Overtourism in parts of Croatia is a fact. A fact that one should consider when designing an adventure itinerary. Take a deep dive here on some insights and facts that should impact where you go and what you do.
Adventure travel is impossible without a local context. That includes local issues that are a part of the daily life. One of the big issues we want to look at is over-tourism. Primarily how it impacts our living space on islands and on the sea between them; in towns and in National Parks. We share these insights so that you, discerning adventurer, are better aware of the impact we are all making on Croatia and the world.
EVERY 5TH KUNA
Firstly, let's take one step back to look at the big picture. Tourism accounts for 10% of global GDP. In western Europe, the average is around 7% but in Croatia, it is 18%. See more on this link (right column are % of GDP). So, almost every 5th Croatian Kuna in the Croatian economy comes from you – the traveler. That says a lot about tourism but also state of the economy, too.
So, tourism is like a big powerful laser gun ( you can argue that it’s double more powerful in Croatian circumstances). Think of it as a device that can cut through the stubbornest obstacle or challenge if used properly. Alternatively, it’s the device that can also shoot your foot if used in wrong ways. It either kills the economy, culture and the destination or it enriches it.
A holistic solution is to diversify the economy from tourism and strategically connect tourism to benefit other business sectors, but that's a whole different book. A top line insight for the purpose of this discussion is this: what you buy and from whom you buy it is going to greatly impact the lives of locals and how that cascades throughout the society. So, the Croatian economy is very closely tied to the tourism economic inflow. This brings us to the second point.
OVERTOURISM IN CROATIA
One of the top line metrics for over tourism is a number of foreign travelers vs a number of local people. Croatia seems to be stretched there.
Number of tourists in 2017 ('000)
Number of local residents ('000)
Tourist vs Locals
In Croatia there is 13x as many people coming in as there are locals. Before tourism, last time this kind of movement of people was happening was in the 7th century when Croatian tribes settled here.
Trivial side story: a fun addition to the above insight. Take a minute to watch the latest ad for a local beer that plays on this comparison.
It’s in Croatian, so here is the gist of the talk. The Slavs are figuring which tribe will go where. The Polish Slavic tribes go to the west, the Czech tribes to the East, the Russians go north. Where do Croats go? They go where no one else wants to: the south. South in Croatian is 'jug' – as in 'Jugo' – wind blowing from the south that we experience on our paddling trips. The joke in the ad goes: ‘Poor you. You have to go south. You’ll have to work on that barren karst/limestone landscape in all that heat. Hahaha.' See what happens at the end. I don't want to spoil the entire video.
Back to the point. So, tons of travelers and few locals in comparison. In reality, there are other factors that make this ratio even more drastic. Most of the traveling is happening on the coast which is where half of the people live. Secondly, most of the traveling is done only in peak summer months (June-September). So, if you are going to the coast, in summer, chose your coastal destination wisely. See what happens to some of the places.
HOW SUSTAINABLE IS TOURISM FUTURE?
Overtourism is starting to significantly impact some coastal (and inland) places. Dubrovnik has made (with UNESCO pressure) a plan to limit the number of daily guests to the Old Town to 8000 per day and may turn down cruise ships. I've studied there for 4 years and the notion of a traffic light to enter the Old Town seems like a science fiction movie. From 2018 it's a reality.
Plitvice Lakes National Park is being monitored and controlled under the recommendations of UNESCO and it may be on the way to becoming an endangered site because of over tourism.
Krka National Park has a limit on its Skradinski Kuk to 10.000 people per day.
If we fast forward these trends we can predict what will happen with these sites but also hundreds of places that are not under the UNESCO protection. For reference, we can look around the world for over tourism examples. Venice bans new hotels and prohibits new fast food joints from opening. Anti-tourism protests were loudest in Barcelona and took place in 2018 in Venice, Rome, Amsterdam, Florence, Berlin, Lisbon and elsewhere in Europe. Locals in Barcelona say: ‘Tourism takes something out of the neighborhoods. It makes them banal.’
At it’s most extreme, the Maya Beach on Ko Phi Phi island in Thailand (where DiCaprio’s film The Beach was filmed) is now closed indefinitely to recover from damage caused by millions of tourists. They had 5.000 people there daily on this couple of hundred-meter long beach.
