Lists, lists, lists. They are everywhere on the Internet, particularly when it comes to travel. 10 Places You Have to See Before You Die, 25 Must Sees Before Breakfast, 5 Best Beaches in Grimsby - you know the ones I am talking about.
The latest one to catch my eye was one doing the rounds from the official TripAdvisor blog. I won't grace the article with a link, but its title was '5 European Cities You've Never Heard Of (and Need to Visit Now)'. I could see the article appearing in my Facebook feed, as it was being shared by Croatians, so I deduced that there must be a Croatian city in the five. Curious to know which unknown city the intrepid travellers at TripAdvisor had unearthed - and against my better judgment - I clicked, to discover that well-known unheard of city of...
Split, the capital of Dalmatia, currently one of Europe's hottest destinations, in the middle of a huge tourism boom, home to Ultra Europe music festival, owner of its own UNESCO World Heritage Site, Diocletian's Palace, home to arguably the most famous football team in Central and Eastern Europe (with Split in its name), gateway to the famous Dalmatian islands of Hvar, Brac, Vis and Korcula, a city with more Olympic winners per capita than any other in the world, and even now on the international cruiser routes so that it comes to the attention even of the most geographically challenged American retiree cruise passenger.
As a young blogger (in terms of blog life not blogger years), and before I knew better, I used to devour these articles, as they brought me lots of traffic to my young site. An article such as '10 Best Places to Visit in Europe', written by a blogger with no more credentials than me, would include Hvar as one of the ten. A quick repackaging on my blog to 'Hvar Named in 10 Best Places to Visit in Europe', shared in the appropriate places, would guarantee thousands of hits, lots of shares and self-congratulatory pats on the back from the locals, and all was well.
Except that... after a while, I began to realise that these blogs not only did not mean anything, but they were probably doing more harm than good to my site. If I wanted to build a site of quality information and informed features, these clickbait articles were the exact opposite of that. There are of course some lists which have more authority - Lonely Planet's annual 10 Places to Visit in..., and the New York Times 52 Places to Visit in... is always widely popular, but the straw that broke this camel's back when it came to repackaging and sharing was a blog written by some American student on the top 8 places to visit in Eastern Europe.
With three of them on Hvar and another in Split, this was an easy five minute repackage and guarantee of thousands of hits and some Adsense revenure. But not only did the student blogger have no authority, it was clear she had only visited Dalmatia, Prague, Slovakia and Poland. I ignored the post, watched it go viral and competing websites garner thousands of hits, and I made three resolutions.
1. Never to click on an article by Buzzfeed or similar again. As with many people, I took a much bigger interest in the US elections this time round, and it didn't take long to learn which were the attention-seeking, clickbait title-rich publications which one might be lured into clicking into once, but then never again. The same types of website exist for tourism, all about the click and no content. By deciding not to click on them, I would be less tempted to cash in on those thousands of clicks.
2. To never write those repackaged articles again, unless it was from an authoratitave source, such as Lonely Planet.
3. To combat the clickbait culture of lists, lists, lists, with some lists of my own. But ones of quality about a destination, among the best every written, and ones where hopefully even local residents might learn something. You can check out how we are doing with this in our 25 Things to Know about Croatia section.
I was also curious to see if I could write a viral article, and one evening after a couple of beers, I knocked out 25 Reasons You Should Never Visit Croatia. I was shocked to see that not only did it go viral, and was featured in every major Croatian news portal, but it attracted a million hits in the first 24 hours on the website where it first appeared, Private Accommodation Croatia. Just for fun, I shared it again on Facebook six months later - almost 50,000 hits second time around. I think I will continue to do so twice a year out of curiosity. But articles like that are momentary in impact and lacking in anything concrete or longterm.
Which brings us to the most interesting clickbait website I have come across in recent times, and one about which I have featured quite a lot on this site, for this is a clickbait website with a difference - European Best Destinations.
I will confess to being mildly fascinated with this website, which came from nowhere, managed to create a sought-after brand and had the Croatian media and tourism industry endorsing and promoting it like crazy last year, as it nominated Zagreb as one of the 20 best Christmas markets in Europe. The website was very clever, choosing one destination per European country, and with Croatian media and tourism bodies urging people to vote for Zagreb, the Croatian capital won the vote quite easily and could now proudly call itself the best Christmas market in Europe. And whether or not you agree with that, it was a fitting reward for those who have transformed winter tourism in Zagreb from virtually nothing to an attractive international destination, of which more later. And it was not just the Croats who were tweeting - some of the biggest tourist boards in Europe were pushing to have their candidate endorsed before Zadar came first as Best European Destination 2016 - take a look at some of these screenshots.
