Rob Orchard talks with the Minister of Tourism about his plans to bring in new visitors, promote Croatian wine and make the most of the country’s accession to the EU...
Croatian tourism is on the right track’ says Veljko Ostojić, Croatia’s new Minister of Tourism. Swept to power at the end of December 2011 as a member of the centre-left Kukuriku coalition, 54-year-old Ostojić is part of the youngest cabinet in the country’s history, led by Prime Minister Zoran Milanović, the youngest PM since independence.
The minister has an intimate knowledge of the country’s tourist sector, and an impeccable pedigree in the industry. He’s worked in senior positions in a huge spread of major hospitality companies including the Liburnia Riviera Hotels group, Croatia Airlines, Rabac Hotels, the Croatian Sommelier’s Club – even the Croatian Camping Union. All this means that when he took up office, the nation’s tourism professionals had their hopes high for positive change from Ostojić.
The first of his aims was to tackle that perennial problem of how to extend the tourism season in Croatia. For too long, Croatia has been seen as a place to come for summer and early autumn, with the rest of the year effectively off limits. ‘In order to become more attractive as a tourist destination outside the summer months, we are continually working on improving the quantity of service and creating new reasons for visiting’ Ostojić tells me. He reels off lists of programmes – including developing the nation’s biking and golf offerings – which will help. His ministry is also tweaking the incentives of tour operators to make it worth their while to book visitors in to the pre- and post-season periods.
Ostojić is keen that Croatia doesn’t become seen as a one-trick pony.
‘In addition to its well preserved sea and environment Croatia must become better known for its rich culture, history, traditions and native wines and gastronomy’ he tells me. ‘The potential for Croatian tourism lies in the fact that each region is uniquely interesting.’ Promoting individual regions and a wide spread of activities will make the country ‘an even more fascinating lifestyle destination, not just for annual holidays, but also for long weekend breaks.’
While the Minister recognises that Europe will continue to be the key source of Croatia’s tourists for at least the next five years, he and his team are also championing the country further afield. ‘We are promoting Croatian tourism in more distant markets such as India, China and Japan’, he says. ‘We are cooperating with our neighbours, for example with Slovenia, and have had discussions with the Greek Minister of Tourism about possibilities for joint tourist cooperation.’ Old restrictions are being broken down. ‘We have introduced a temporary suspension of visas for visitors from Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Kazahkstan’, Ostojić says. ‘From April 1 to October 31 this year a visa will not be required for stays of up to 90 days.’
As well as reaching out across the globe to potential new visitors, Ostojić has a strong environmental streak and is determined not to sell out the local habitat like some other tourism hotspots. ‘Croatia has not been greedy and hasn’t repeated the mistakes of some Mediterranean countries,’ he claims. ‘Sustainable development of tourism is crucial and our priorities are the protection of the environment and the preservation of authenticity.’ I ask him for an example of a policy he’s pursuing to support these aims and he lights up. ‘From Istria to Dubrovnik, there is a series of former military premises in very attractive tourist locations’ he says. ‘Over the years, these have not been used either for business or tourist purposes. Our aim is to revive these establishments and to put them in the service of development and new employment; in other words to transform them into tourist capacity of quality.’
Ostojić is from Pazin, the heartland of Istria, home to gourmet products including olive oils, truffles and, of course, beautiful wines like malvazija. ‘In the last ten years, there has been great progress in the production and quality of Croatian wine,’ he says. ‘We plan to start promoting Croatian wine on the tourist markets along with Croatia itself.’ Ostojić thinks that putting Croatian bottles front and centre will ‘have a positive effect on the totality of tourism’: and anyone who’s enjoyed a glass or two of Coronica Gran Teran recently is likely to agree…
Of course the key event which will shape the achievements of this government is EU accession, a major step which will take place in 2013. It will have knock-on effects on every area of society – and Ostojić is typically positive about the outcomes for tourism. ‘When we become a full member of the European Union, we will have the ability to use structural funds for developing tourism, [particularly] for those types and regions which are still not sufficiently developed’ he says. ‘This should strengthen the competitiveness of Croatian tourism on the world market.’ But the major change is that ‘half a billion citizens will be able to become aware of what Croatia has to offer. They will be able to travel to Croatia without any kind of formality: this will be a step in a positive direction for the 100,000 people employed in the tourist industry.’
You can tell that Ostojić is burning with enthusiasm and passion to revolutionise the Croatian tourism industry. He has been quoted in the press as suggesting he wants to bring in an extra two billion euros per year in tourism revenue, as well as bringing VAT right down to increase competitiveness, extending the tourism season and getting stuck into the myriad smaller projects – like developing those old military bases.
For a country that has – like every other European nation – been buffeted by global economic headwinds, and whose greatest national resource is its environment and culture, having a tireless new tourism champion like Ostojić is seriously good news.