October 4, 2021 – As the Adriatic coast slowly prepares for its winter tourism hibernation, some fascinating information from a representative of the UK in the 1980s, a time when Croatian winter tourism was very much alive. Would it still be?
There have been many heated debates on social media in response to TCN’s latest editorial this weekend – Could digital nomad concepts solve the problem of Croatian winter tourism?
While Croatia has excellent tourism figures in summer, the Adriatic coast is almost closed in winter, with an impact not only on its tourist offer, but also on the quality of life of local residents. Recent digital nomad concepts such as Nomad Table – inviting digital nomads to meet and interact over dinner – fills a restaurant in Split once a week; an evening of meeting and pitching in Zagreb offers entertainment for 50 inhabitants, expatriates and nomads; and the new Digital Nomad Valley Zagreb co-living concept already has more than 50 applications in just 5 days for the winter.
None of these ideas are revolutionary, all are transferable to mainstream tourism. So, is it time to work on a strategic plan for a pilot project on a quality destination like Split?
Of the many reactions on social media, this particular comment caught my attention.
The Amfora and now Riva in the town of Hvar were open all winter as well as a few restaurants and cafes catering mainly to American tourists for walking, history and the arts. That was until 1991.
The comment was made by Martin Gannon, a Briton with his heart in Jelsa on Hvar. Martin worked as an operations manager for Pilgrim Holidays, which was owned by Yugoslav airline JAT from 1986 to 1991. He told me he was busy with tourists 12 months a year covering Dubrovnik, Split, Hvar, Pula, Zagreb, as well as other destinations in the former Yugoslavia.
And there were plenty of thefts. This, at a time before the revolution of low-cost flights. Martin kindly accepted an email interview to tell us more about winter tourism as it once was.
1. Croatian tourism is very seasonal, with most of the tourism in the summer months and almost nothing in the winter months. But that was not always the case. You were director of operations for Pilgrim Holidays, owned by the Yugoslav airline JAT from 1986 to 1991. Tell us about winter tourism at the time.
When I started working for Pilgrim Holidays, which was then part of JAT, we had a large fleet of planes. Being a self-managed business (a type of worker cooperative similar to Waitrose, John Lewis in the UK), it was not possible to shut down services or have staff with short-term contracts that they only worked in the summer. were found to keep personnel employed and aircraft to continue operating. Yes, services have been reduced compared to the summer, but you can still get direct flights from the UK to Zagreb, Dubrovnik and Split, with connections to Pula and Zadar.
My role was to see how to increase visitor traffic from the UK to the former Yugoslavia.
At the time, Yugotours America was successfully bringing tourists from New York on regular DC10 services via Belgrade and Zagreb, staying in Dubrovnik Split and Hvar.
Tourists have also come via UK operator Saga Holidays on coach tours from Vienna to Dubrovnik. I worked for Saga Holidays from 1980 to 1983, leading coach tours of Americans and British tourists who were elderly.
With a good number of hotels open, I started to develop short winter breaks, better known nowadays as city breaks. Event tourism in the form of conferences for large companies also took place. Surprisingly for a country during socialist times, religious events such as the St. Blaise festival in February in Dubrovnik and the developing religious destination Medjugorje have been promoted and visited. At the time JAT had a lot of international flights to India, America, China and Australia so I arranged an option to add a few days. So instead of flying from London via Zagreb or Belgrade directly to Sydney, you can stay in Split or Dubrovnik for a few days cheaply.
I also started to develop health tourism, spas, dental care and even some ski and adventure vacations, as well as wildlife viewing, especially in early spring.
2. It was a time before the low cost airline revolution. Tell us about the off-season flights to the Croatian coast. Who flew where and how often?
Air operations were first operated in the low tourist season by Yugoslav Airlines and Inex-Adria (now Adria). JAT operated mainly to Zagreb and Belgrade from London, Manchester and Glasgow. There were also direct flights to Ljubljana (for skiing) Dubrovnik and Split, as well as numerous connecting flights to the coast from Belgrade and Zagreb. Inex-Adria operated from Manchester and Gatwick to Ljubljana and Maribor for a ski vacation.
The other airline Aviogenex owned by Yugotours operated from Gatwick to a number of Serbian airports for ski vacations as well as charter services for conferences, mainly to Dubrovnik, where 200-300 delegates would be flown, to the support from JAT where we could only supply one aircraft.