I was jealous. A website with less traffic (at the time) than mine, had managed to put out a brand which people accepted, then entice tens of thouands of first time visitors to visit the site and vote in their polls (and they had others - best ski destinations, most romantic destination in Europe etc). The ultimate clickbait website with a very clever strategy. Or was it...
I decided to take a closer look at this Best European Destinations site, to see if there was something I could learn myself, and I was surprised to learn that not only was it a website supported by the European Commission, but also by hundreds of tourist boards all over the continent. A clickbait website with a purpose.
I took a closer look at some of the nominated destinations, and they showed to be a mixture of the largest, most-established cities, and some lesser-known, emerging destinations, which were definitely on the rise. Zagreb for its Christmas market, Zadar as best destination, and another rising star (which has the very real potential of becoming the number one destination on Hvar in the next ten years) - Stari Grad, the 2017 nominee.
An official website, dedicated to promoting tourism and not generating clicks for Adsense revenue, and one which seemingly is choosing its destinations to promote with extreme care. A clickbait site with a difference.
And how much difference has the award made to Zagreb?
The rise of tourism in Zagreb is one of the great untold stories of Croatian tourism in my opinion. Did you know that there was only one destination in Croatia where more than a million people overnighted in 2015? Forget Dubrovnik, Split and Rovinj. It was a destination far away from the popular Adriatic coast - Zagreb. In an age or 365 tourism, the capital has been quietly going about its business, delivering exactly that.
The story of Advent in Zagreb is even more remarkable. What started out as a small set of stalls on the main square in 2002, continued that way until 2010, when the city began to expand the offer, with remarkable success. I remember a few years ago (again in one of those clickbait articles) that Zagreb was the most boring city in Europe. It was a claim I did not disagree with, but what a difference a few years makes. The city has really become a vibrant destination in a few short years, and the increase in tourism numbers is impressive indeed. Take a look at these:
In pure tourism numbers, according to the Zagreb Tourist Board, in 2013 there were 45,393 arrivals and 82,284 overnight stays, while last year in December there were 70,550 arrivals and 123,734 overnight stays. The tourist board declared that Advent in Zagreb was now the most important event in the city calendar, and far from resting on their laurels after last year's success and recognition, Advent in Zagreb has come back bigger and better than ever. And far from resting on its laurels, Zagreb has significantly expanded its 2016 offer - take a tour of the new locations for this year's Advent in Zagreb.
And then this year, partly due to the European Best Destinations factor, surely:
In comparison to last year, from 25 November to 11 December 2016, the number of arrivals this year have increased by 30 percent (52,430), while the number of overnight stays have increased by 41 percent (100,689). Growth has been achieved with both domestic and foreign tourists, with domestic tourism to Zagreb up 23 percent and foreign tourism up 34 percent.
Is Zagreb the best Christmas market in Europe? I haven't been to many so I am not the best person to judge, but if indeed it is, it is an incredible achievement for a destination which only started taking Advent seriously six years ago, compared to more famous cities like Vienna and several German cities which are symbols of Advent. What is certain is that this major effort by Zagreb has not gone unnoticed in the international media, with Conde Nast placing it as one of the top 9 places to travel worldwide in December, and The Guardian fitting it into the top 10 European city winter breaks.
And just in case you thought everyone was being pressed into talking about Zagreb, the Daily Telegraph found no room for Croatia in its list of best 16 Christmas markets in Europe, which emphasises an important point - a lot of these lists are about personal opinion.
A final word on one aspect of the success of Advent in Zagreb which has not been written about - the regional effect. As gorgeous as the beaches are in summer, so life on the coast and islands is a little duller than perhaps it need be this time of year, and the prospect of a Zagreb Advent visit has brightened up this quiet time of year for many. I have met several people on Hvar who are all heading north this month to explore and enjoy Advent in Zagreb. The regional marketing is also proving effective, and I was surprised to see a cosy welcoming Advent in Zagreb billboard lighting up a drab drive through the centre of Mostar recently.
A nice promotional success story, and money well invested by the tourist board. Less Buzzfeed, more European Best Destinations - it will be interesting to see how the profile of Stari Grad is raised when the time comes to vote for it.