Tourism in Croatia is on the up. Over 11 million international visitors made the journey last year, making the destination the 35th most popular in the world. Impressive for a community of just four million people, which was two decades ago swept up in a war of independence as the former Yugoslavia collapsed.
The beaches around Dubrovnik are some of the most famous on the Mediterranean, drawing in hundreds of thousands of visitors from Slovenia, Germany, Austria and Italy each year.
Now, as Croatia enters the European Union, it is opening its borders to a potential market of some 450 million visitors. “Our partners in the tourism sector are excited. We are ready,” enthuses Tonko Rilovic, director, Croatia National Tourist Office, UK & Ireland. “Entering the European Union will improve the image of Croatia, and specifically the Croatian tourism sector.”
There is a sense the move will boost an already booming sector. While Croatia will not initially be part of the Schengen visa area it expects to join in two years time, making crossing the border much easier for the majority of Europeans.
Airlines are also seizing the opportunity, with British Airways launching a new route to the capital Zagreb late last year, joining a flurry of low-cost carriers increasing their routes into the market. Not least is Ryanair, which opened a base in Zadar in December, illustrating its support for the destination.
Politicians, too, have been getting the house in order, with legislation amended to ensure the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), for example, operates as it would anywhere else in Europe. “Visitors can expect the same experience they would receive in other European countries,” adds Rilovic, “with the EHIC, if something goes wrong on a trip guests can receive medical attention without any charges.”
But there will also be costs of membership. Croatia has introduced a visa regime for Russia, the Ukraine and Turkey at the request of the European Union. Russia, especially, is a very important market for Croatia, with over one third of the tourists visiting the Istria peninsular - some 210,000 visitors per annum – headed from Russia.
Rilovic spoke exclusively to Breaking Travel News ahead of Croatia accession to the European Union today
“These visa changes mean we are expecting a ten to 15 per cent fall in the number of visitors from these markets this year,” explains Rilovic, before adding he hopes European markets can make up the shortfall. “In two years time – when we are part of the Schengen area – Russians will be able to ask for that visa: it will be easier for them to visit in the long-term.”
Overall Croatia is expecting visitor numbers to increase by two to three per cent in 2013, with spending up by five per cent, as western Europeans move the market upscale.
In order to utilise EU membership most effectively Croatian politicians recently laid out a new tourism strategy to take the country through to 2020. Tourism minister Darko Lorencin said Croatia hoped to be a “globally recognisable tourism destination” by this time, and among the 20 most visited countries in the world. No small task.
Key to the strategy is expanding the length of the tourism season.
At present holidaymakers flock to the beaches in the summer, but depart before the autumn leaves start to fall. Croatia hopes to change this by introducing new sectors of its tourism economy to the international market. “There are more activities in Croatia now, for example music festivals for the younger visitors. There will be 16 festivals in total this year, a huge market for us. Perhaps the biggest is Ultra Festival, which has come to Croatia from Miami,” continues Rilovic. “We have been in negotiations for a couple of years with them; this will be a great event for Split, and the country, with 80,000 people expected over two days.”
Rilovic adds: “For the past ten years we have also been talking about building facilities for MICE tourism, as at present we cannot accommodate the larger congresses. As part of the new strategy we are looking at building two congress centres. We are presently selecting the cities which can accommodate these buildings, those which can offer the hotel infrastructure which is required. Zagreb, of course, will be among those chosen, but then Split and Dubrovnik could also be considered as part of our strategy moving forward.”
Dubrovnik is the most famous of the tourism sights in Croatia
The same is also true of golf tourism. Croatia does not presently have an 18-hole course, but plans to move into this market, probably following the construction of a course in the area around Dubrovnik. Cruising will also have a part to play. One million passengers a year presently disembark in Dubrovnik, sometimes to the annoyance of locals. But with new port developments planned for Split and Zadar it is hoped the sector can grow further.
If the plans come to fruition, Croatian will invest €7 billion in its domestic tourism sector by 2020. The tourism office hopes there will be 955,000 hotel beds available by this time, an increase of seven per cent on the present figure. Officials also hope to create 30,000 new jobs in the tourism and supporting industries.
With the European Union itself currently in turmoil, none of this is guaranteed, but tourism in Croatia is one bright spot on the horizon for a continent in desperate need of good news.
To find out more about visiting Croatia head over to the official National Tourist Board website.