In Part 1 of this series, I talked about all the problems that have come about as tourism has exponentially grown in Croatia. Now, it’s time to get in to what I feel should be done to solve some of these problems. Keep in mind that I’m not expert or elected official. I’m just a guy with a blog, Croatian heritage, and who has traveled a great deal in Croatia and likes to write.
Croatian tourism is an economy that could easily be a good economy, as opposed to the rather malignant one that it is now. There are a number of changes that would need to come about to make this happen though. The first big one is in dealing with the infrastructure. Take the new A-1 auto cesta that I talked about in Part 1. This was built to be the Tourist Express. It is true that a good connection was needed from the interior out to the coast, but was this entire road needed? There already was a train connection, which I might was also worked on to speed up transport for passengers.
When thinking about this, one needs to keep in mind that the A1 is not finished. There is a stretch that is being worked on from Split to Dubrovnik. This segment is coming at a great expense due to a bridge needing to be built to skirt the strip of Bosnia Herzegovina left over from the Karlowitz Treaty. Let’s assume that the road from Zagreb to Rijeka and Zagreb to Split was needed. The old connection to the coast, was a small, meandering road that was difficult to traverse. The new one makes things a lot better. But, the extension that is being worked on from Split to Dubrovnik is unnecessary. The road that connects these two areas is a good road. It’s small, but it’s good. So, why build the new one? Simple, to get tourists to an already overcrowded Dubrovnik faster. This is the simple answer, but at the core, I think that there is a bigger problem.
Most people don’t realize this, but there is no Ministry of Tourism in Croatia. Well, there is, but it isn’t by itself. The official name is the Ministry of the Sea, Tourism, Transport and Development or MMTPR. You see, tourism has been intertwined with several other departments that I believe create a conflict of interest. Tourism projects would naturally get in line first for development over say a hospital, which is under a different ministry. The solution? Strip out the Ministry of Tourism in to its own separate department and make it have to put out its hand for an equal share of the pie. It’s an crippling practice to be putting too much money in to projects to promote tourism that take money away from other projects that could promote a better standard of life for the Croatian people. The Germans and Hungarians that will eventually be zipping down to Dubrovnik will love it, but the Croats getting to endure being #43 in health care for the world won’t see the benefit.
The next big step that needs to happen is to stop promoting Beach Tourism. At the very least, promote Beach Tourism in the off season as well, so that people can go enjoy the “fresh sea air” and the people in the coastal communities can have an economy based upon a regular as opposed to a seasonal source of income. But, the best course of action, is to scrap the beach bit altogether. People know it. People are coming. Enough.
Croatia needs to start promoting the interior. The country has lovely, wonderful spots that, while not near the sea are great to visit. The Zagorje is a nice place full of rolling hills and fresh springs (this is where Jana water is bottled.) Medvednica and the Međimurje are also lovely places with serene villages, good white wines, and castles for those interested. Spas are popping up in these areas for those who really want to relax. You’re not going to relax at the beach in high season, but up there, you can. It’s peaceful.
There are also towns that could be promoted more. Dubrovnik and Split get the majority of the press as they’re coastal towns. But, Zagreb is a town that I’ve been to four times now and really love. The buildings are all from the days of the Austro-Hungarian Crown, there are a great number of parks, and about 10 museums worth visiting. Varaždin, Samobor, and Karlovac are also nice towns to visit. While a one or two day stay would be plenty per each of them, they offer that Central European feel, but far cheaper and more relaxed price than say Prague.
There are even decent skiing slopes in northern Croatia, but based upon the promotional materials now, you wouldn’t think that the country had any snow anywhere. There are also many parks, but with the exception of Plitvice, they get little mention, because most of them aren’t on the beach. It’s true that the park of Mljet is surrounded by water as it’s on an island, but again, it’s a spot that is over hyped because it sits on the Adriatic.
Then there is Istria. This little peninsula is a microcosm of everything that is wrong and everything that is right about tourism in Croatia. I covered all the things that were wrong about it in Part 1, which center around the Beach Tourists who flood there. But, in Istria’s defense, I think that it’s more for reason of proximity than for promotion of the beaches, that the tourists have come. It’s literally a 20 minute drive to Istria from Italy. It’s maybe three or four hours at most from Austria. It’s just really close and so, the Beach Tourists flock there with little that can be done except to try and accommodate them. But there are things happening in Istria that are very interesting. For one, there is wine, lots of wine. Terran (Refošk) and Malvazija are excellent varietals and these wines give more of a reason to visit than warm waters. It also creates a sustainable economy for the area. From this, other things have risen up like Agritourism. People have found that staying in the middle of bucolic hills, surrounded by wine vines can be a pleasant way to spend a holiday. This is something I might add, that can be done year round and is thusly not a big seasonal “kaboom” followed by nothing except hoping that the next season is the same.
Then there is Grožnjan. I don’t know who is in charge of this little town, but they’re doing good things in showing how to properly run a tourism economy. They have arts and crafts being sold in cute little stores of the old town. They have a Jazz festival that is an outgrowth of the International Cultural Centre of Young Musicians. They have truffles, wine, and good restaurants as well. All of this is in a town with maybe 100 homes, in the center of Istria, and a good half hour drive drive from the almighty beach. But the people who go there, don’t go for the beach. They go for the charm of the little town and the fact that out of all of Istria, it was the one place I could actually find listed rooms to rent. There is much to be learned from this town for all of the rest of the coastal towns.
And that’s what it comes down. There is much for Croatia at large to learn in how it handles its tourism. I would most likely be slapped for saying it, but they could learn a lot from their neighbors of Slovenia and Bosnia Herzegovina. The difficulties these two countries have in that they are nearly beach-less is what makes their tourism industries stronger than in Croatia. They have had to develop places and destinations for tourists and in doing so, they inevitably develop places that are going to have sustainable tourism simply because they are not flippant Beach Tourists.
Croatia will level out in the end. It has to. This will either be a smooth road, paved with long-term thinking and an overall plan for tourism development to co-exist with the people in the country, or it will be a bumpy road with localized recessions and depressions that will ultimately bring the whole country down if too many things are built on the premise that the Beach Tourist is forever. Only time will tell and it, as well as neighboring Montenegro and Albania will be interesting countries to watch over the next decade.