Gathering my thoughts on Croatia

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.

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Plitvice National Park, Croatia.

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.

This year, over seven hundred cruise ships docked in Dubrovnik, carrying more than a million passengers.

The population of Dubrovnik’s Old Town is a little over one thousand.

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One of Dubrovnik’s quieter back streets.

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.

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Perfect views from Dubrovnik’s city walls.

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 bokhvala 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.

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Split Harbour and the Riva.

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?

21 Responses to Gathering my thoughts on Croatia

  1. Jack December 9, 2013 at 12:09 PM #

    We went to Croatia in June this year and drove from Zadar to Krk to Plitvice to Dubrovnik, detouring to Hvar and Korcula.

    We were completely smitten by the beauty of Croatia and the generosity of its people. Like you, I’m not keen on the tourist v traveller debate – we’re all tourists in one way or another.

    But Dubrovnik, beautiful though it is, was too much at times because of the number of cruise passengers descending on the old town. Dubrovnik should be a cautionary tale of how not to do it and why cruise control, so to speak, is essential. But then I’ve read blog after blog praising it to the heavens.

    I hope Croatia proceeds with its tourism strategy wisely and doesn’t just go for volume.
    Jack recently posted..Which is Better, Food from Ferran Adria or Zavaroni’s Chip Shop?My Profile

    • Caitlyn December 10, 2013 at 9:54 AM #

      Wow, very jealous that you got to Krka! I had planned to head there on a day off but then my schedule got changed :( I do like your term, ‘cruise control’ as well!

  2. Agness December 10, 2013 at 1:54 AM #

    Great timing girl! I’m taking my mom to Croatia next August and we are planning on visiting Zagreb, Plitvice National Park, Split and Dubrovnik. Your photos look so great and I can’t wait to go there. I’ve also heard that Croatia is overcrowded with Europeans, but it’s still cheap :)!
    Agness recently posted..5 Things To Do For Free In AmsterdamMy Profile

    • Caitlyn December 10, 2013 at 9:57 AM #

      Oh have fun! I wouldn’t exactly say that Croatia is ‘cheap’ these days – prices are lower than in Western Europe but it’s priced much higher than its neighbours and other central European countries like Poland and Hungary, particularly in summer.

  3. Cat of Sunshine and Siestas December 10, 2013 at 8:40 AM #

    I went to Croatia on my first solo trip nearly five years ago. When I returned with a friend last Spring, I was shocked by the tourism boom – everything was far more expensive and far busier, even in late March. As for Montenegro – loved it.
    Cat of Sunshine and Siestas recently posted..Taking a Stand Against Animal Cruelty: Support for the Travel Blogging CalendarMy Profile

    • Caitlyn December 10, 2013 at 9:58 AM #

      Wow, that’s pretty unique that you got to see Croatia before and after the boom! I really hope Montenegro doesn’t go the same way.

  4. Tom @ Waegook Tom December 10, 2013 at 9:19 PM #

    Interesting post. I’ve heard more cautionary tales about Croatia over the past few months. A few people I met in Europe this month bemoaned that the streets were uncomfortably crowded, things were overpriced, and of course lots of loutish behaviour. I really do think the Croatian Tourist Board does need to impose restrictions on cruises, otherwise pretty soon, it’ll be tarred with the same brush as places like the Greek islands and the Balearics.
    Tom @ Waegook Tom recently posted..City Breaks From The UK: 9 Of The BestMy Profile

    • Jack December 11, 2013 at 10:45 AM #

      “…the streets were uncomfortably crowded, things were overpriced, and of course lots of loutish behaviour…”

      Tom, apart from Dubrovnik, this was so not the Croatia we experienced. We mixed city stays with rural exploring with island hopping. We had lots of magical experiences there and found it relatively cheap. I’d go back in an instant.

      There’s a lot more to Croatia than the likes of Dubrovnik… but don’t tell anyone :)
      Jack recently posted..Review of Hotel Cal Sastre in Santa PauMy Profile

      • Caitlyn December 11, 2013 at 6:41 PM #

        You’re right Jack – there’s a bit of everything in Croatia. There’s a couple of big cities, the islands, the national parks, and the little towns. If only everybody spread themselves out like you did!

      • Dani March 1, 2015 at 7:26 AM #

        Jack your the only person talking sense on this blog. Firstly Croatia is not Dubrovnik. Dubrovnik is one city on a coastline that is miles long and has numerous other cities which are bigger than Dubrovnik. You have Split, Sibenik, Zadar, Rijeka, Pula that are all bigger than Dubrovnik and get no Cruise ships apart from the odd one in Zadar and Split. These cities are beautiful as are other coastal towns like Rovinj, Porec, Trogir, Primosten, Beograd, Hvar, Vodice, Vis. It annoys me when people do a write up on Croatia with one focus…. Dubrovnik. I have been to Croatia 6 times from Australia in 15 years and the place is awesome. Yes Dubrovnik can get crowdy at times but no more than other popular Europen destinations. Cruise ships leave thus you have mornings and nights to yourselves… plus I read recently that Dubrovnik is now going to restrict Cruise ships to two a day. The other thing travellers need to do if they are going to whinge about tourist is travel outside peak season thus go in May or June or September and you will have no Crowd issues and their will be a more even spread. European Holiday season is July or August so everywhere is packed. But all these other places in Croatia even in peak season are busy but not overcrowded as I believe there is so much to see in Croatia so smart tourist spread themselves out well and crowds are a lot less than say Prague, Rome, Venice etc.

