Seven years ago, when I was planning my first big European trip, I didn’t for once consider going to Croatia. It’s not like I dismissed it; potentially going to the country didn’t even enter my mind. For me it just wasn’t a holiday destination. The only thing I knew about the place was that their flag was quite pretty and lots of kids at school had Croatian backgrounds. One by one they’d disappear on a family holiday there, and come back months later a few dozen shades darker.
For me, it seemed simple. If you wanted some beach time in Europe, you went to Greece. And that was exactly what I did.
Fast forward a few years and Croatia is the new Greece. (Now it seems Montenegro is the new Croatia, but that’s for another blog.) Instead of ferry-hopping around the Greek islands, more and more young Australians were choosing to sail between Split and Dubrovnik, jumping off at a few islands along the way. It was a different type of travel, in turn attracting a different sort of tourist. For me, the only thing that sounded worse than being cooped up on a boat with up to thirty sweaty strangers was guiding said sweaty strangers. In my first two years of tour guiding, I avoided Croatia like the plague.
At the same time, I still wanted to see Croatia. It seemed every second person I guided around the streets of Madrid or Florence was also Croatia-bound, or had just returned from the Adriatic beauty. Their stories – and their pictures – had me torn. The towns and the landscape looked nothing short of breathtaking, but the tourist party culture just wasn’t my cup of tea. I decided that I just had to see it for myself, and then make up my own mind.
Let me just say this first – I hate tourist-bashing. I detest the traveller versus tourist debate, and I use the two terms interchangeably to describe myself. I’m a tourist, I’m the first to admit it. I find the people who look down their nose at tourists they find to be unlike them simply elitist. It’s the twenty-first century, and more people can afford to travel. This is inherently a good thing (of course there are negatives, but on the whole it’s brilliant that more and more people can see a bit more of the world than simply their own backyard) and bemoaning ‘tourists’ or saying a place is ‘has too many tourists’ is also saying ‘I deserve to be here more than all of you’.
Now that all of that’s off my chest, let me attempt to gather my thoughts on Croatia. And allow me to go very close to contradicting everything I just said.
I was lucky enough to visit four spots in Croatia this year; Zagreb, Plitvice National Park, Split and Dubrovnik. So, my thoughts are therefore centred around these places and particularly the latter two. I haven’t yet been to any of the islands, so I can’t make any judgments about Hvar or Korcula, for example. My experiences were wonderful; Zagreb was lively yet relaxed, Plitvice was even more beautiful than in the photos, Split was a historian’s paradise and Dubrovnik was worth all the hype and more.
My biggest surprise in Croatia (apart from the fact that the food rocks) was that the country has been well and truly discovered. Europeans – particularly Germans and Czechs – have been coming here for decades and you can hear a multitude of languages drifting around every day. I didn’t expect this at all. Of course, it makes sense – many people behind the Iron Curtain could afford to have regular holidays, even during communist times. With its long coastline and plenty of islands, Croatia was a natural choice.
What we’ve seen more recently, however, is an influx of non-European tourists. From what I can gather, they mostly travel through Croatia by boat – either via a mid- to high-budget cruise ship or a low-budget wooden sailing boat. Over the last decade, these two types of tourism have boomed. Meanwhile, as tourists have been choosing to stay on water rather than land, over one hundred hotels and resorts in Croatia are empty and falling into ruin.
In the former category, the boom was even more prevalent this year, as many Mediterranean cruises chose not to visit Turkey (American insurance companies were scared after the May riots in Istanbul) and instead included Croatia in their itineraries. The effect, as you could expect, was pretty dramatic. On one average day in June (before the peak tourist season, mind you), three cruise ships docked in Dubrovnik, carrying twelve thousand people. They all converged on Dubrovnik in a single afternoon.
The population of Dubrovnik’s Old Town is a little over one thousand.
It’s petty I suppose, to whinge about cruise ship passengers, but it’s become a bit a regular complaint for visitors to Dubrovnik recently. Recent posts by The Lazy Travelers and Yomadic have also bemoaned their presence. They’re not exactly the tourists locals are after, either; they don’t pay for local accommodation, they eat a maximum of one meal in town and they often take part in overpriced offshore ‘excursions’ where the majority of the profit goes to the cruise companies themselves.
Just last month, the city of Venice decided to drastically reduce the number of cruise ships docking next to St Mark’s Square, and have banned the largest ships from docking in the city completely. Some cities are touristy enough to have the luxury of picking and choosing their tourists. Dubrovnik needs to figure out if they have that luxury, too.
If it was just the cruise ship issue, perhaps I wouldn’t be writing this post. But, when coupled with my following rant, ‘touristy’ has unfortunately become my first word to describe Croatia. Yep, I’m talking about week-long sailing trips that are often marketed as ‘Sail Croatia’. Some companies market the week as a time for swimming and relaxing, whilst for others it’s simply a booze cruise. These trips – popular mainly with young Australians and New Zealanders – have had a bit of a rocky relationship with the Croatian authorities (not to mention the Croatians themselves). Last year, the head of the Dubrovnik tourism board (and former tourism minister in the national government) Pave Zupan Ruskovic, was sacked for saying the following;
This summer season we’ve had an increased number of visits from young people from Australia and New Zealand and we were not delighted. It would be better if they did not come… Already when entering the city they are drunk and crazy. And that’s absolutely not appropriate for any city and in particular for Dubrovnik.
I don’t like saying this, but I hated being an Australian in Croatia. I said bok, hvala and dobro, dobro like a scratched record. I tipped generously – probably too generously. I even caught myself hiding my passport until the last possible moment when I was boarding a flight out of Split. I made sure I tried extra hard – I mean extra, extra hard – to be a model tourist.
At the time, I did this all relatively subconsciously. It’s only now, when I’ve forced myself to reflect on my experiences, that I’ve realised why I did such things. I didn’t want to be looked down upon because of my nationality, and I was attempting to make up for the actions of some fellow Aussies.
So why am I talking about tourists when I’m supposed to be talking about my feelings towards Croatia? Unfortunately, and I say this with a heavy heart – I can’t think about Croatia without thinking about tourists. When I picture Dubrovnik I envisage a group of middle-aged people wearing Mickey Mouse ears, all fresh off a Disney cruise ship. Say ‘Split’ to me and I think of rakija shots and Blurred Lines on repeat.
This doesn’t just happen in Croatia. I’ve never been to Magaluf in Spain, Albufeira in Portugal or Hersonissos in Greece, but tons of people who solely want to party on holiday have been. In each of those cases, these countries still have their gems – Valencia, Lisbon and Santorini are all nearby these examples – and they have carried on unaffected. When you look at other cities beloved by cruise ships – take Venice, Athens or Istanbul, for example – they don’t have the extra issue of the party crowd. One of the above two groups is tolerable, but the presence of both, in my opinion, can spell doom.
So, what should you take from my ramblings? In no way am I telling you not to go to Croatia. The country is beautiful, the food is delicious and I found the people to be laid back and welcoming. I just worry for it. The country joined the EU this year, and with an improving world economy more and more tourists – in every spending range – are just going to keep coming. Can Croatia cope with this? Only time will tell.
What do you think? Have you been to Croatia before? Have you been somewhere where you’ve found yourself complaining about tourists?