Life in continental Croatia is more than agreeable, albeit very different to living on one of Croatia's idyllic islands like Hvar. One of the great advantages to life in our little village near Varazdin, I have come to realise, is the lack of seasonality when it comes to tourism. The seasons may change (and the snow and temperatures of -12C took some time getting used to for this Hvar boy after 14 years of living on Croatia's premier island), but breaking the cycle of spending most of the year waiting for the season and then being too busy to enjoy has been refreshing indeed.
Of course, one of the great disadvantages of living up north is no beautiful Adriatic Sea to enjoy each morning, and my love of the Adriatic has only been enhanced during my occasional visits in the six months since we moved. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and all that.
And there can be few better or more inspiring ways to explore than the way I am doing so now, having been invited to participate in the outstanding Nikola Tesla Electric Vehicle Rally, a superbly organised event taking over 50 electric cars, mostly Teslas, on a journey from Istria to Zagreb via Dalmatia and four islands. Here we are, heading to Krk from Cres yesterday. A glimpse of a more environmentally friendly future perhaps?
Electric car drivers seem to be very nice people, and they certainly more relaxed about life. Conversations have been both stimulating and thought-provoking, a happy time which will be filled with great memories about Croatia. But this is Croatia, and there was one topic which loomed large with several Croatian participants.
Yesterday was the second round of local elections for the mayors, and while most eyes were on the two big cities of Split and Zagreb, one participant, like me, was more interested in what was happening in some of the smaller races.
"If this candidate wins, then this great project will start. If not, it will have to wait another four years for an opportunity."
I smiled to myself, but it was not a happy smile. The sad reality of how things work in Croatia. Many projects, tourism or otherwise, have been put on hold until the politicians in their kindergarten in Zagreb can sort things out, as there is nobody to sign or approve things. I have never been interested in politics, something which comes at a cost in Croatia, for almost only the projects proposed by party supporters get funded, but by sheer force of will and excellent results, we are now at the level where we can (sometimes) successfully apply for projects without any political support to sweeten the deal for those controlling the purse strings. I currently have five projects around the country where I am hoping for financial support from local authorities. Sadly, my chances are tied to the politicians in most cases, as is summed up beautifully in the response I got from one tourist board director when I suggested cooperation on our new sailing project, Total Croatia Sailing:
"This is a great project, Paul, and it would be great for our destination. Can I give you an answer on Monday, as my answer depends on the election. If one candidate wins, we can agree everything next week, if the other candidate wins, I will not have a job."
Ah, life in The Beautiful Croatia.
One destination I was interested in - not for financial reasons, as there is more chance of me scoring the winning goal in the World Cup Final for England than receiving any kind of support from the Hvar Town Tourist Board - was Hvar Town. As I wrote in a recent editorial about tourism in Hvar Town, the party has taken over to such an extent that the future of Hvar Town as a quality destination is sadly in doubt. The mayor of the last four years has done nothing to stop this, even going as far as to do nothing with all the town councillors upheld a decision to support a petition from residents of Palmizana to ban The Yacht Week.
In the first round of elections two weeks ago, the mayor received the most votes in the first round, but not enough to claim outright victory, meaning a second round with his closest rival was scheduled for yesterday.
The short term good news is that the good guy won (in terms of hope for improving the destination). I don't know Riki Novak too well, but there is no doubting his commitment or contribution to Hvar tourism over the years as the boss of the town's best tourist agency, Pelegrini Tours. A man full of ideas and able to get things done (at least in my experience), the last time we had coffee a couple of years ago, he was telling me about a great project to present Hvar tourism, using the Arsenal building on the main square. It was a great vision, and one I hope he can bring to the town over the next four years.
Of course, the bigger question is how much he will be allowed to change things. The tentacles of the party bosses tend to go quite deep. At least Hvar has a better option at the helm, so fingers crossed. Perhaps also, a change will help in the appointing of a Hvar Town Tourist Board director, a position which has been vacant now for about two years. Yep, when it comes to the Kings of Accidental Tourism, you will find no finer example in Croatia than Hvar Town. "Too beautiful to f*ck up," as one Hvar business owner told me once. I can't deny some people are testing that theory to the very limit.
Jelsa and Sucuraj decided their mayoral races at the first time of asking, with voters choosing more of the same by a margin of 50%, but the situation in Stari Grad was dramatic indeed - in the second round run off, the votes were tied, 721 votes to 721. There will presumably be a third round now to determine a winner.
This election, at least in my opinion, is absolutely crucial to Stari Grad and the island in general. The next four years could see Stari Grad transformed into one of the top destinations on the Adriatic if the right choices are made. Everything is in place for Stari Grad to really excel: the Four Seasons hotel and resort is the big story, but it looks as though Valamar will take the stricken Helios hotels and transform them into 4-star gems, while the Olive Bay Resort near the ferry will be a mix of luxury villas and 5-star boutique hotels. Works on the new riva are already paying dividends with a significant increase in sailing tourism, and the town's tranquil 2000-year charm and relaxed Dalmatian lifestyle is the perfect accompaniment to to a quiet luxury holiday in the Adriatic.
Will Stari Grad make the right choices? In The Beautiful Croatia, anything is possible...
Someone sent me the photo above coming out of the ferry after my piece about Hvar the party town. It will be interesting to see how those arrows change in the next few years in the minds of visitors. Will Stari Grad to the left and Hvar to the right be replaced with Quality Tourism to the left and Party Tourism to the right, or will there be a real change in Hvar Town?
The next four years will be fascinating to watch, and I wish those in power trying to bring positive change the very best of luck. I don't envy you your task.