IT'S NOT THE SAME WHERE YOU GO
So, over tourism is impacting Croatia on a national level. But a national average is just that - an average. A mathematical abstraction. In practice, there are some microspots that are worse off and some spots that are less impacted.
Which are the areas to look out for in the future for your future adventure trip to Croatia? To answer that we look at a principle discovered by an Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto. Mr. Pareto noticed that 80% of land in Italy is owned by 20% of people. This principle has been observed ever since in a variety of man-made environments (economy and business) but also some biological environments like the share of RNA viruses among birds.
Pareto rule, as you may guess, also applies to our little country and tourism. From the perspective of adventure activities and itinerary, we will look at two things: national parks and the islands.
CROATIAN NATIONAL PARKS
Let’s take a look at the national parks first.
Visitors in 2017
If we look at National Parks, 2 biggest parks (Plitvice and Krka) account for 80% of all National Park traffic while they account for only 41% of the size. And mind you, most of the Plitvice and Krka visitors don’t venture beyond 20% of the park area. Krka, btw has done excellent work to enable people to explore north parts of the park: climbing craig, small waterfalls, mills and walking trails.
Sjeverni Velebit and Risnjak are visited by only 1% of all people that go to National Parks. Surreal. This just proves our point and our philosophy that there is limited correlation between hype of the place and it's beauty and adventure potential. Just go to Sjeverni Velebit and Risnjak. It's stunning (check links below at the end of the article).
We focus on islands as a uniquely Croatian environment and a home turf for kayaking and SUP touring adventures. There are 1.244 islands and reefs. 50 islands in Croatia are inhabited. Most statistics only look at the 16 biggest (and most inhabited).
Number of tourists in 2017 ('000 people)
Number of local residents ('000 people)
Tourists vs Locals
|TOTAL (top 16 islands)|
Two things here. Firstly, the top 5 islands account for 70% of overall tourism traffic from top 16 islands. So, if someone dag out numbers for all islands it would account for even more (likely more than 80%). We can talk about the factors why. The first four islands on this list are in the north and easiest to access by car for travelers from Italy, Slovenia, Austria, Bavaria, Hungary, and the Czech Republic - traditionally most loyal Croatian guests.
Secondly, a number of travelers in some of those islands are as many as 40x the number of locals. That’s a lot of people. Take that with a grain of salt as Krk and Lošinj are home to a lot of summer houses for people from Zagreb, Slovenia, and Italy. You can argue that part of this percentage is the homeowners. Still average for top 17 islands is get 15x as many travellers as locals. That's a lot of people. Lets put this into perspective.
Let's say a little village has 8 locals that meet together to play cards (briškula and trešeta - two popular coastal card games) on an average winter night. This amount of traffic (15x) is as if there is another 120 people next to them. Perhaps it's great for the economy but marginalizes the local vibe and puts the locals out of the local picture. That's what you came for, no? Perhaps they don't show up there anymore because the beer is no longer local and it's double the price.
No wonder big capital is poping hotels like mushrooms in Croatia. This could all be an opportunity for reviving islands.
Here is a list of the next 20 biggest islands.
List of next 20 biggest islands
Top 16 islands from the first list (with all the nice stats) have on average of 7.180 inhabitants per island. At the same time, most of the islands at this second list are struggling with the declining population. Their average population is around 320. Smallest 10 inhabited islands (not listed here) have an average of 23 inhabitants per island.
Declining population is a challenge also for Lastovo from the first list. It excludes Čiovo and Vir because they are connected with bridges, so in practice they are peninsulas.
The main reason for the declining population is:
- fewer work opportunities. Solution: some of my IT friends wouldn't mind programming from the islands and go for a paddle in between work sessions.
- fewer education opportunities. Solution: imagine what advances in education with modular schooling system and remote schooling could do for the islands.
- islands are more expensive to get to. A family of 4 will have to cash out 250HRK (33 EUR) for one trip to and from the island. With average salary of 830EUR in Croatia you can do 25 trips to the islands.
There is more to the entire story - but just take it as an illustration of island life challenges. If you want an ultimate adventure try to build a house on an island with no trucks. It's a guaranteed thrill from start to finish. Doing work here is harder, but it's the kind of place where work needs to be done to revive it.