3. What was the profile of the winter tourist in Croatia? Which nationalities were the biggest visitors?
The main off-season visitors were Americans, as well as pilgrims from Medjugorje, mainly Irish and Spanish. We also transported a very large number of Filipinos going mainly to Medjugorje, so we participated in accommodation and transfers. Americans were mostly retirees and interested in history, the arts, and food. These would be organized in groups, and in the town of Hvar, the old theater was used to present performances in English, of actors from all over Yugoslavia at the time.
4. What were the most popular destinations? It’s hard to imagine Pula, Split, Dubrovnik and Hvar as 12 month destinations.
The main destinations were Dubrovnik and Split, with additions to Pula and Opatija, as well as Plitvice (although it was mostly in the spring). Unfortunately Croatia is not well known for skiing although it does have some, so sales were for Slovenia, and the Serbian resort of Kopaonik for ski holidays, ski week in the mountains and then a few days or more. on the coast.
5. Swimming in winter is only for diehards in Croatia. What were these tourists doing during their winter visits?
The hotels used during the winter had indoor pools, and even some had limited spa facilities, so people enjoyed limited walking, history and sporting activities. The majority of these visitors were older and would take advantage of milder coastal conditions. They would not stay for a week, but up to 6 weeks or more, as it was cheaper then to stay in the hotel than to pay the food and heating bills at home, in the UK or in the US. United.
You have to remember that it was a socialist era, so no one could be unemployed. Better to run the hotel at a small cost than to have staff, in the hope that tourists would buy extra drinks, massages etc. to cover additional costs.
(Martin Gannon, left, taking a coffee break with his father in Jelsa in the 1980s)
6. Take the town of Hvar as an example. What was open in terms of hotels, restaurants and other tourist facilities?
The town of Hvar opened the Amfora hotel, which had an excellent indoor swimming pool, a medical center and a health center specializing in lung, respiratory and asthma conditions. There was also a fitness team, which helped visiting sports teams, such as water polo, football teams in training. And basically anyone who needs sports fitness advice.
Hotel Slavija (now Riva) was also open, but mainly for domestic tourism. A few restaurants and coffee bars were open, again most of them were not private, a few were. All museums and theaters were open and fully operational. Boat trips were of course not held in winter.
7. The homeland war obviously changed everything. But with such a global tourism boom 30 years later, why do you think Croatia no longer has the winter tourism it had in the 1980s? What changed?
The main reason Croatia has low tourism is poor connectivity with flights, but this now has an opportunity to change with Ryanair showing up in Zagreb. But there are still few domestic flights during the winter. There is also a serious lack of showing opportunities to visit Croatia out of season and keeping hotels open. And reasonable prices and marketing. It doesn’t have to be a large number of people coming, but people who are willing to pay well and have fun.
8. We will appoint you Croatian Minister of Tourism for this matter. Considering your experience with tourism then and the world today, what steps would you take to reintroduce 12 month tourism to Croatia?
Take a much better look at marketing Croatia, showing off its breathtaking landscapes. People are no longer just looking for the sun and the sea; they want something, especially in winter, to challenge them, entertain them, enjoy healthy food and wine and craft beers. It is better to see and visit them in winter than in summer when it is almost 40 degrees !!
Many hotels have good sports facilities, so invite football teams from all over Europe to train, as they did before, as well as water polo teams. A popular sport now is swimming in cold water, many exciting rivers in Croatia to attempt this challenge. Healthy food yoga vacations, spas, medical tourism, especially dental care, and yes, skiing outside of Zagreb.
Maybe not so much now after Covid but companies will still have conferences, so do them good business, the delegates will come back themselves with their families when they see how beautiful Croatia is. I know this is a fact, as I used to book delegates for our summer vacation when I was in Pilgrim.
Nature tours, environmental train rides. Working holidays, helps to plant trees in burnt areas. Projects to help rebuild areas damaged by earthquakes, some of these ideas will be aimed at small groups but they are high value tourists and most importantly they will visit again and tweet and take a snapshot of what they do, by getting free publicity.
Martin has already contributed to TCN with a very interesting tale of restarting tourism after the Homeland War, a different time. For more, see Reviving Croatian Tourism from the UK After the Homeland War: A Travel Agent’s Story.