Croatian Tourism Part 1: Where’s the Sandy Beaches?

Croatian Tourism Part 1: Where's the Sandy Beaches?

I have enjoyed the last fours years of travel, visiting Croatia. I love the country and while i am Croatian, albeit one living abroad, I feel a good deal of kinship to it. It is after all a beautiful country with snowy, wooded mountains at one end and crystal clear waters of the Adriatic Sea at the other end. It’s hard to not want to travel there and until recently it was rather undiscovered by a great many tourists, including Americans. This however, has changed.

With these changes a blight has emerged in Croatia as it seems that a vast chunk of the country and nearly the entire swath of the coast is centered on one single economy: tourism. To this I might add that they are focused on Beach Tourism. Yes, the rude, soak up the sun, get drunk at night, spend as little as possible, clog the highways kind of people are flocking to Croatia. But, why are they flocking to Croatia? The simple answer to this is that it’s cheap. Actually the simple answer to this is that it was cheap.

This is where the problems start to rise for Croatia. When I first went looking for a guidebook in 2003, there was one by Rough Guides and one just about to come out from Lonely Planet. They touted the affordable life that travelers could have if they hopped off to this strange place most people thought a war was still being fought (it officially ended in 1995 with the Dayton Accords by the way.) Fast forward four years and there are something like six solid guides for the country and several ones about specific regions or cities like Dubrovnik. Instead of hearing from friends and family, “Croatia? Why the hell do you want to go there?”, I’m getting, “Hey, where is the cheapest place to stay in __________?” Undiscovered, Croatia is no more.

Despite all of this, Croatia found itself in a tough spot at the start of the 21st century. Unemployment was extremely high and still is, at a bit over 9% (the US is just below 5% and people are currently worried about a recession here to give you gauge for this.) So, instead of letting tourism develop in a natural manner, the government took the rash approach of pumping the hell out their coastline to attract Beach Tourists. It wasn’t necessarily the worst plan and their official tourism slogan of, “The Mediterranean as it Once Was”, was catchy if not a bit pedantic. They already had a good deal of the infrastructure in place to handle Beach Tourists, since the coast had been developed from the 1950’s onward by the then Yugoslavian government. They also had a long history of Beach Tourism, which you can seen in places like Opatija in the northern part of the coast where holiday mansions and retreats were built in the 19th century. So, in theory, people + beach + Croatia, should = kuna.

The problem with this approach was that they didn’t know when to let up on it. As far as I know, ads are still playing on BBC TV promoting this aspect of Croatia. The net effect has been incredible successful in getting people to the coast of Croatia in the summer, but it has ultimately proved to be massively detrimental. I can sum it all up in one conversation I had with two Irish girls that were staying at the pension we were at in Jelsa, Hvar. They realized that we had traveled the area a bit and then had the gall to ask, “So, you wouldn’t happen to know where the sandy beaches are, would you?” Needless to say, I didn’t know as I like the pebble beaches and without this information as well as their inability to know that the Prošek (a delicious sweet wine) the couple served was incredible good, they moved on the next day. They were cheap girls who couldn’t even spend money on a guidebook and just wanted to drink. They were the epitome of the people who come to the Croatian coast.

Ultimately, the government should have realized there is no need to attract the Beach Tourist. They come of their own accord, migrating according to the winds of cheapness. These are people who only want to sit in the sun and they don’t give a damn how nice the water is, as long as their can go back north with a cruel chocolate-strawberry hue to their abused skin. I’ve witnessed firsthand how these people have been treating Croatia. In Dubrovnik, that town is full. Don’t go. Stay away. You literally will not get in. In Hvar City, people party to all odd hours of the night, vomit and piss on the streets, go lay in the sun and then repeat this all the next night. In Istria, every single spot it crowded, from the most pristine rocks to the lowliest mud hole on the Adriatic (sun is sun to the beach tourist.) Korčula City sees throngs of idiots roaming that small town drunk and trying to pick up the local girls. The roads are clogged, including the brand new auto cesta that runs out to the coast and was built basically to pump tourists out there. The congestion isn’t because of the roads being small, but because there are just too many cars going to the coast during the summer and the result is the same as if you tried to push a pig through a garden hose.

But, beyond all these problems which could be seen as merely annoyances, there is the issue that tourism is smashing the local economies of the coastal towns in to being solely sustained by tourist money. This creates the first main problem of a group of people who work for three or four months and then have no income for the rest of the year. But, even more so, things like bars, nightclubs, strip joints, and whatever else start popping up just to cater to the tourists, thusly obliterating any sense of local culture from the people in the area. And once all this gets built up, you end up having an economy for the area that has its market driven by a single service. We all know that’s bad and that the main thing any investor will tell you is that you need to diversify. The Croats who have focused on tourism for their main source of revenue are feeling the pinch of this already. Inflation is out of control on the coast and goods are very expensive for the locals to buy now. But the other fact is that the price of hotels, apartments, and rooms has gone up massively as well. In 2004, I paid 35 Euros a night for an entire apartment flat in Dubrovnik. The same flat is now about 100 Euros a night four years later.

This is all very bad for attracting the Beach Tourist. They want cheap and this is not cheap anymore. In fact, it’s nearing or is the same price as places like Spain and Italy. So, there is now a glut of housing in the area and people are having a hard time filling all their rooms. By no means does this mean that Croatia will become a bargain again, but more the fact that hard times are ahead for a great chunk of the country that has heavily invested in the Beach Tourist.

This is all very negative of course and it’s easy to complain about all the problems of an area. This is why there is a ‘Part 1’ in the title. In Part 2, I cover what I feel needs to be done to avert these problems. While these are personal observations of mine, they are from someone who knows the country well and has seen it from one end to the other. Okay, I admit that I haven’t been to Slavonia yet, but I had to save something for a future trip!