This is the future of tourism in Croatia - Some things cannot be sold
Tourism: Tension between two visions
By Eric Jansson
Published: June 7 2005 09:38 | Last updated: June 7 2005 09:38
Croatia The boat drifted by one morning and lingered just offshore. On board, a Russian businessman - a magnate of some stature if not quite an oligarch - gazed coolly toward the land. His eyes settled on a bright yellow villa ornamented in Venetian gothic floral patterns, built in 1905 for a wealthy Italian family.
Days later, there was a knock on the door. The Russian wanted the villa and would pay â‚¬1m. â€œNoâ€? came the answer from Vjeko Martinko, the owner, who now enjoys telling this story.
A few days passed, and again the Russianâ€™s assistant arrived with an offer, higher into the millions. â€œNoâ€? again.
Once more the man visited, raising his offer. Mr Martinko says he turned him down flatly, with some advice. â€œIâ€™m sorry, but some things in life are priceless. Some things cannot be sold. This place is one such thing.â€?
Mr Martinkoâ€™s view of his private property, Villa Astra in the seaside retreat of Lovren, which he runs as a boutique hotel and gourmet restaurant, bears little resemblance to the view Croatiaâ€™s rulers once took of assets along the countryâ€™s splendid coastline.
Under Yugoslav Communist rule, prize coastal properties became gifts to Party loyalists - including those who once inhabited Villa Astra - while most of the shore became a playground for the proletariat. Crowds jammed into countless campsites and cement-block hotels. The state clung jealously to the land, as private owners like Mr Martinko now do, but it also cheapened it by opening it to all comers.
In the new era, tension between these competing visions - one of total exclusivity and one of total accessibility - defines the struggle for the future of Croatian tourism.
The stakes are high. Croatia attracted 9.8m foreign visitors last year. Tourism accounted for more than 20 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP), with receipts worth â‚¬5.7m attributed directly to the industry, according to state statistics.
The London-based World Travel and Tourism Council calls Croatiaâ€™s tourism market the fifth fastest-growing market in the world and predicts that tourism will account for 30 per cent of the countryâ€™s GDP by the year 2015.
To stay on track, Croatia must continue its balancing act, accommodating both high-end and low-end holidaymakers. For years, the former have holed up in grand hotels around Dubrovnik, while the latter make do in campsites and rooms-for-rent.
But critics add that the country must also plug an important hole in its market - the very-high end.
With its vast shoreline and more than 1,000 islands, Croatia possess ample space to provide super-rich guests - stars of business, sport and Hollywood - the privacy they require. But the countryâ€™s existing high-end hotels, mostly massive resorts and self-catering villas, cannot always do the job.
Such shortcomings drive the countryâ€™s wealthiest visitors on to the water, where they spend catered holidays on private holiday yachts, landing only occasionally in secluded harbours to stretch legs. Some of these, like the aspiring Russian buyer, later seek ways to buy their own exclusive properties.
Spotting a business opportunity, a small but growing number of entrepreneurs aim to fill this gap.
Among those tipped for success are Mr Martinko, with his Villa Astra and other properties near Lovren, and the Turkish proprietors of the Pucic Palace, the first luxury boutique hotel to open within Dubrovnikâ€™s old walled city.
Benefiting from exclusivity and privacy, both options offer delights found at none of Croatiaâ€™s luxury mega-hotels, including the newly refurbished 139-room Hilton Imperial Dubrovnik, the Hilton Groupâ€™s first step into the market.
At the Pucic Palace, guests sip cocktails on a exquisite stone porch overlooking Dubrovnikâ€™s famous tiled rooftops. Rather than inducing claustrophobia, as the sometimes-crowded walled city can do, the location provides a soothing escape even in the heart of the city. Soundproofed walls block out the noise of the walking streets below.
By contrast, Villa Astra, in the northern region of Istria, capitalises on a quiet location directly on the shore and exploits synergies with Mr Martinkoâ€™s other retreats, including a nearby hilltop farm. By a serene pool, guests eat sumptuous meals made of locally harvested ingredients - scampi, mussels, wild asparagus, strawberries and nettles.
â€œThis is the future of tourism in Croatia,â€? Mr Martinko says.
He blasts both old-style mass tourism in Croatia and the tendency of todayâ€™s top-end guests to hide themselves away on hired yachts. Such tourism is â€œan industry with no human element.â€?
â€œThere is so much capital floating around in the world, targeting Croatia. We must focus it on what is sustainable.â€?
Some of the worldâ€™s most exclusive boutique hoteliers aim to enter the market, among them Singapore-based Amanresorts International, whose only other effort in Europe to date operates in Courchevel, France.
With new entrants like these, Croatiaâ€™s image could soon change for the better.