is from there. Brad Bitt stralling the streets of lovely Šibenik is yet another “walking ad” for Croatia. Diocletian’s Palace in Split and Arena in Pula are immortal Roman monuments that everyone should see. Wherever you go, you will find something – Trakošćan is a pearl among castles, Zagreb has its Mitteleuropean and cosmopolitan spirit, with arguably the best music scene in the region, and even the ski-centre atop the city. Wherever you go, you will see that Croatia is a magical place, and really it is “The Mediterranean is it once was”.

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