In a fast-moving world, it is easy to forget that it is just ten years since Ryanair entered the Croatian market with flights to Zadar, phase one of a transport revolution which has expanded the options for tourists visiting Croatia from all over Europe and beyond in the years that followed. After those pioneering steps from the Irish budget airline people love to hate (but continue to use), there has been an explosion of budget carriers coming to Croatia, and chief Ryanair competitor easyJet is now rivalling national carrier Croatia Airlines for passenger numbers during the summer.
Split is now connected to almost 100 destinations in peak season, and what started out as summer flights from mid-June to early September, has gradually expanded with a number of airlines from March to late October or even into November. As certain destinations move towards becoming almost 12 month destinations - Dubrovnik and Split to name but two - this strengthening of shoulder season connections should improve, especially with the marked increase in Asian tourists, who prefer to visit out of peak season, is a great market opportunity.
To put things in context, when I first moved to Croatia 15 years ago, the budget option to get to Hvar in October was two-fold:
1. Ryanair to Trieste, then bus to Rijeka, then 11 hour bus to Split.
2. Ryanair to Graz, then train to Zagreb, then bus to Split.
Back then, Ryanair was also almost the only budget airline to supply Croatia's neighbouring countries. How times change.
But this article is not about the growth of airline options, which is very welcome to those engaged in tourism, it is more about what is happening on the ground, and how things are now starting to change quickly - and for the better, especially for the person who should be most important in this (otherwise they will go elsewhere) - the tourist.
Having worked in tourism information for almost six years, almost exclusively in Croatia, some things have totally baffled me for a country which lives from tourism. Why make the experience so hard? Why, for example, was there never a ferry or catamaran connection between Split and Dubrovnik, one of the most travelled routes for tourists, and yet with no direct boat connections, or even flights (unless you count the weekly Croatia Airlines flight in one direction only), and the Neum Corridor in BiH to negotiate (crossing two EU borders), it was almost as though people were trying to make it deliberately hard for tourists to get from A to B.
Because things were so hard, enterprising local businesses emerged offered private transfers to speed up the process and levels of comfort. I had a very nice cooperation with one Hvar business, who organised private transfers from Dubrovnik to Hvar Town for just under 300 euro one way, and they were VERY busy and made a lot of money by offering a service to meet the demand. Kudos to them. There were many such businesses like them doing trasnsfers to Korcula, Brac and Split. And then...
The team from Krilo, who are heroes of mine for operating an excellent and innovative service, despite the bullying of state-owned operator Jadrolinija, started a catamaran service with 325 seats which went daily from Dubrovnik to Mljet, Korcula, Hvar, Brac and Split. A one way ticket from Dubrovnik to Hvar Town was just 170 kuna and included some spectacular scenery along the way. My Hvar transfer partners actually sent me an email requesting that I stop forwarding transfer requests which came through our site, as the service no longer made sense. A quiet revolution which has changed aspects of tourism for the better tourist experience. Local businesses will have to adapt and readjust.
The announcement last month of the new Dubrovnik Shuttle service which will see travellers delivered as far away as central Korcula from the airport for just over 30 euro was not only welcome, but long overdue. It also had me thinking of those private transfer businesses which have been meeting that demand for years and living very well from it - time to adapt and readjust.
A reliable quick luxury air transfer will come. I had hoped it would be the European Coastal Airlines seaplanes project, which had the potential to truly transform Croatia's coastal and island tourism, and which - when it worked - was probably the best new addition to Croatian tourism in several years. Downtown Split to downtown Pula in an hour, direct connections to downtown Split from Italy in just an hour, Split Airport to Jelsa in just 15 minutes, all delivered with spectacular views which remained for many a holiday highlight. The seaplane problems have been well documented on this site. Will they be back for 2017? There is still no official word, and I personally have my doubts, but even if the service does not continue, I am sure that in a short time, there will be a similar project which will take its place.