        As for Australian tourists… yes I have seen them and young Croatians normally love them as they are normally very friendly however unfortunately the whole larrikin and bogan culture seems to have instilled itself in Australian society and there is an expectation that you drink alcohol and a lot of it and some cultures especially older generations are not used to this kind of excessive drinking. I was in Croatia the year this comment was made by the minister and there were numerous incident in Dubrovnik which triggered the comments. 5 Aussies got arrested running naked around the city, One Kiwi sliced of her hand on sink that collapsed having intercourse on a yacht then the Aussie bloke left her there and fled. Also a drunk Aussie guy arrested trying to steal the thousand year old sword in the Centre of Dubrovnik from an old Statue… are just a few. There are good and bad in all travellers and this is probably now standing out as Australians love the country and are coming in droves. I have always been treated well and if you treat people with respect you normally get it back.

    • Caitlyn December 11, 2013 at 6:39 PM #

      Hey Tom – yep, in the worst cases, it tended to be a bit like that (along the coast but not at all in the north). I’d probably say to go in the shoulder seasons – when I was there in April it was lovely, but it was just way too crowded (and not to mention too hot!) in August.

  5. Hans T December 11, 2013 at 8:42 AM #

    Did the Sail Croatia trip this September. Found the country interesting, the tourists ( there were 13 million overseas visitors there last year compared to 5 million back here ) staggering and the amount of farm paddocks full of rocks, ( never saw any animals ) intreguing! I agree with all of the comments. Slovenia was a great surprise- very nice but maybe i shouldnt say it too loud, lest the next boom destination. Hans from Bendigo

    • Caitlyn December 11, 2013 at 6:39 PM #

      Thanks Hans! I agree – Slovenia is Europe’s best kept secret :)

  6. Pero December 14, 2013 at 2:32 PM #

    As one who is born in Split, Croatia is going to be the most visited destination in Europe as it is the only place where you can see how the Mediterranean used to be. I hope it will be for more years coming.
    Pero recently posted..Dec 14, Seaplanes from Split to your island destinationMy Profile

    • Caitlyn December 15, 2013 at 10:56 PM #

      So do I, Pedro :) Split is such a lovely place, you’re lucky to call it home.

  7. Sammi December 15, 2013 at 7:50 PM #

    Hum… I wasn’t expecting you to say that. I don’t think we really had enough time in Split this summer, essentially we were dropped to our accommodation (and i was lucky enough to stay in the yellow house, which was a luxury as i managed to wangle the double bed). i spent the day after the tour ended wandering around the palace getting lost in side streets- and somehow landed up right in the centre! I would like to do Croatia Sail- with Busabout, of course- but have been toying with the idea of Turkey Sail…… Now I’m even more confused!

    • Caitlyn December 15, 2013 at 10:58 PM #

      Yep, I wrestled with this one for a bit, I didn’t really know how to talk about the place since I really loved it, but I can’t think about it without thinking of its downfalls as well. I reckon the Turkey sailing looks brilliant :)

      • Sammi December 15, 2013 at 11:37 PM #

        Yeah, I saw Mel’s pics from it today too… & I know she wasn’t keen on Croatia sail…

  8. Calli December 20, 2013 at 9:47 AM #

    I really, really, really like this post. Although our initial feeling of Croatia were more along the line of “how fast can we get there?” I can totally relate to your hesitation. Croatia has definitely been discovered and even during our visit in the shoulder-season tour buses were frequently pulling up and dropping off mobs of people. Luckily with some effort we were able to escape the crowds – at Plitvice we just kept walking further into the park until it was quiet again :) However even crowded, Croatia is really beautiful and definitely worth a visit!
    Calli recently posted..Turkey Wrap Up – More Reasons to Love this CountryMy Profile

    • Caitlyn December 27, 2013 at 3:34 AM #

      I totally agree Calli! I just hope Croatia’s tourism authorities can manage the crowds in the future, so it doesn’t become too out of control everywhere. Fingers crossed.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. A date with Dubrovnik - Olympic Wanderings - January 30, 2014

    […] Despite my previous whinging about cruise ships and Dubrovnik being overtouristed, I adore the place. People often compare it to Venice, due to its history (the two would compete with each other over trade on the Adriatic Sea) but that’s a bit ridiculous. Venice has its canals and has a sort of faded elegance to it, whereas Dubrovnik has the brilliant sea views and the bright white and orange colour scheme going on. […]

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