Wouldn’t it be nice to use adventure travel to incentivize people to just stay and live a meaningful life on the islands? Meaningful meaning that they maintain their traditions and evolve them to modern challenges. Traditionally they have been fishing, keeping livestock, farming, making wine. You can't beat a local tomato or potato. You also can't beat the strong social connection among your neighbors in a small town or village. It's the thing that resets your mind and brings peace to your heart. That is something scarce in the modern world, as are many other things that may be abundant on these isles. I am sure there must be other ways to make the island folk contribute meaningfully to the ever-connected world of the 21st century. Tourism may be just a spark to ignite their sustainable future.
ROLE OF TRAVELLERS IN ADVENTURE TRAVEL IN CROATIA
I hope a couple of these stats serve as food for thought. Consider it when designing your travel itinerary and choosing which places to see.
When we talk of leveling out impact of adventure travel on local communities, here is where we have some experience that shaped our point of view. When choosing your itinerary consider the following:
1) Explore islands off the beaten path.
One of the things that are uniquely Croatian is island life. 1244 islands have left a unique mark on local culture, history, traditions, language, cuisine, and way of life. To see it at its purest it may call for a visit to some of the lesser-known islands. The beauty of having 1000 islands is that some are bound to get crowded but some are bound to stay local with their inherent wildness and grittiness. It's what adventures are made of.
2) Allow time for adventure (slow travel)
People come up to our base on island Molat for a day trip from Zadar. A trip often squeezed in between day trips to Plitvice and Krka National Park. A the end of the day we paddle back to Molat island, change clothes and walk down to the harbor to hop on a public ferry that takes people back to Zadar. More than a dozen times I've heard: ‘I love it here. I don’t want to leave. I wish I booked a few days here to explore and relax.'
A friend of mine illustrated the situation simply: It’s kind of as if, deep in your heart, you want to watch an epic 2.5h hour film but you give it only have 20 minutes. Good stories, good movies, and good adventures just need to unfold naturally. That takes time. Specially if the locations are harder to reach.
3) Check out Sjeverni Velebit and Risnjak
These are really Croatian gems that only 1% of all people visiting National Parks see. Even if you didn't bring your hiking gear, get a pair of shoes, a rain jacket and other bits in Decathlon (there is one in Zadar) for tens of EUR and go for a short hike. For packing tips go here. You will find that Croatia is also home to a Primeval Beech Forests. You need to hike to see anything there and you may need some outdoor skills. For a bigger adventure and inspiration check our trip report from North Velebit itinerary.
4) A purchase is a statement of support
When you buy something you say: ‘I support what you are doing. Keep on doing it.’ Sometimes we are all guilty of saving a small % or a couple of euros and either end up with a product or service that is half good, or we support some big system that doesn’t contribute local economy or we end up polluting indirectly. Or we just pick up stuff on the main street or supermarkets giving half of the profit to the traders who care about volume more than quality or impact on society. Think about what you are buying and what impact you are making as a traveler.
We are voicing these opinions because we firmly believe that adventure tourism can make the world a better place. It can cause a lot of benefits to local people, the local economy. It can enable you, the traveler, to learn skills, move your limits and become more connected to nature.
Malik Adventures is fully committed to doing all that. Our trips are off the beaten path. Our main base is on island Molat – a little island without a tourism office. Read more about what life on Molat is like or watch a video about sea kayaking there. Our kayaking outing is to islands with less tourism flow (Silba, Zverinac, Ist, Dugi Otok, Lastovo, Susak, Unije). Our hiking trips are in South Velebit's more remote areas or in North Velebit.
It is fair to say that we are all in the middle of changes taking place in this gigantic industry. We are all figuring out what is the most sustainable and locally beneficial way to do it. Making mistakes is a part of the process as long as we learn to do it better and stay committed to making adventure travel a force to make the world a better place.
Complement this read with some thoughts about the art of slowing down. On a more lighter note, check out the best moments from our 2018 adventure trips on islands and mountains;
If you want to support us say firstname.lastname@example.org and we would be happy to tailor make an itinerary for you.
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