Why is there no helicopter service in Croatian tourism, this supposed elite destination? We tried in 2013, when a Swiss helicopter company based a Robinson R-44 on Stari Grad airfield and offered 15-minute transfers to Split airport. There was lots of interest, and I fondly remember watching the helicopter from my terrace in Jelsa flying a passenger from a client's private plane at Dubrovnik Airport to Stari Grad in just 55 minutes. The luxury service was killed by regulations and bureaucracy, the final straw being when the company was informed by Split Airport that they could not land on Saturdays, the busiest day for both the airport and the helicopter. A new company has announced that they will be basing a helicopter on Brac this summer, a Robinson R-66. I understand that the battle with bureaucracy is ongoing, and I hope they succeed, but at some point someone will succeed.
The service will come.
Which brings us to perhaps the most high profile revolution in Croatian transfers at the moment - ride-sharing app Uber and their plans to launch UberBOAT on the Dalmatian coast this summer,
The opposition to Uber, particularly in Zagreb, is well documented. There are many ways of looking at the Uber reality, and much has been written about them, but there is an inevitability about Uber. It is not even the company themself, or the excellent service and pricing they provide, it is more what they represent, and the key behind the changes we will see - and have been seeing - in Croatian tourism.
While I was taking my 11-hour bus ride from Rijeka in 2003, my future mother-in-law was spending her summers answering the front door to tourists looking for a room. About 90% of her bookings that summer came from people knocking on the door. That was the way it was. Fast forward to 2016, and the number of people who knocked on the door all summer? Just four.
Technology. Booking.com, Owners Direct, Air B'nB, Tripadvisor and 100 other tools has transformed the holiday accommodation business in just a decade.
Before we even come to Uber, a quick example of how technology and a smart entrepreneur is changing the taxi scene on Hvar. No Uber involved, but I am sure they would do very well if they opened a seasonal business on the island, as taxis are EXPENSIVE. I have heard a local person being charged 120 kuna to go from the supermarket at the bus stop to his house on the hill above. A ride from Jelsa to the ferry near Stari Grad can cost up to 300 kuna, and I have yet to see a meter on a Hvar taxi. And then last year, I came across a rather nice little taxi website called www.hvartaxi.com, which almost felt like Uber but it wasn't. Book the ride in advance, agree the price in advance, pay by credit card. Jelsa to the ferry? Just 133 kuna.
Uber has announced that it will launch UberBOAT this summer, the first country in the world to have the service (apart from a couple of one-off examples of the service in - I think - the US and Istanbul, but don't quote me), another excellent PR opportunity for chic Croatian tourism. Will it work? Only time will tell, but the concept is powered by the thing that will define the direction of tourism in Croatia in the future. And the good news is that that defining thing will no longer be uhljebs, but technology. The taxi drivers attempts to intimidate and maintain the corrupt status quo will be surpassed by tehnology very soon anyway. It is time to adapt and readjust, and their fight to me is similar to the idea of my mother-in-law taking up arms against Booking.com. An exercise in futliity.
As a blogger, technology both terrifies and excites me. Having met some of the most inpirational Croats of my life since moving to within commuting distance to Zagreb, these young tech kids half my age are coming up with products which will change the way we do things, and I feel honoured that a couple of them are interested in partnering with TCN, so that we will not be confined to the dustbin of history. At least not for another month.
I read recently that if all the changes of the 20th century had taken place with the technology at the end of the century available, that 100 years of progress would have taken just seven. And that by 2040, a century of change today will be completed in just 365 days.
One example of how whole industries will have to adapt or die comes from one of my new favourite toys - the media monitoring software we use from a fabulous Zagreb firm called Mediatoolkit. Many businesses keep track of their brand or keywords of interest by using a press clipping service, where companies monitor their clients wishes by reading the news, watching the news, and listening to the news. It is a very useful service for those clients.
At least it was.
For now Mediatoolkit offers that service instantly, covering not only the whole web, but print media in the region as well (the print service will be available soon), so as soon as your brand is mentioned in the newspaper or online, the notification is instant, and much quicker the person who is reading the news, then compiling a report and emailing you. A whole industry turned on its head... by technology.
So important is the link between tourism and technology, that a dedicated conference on links between these two vital Croatian industries took place recently in Zagreb - read more about the 3T - Tourism, Travel and Tech conference here.
How will Croatia's coastal tourism look in five years time? Impossible for me to say, but there will be some big changes. I just hope this old dinosaur will be still relevant enough to be playing a part in it...