Top quality beautiful wines, delicious, abundant food, a wealth of natural beauty, wonderful landscapes, vineyards and forests rich in vegetation, with the UNESCO protected Papuk mountain in its midst. Upon sight alone, it isn't difficult to see why the Romans called this area the Golden Valley (Vallis Aurea) during their reign, just as it was with very good reason that Požega was called the "Slavonian Athena" back in the 19th century. Unfortunately, this area's glorious past has stayed just there, in the past.
In an area with such a rich history and so much potential for tourism, Jutarnji went in search for further information on the 13th of August, 2017, in an attempt to find out just what the situation is in this Eastern Croatian county, and what is being done to put it on the tourist map for the many people who want to see the side of Croatia that lies away from the coastline.
Of all the five Slavonian counties, Požega-Slavonia is certainly in the most difficult economic situation, and from this perspective, maybe the following information should not really be a huge surprise, but still, it is somewhat shocking that there is not one single categorised hotel in the entire county. The ''tourist country'' banner under which Croatia is represented just doesn't seem to stretch to this location. The data Jutarnji obtained upon browsing the list of categorised tourist facilities in the Republic of Croatia, published by the Ministry of Tourism, was thought to be a potential mistake, so the Croatian publication first went to check it out in the County Tourist Board.
''Yes, that's right. There is no categorised hotel in the entire county. Last year, however, the Agram Group in the center of Kutjevo completed the reconstruction of the castle which was transformed into Hotel Dvorac, which is exclusively arranged and equipped to the highest possible standards, but only works temporarily'' stated Ivona Odvorčić Kahanek from the Požega-Slavonia County Tourist Board, confirming the lack of hotels in the area to Jutarnji.
Rural tourism is quite big in this area, primarily in the Kutjevo area which is famous for its rich vineyards and high quality wines. However, accommodation capacities in the county area aren't abundant. At this point in time, there are just 38 accommodation facilities, with 709 beds.
"We are aware that this is a very small number, and it should certainly be bigger, and we've done a lot of work for 2-3 years and are trying to start things up,'' stated Kahanek.
''The fact that we do not have a ''real'' hotel that can accommodate 100-200 guests is certainly a problem because we miss out on opportunities such as organising seminars, congresses, and the arrival of larger groups from which all tourism and hospitality workers in this region would benefit, but despite this, and although the figures are low, we've seen growth in the number of overnight stays of 9-10 percent each year.''
The number of arrivals was 11,516 last year, and in 2012 there were 8748. 2016 saw 27,438 overnights realised, and in 2012 there were just 19,533. The fact that this is the smallest number of arrivals and overnights recorded in all Croatian counties doesn't really need to be emphasised. This is an indisputable fact, from which Alojz Tomašević, the current Požega Prefect, now in his second term, doesn't attempt to shy away from.
"It is paradoxical that we don't have a hotel in the county, but I think the historical context must also be considered here. We are in an excellent geographical position with great tourism potential, but unfortunately our past was tense. I always point to Zvečevo, which was devastated during the war and was never renewed. Ever since I took on the responsibility of Prefect, I've tried to reach an agreement with the state and with Končar to get some property change and to get the County to manage the Zvečevo area because we have potential investors who are interested in it. I'm aware that without a hotel we can't achieve serious tourism oriented activities and plans, and if we are to be better off financially as a county, maybe we'd enter into some JPP project. But we're still returning the debts of our forerunners from the past'' said Tomašević.
''In our county last year, HRK 400,000 was raised through tourism incentives, and in Istria - 6 million kuna'' stated Tomašević, aware that things still do depend on some other criteria too. However, he believes that the county can grow in regard to tourism, confirming this is the potential investment in the completion of a hotel in Velika, which, otherwise, was just one of the many failed investments in the area.
But, until things start moving and investments start going ahead successfully, the largest accommodation capacity at this time can be found in the village of Donji Emovci, a suburb of Požega, where the innovative entrepreneur Thomas Heinz Pandžić began an ambitious project of realising his dream. Ten years ago, he built a rural tourism business with numerous accompanying recreational and educational facilities. To begin with, he bought a small piece of land just outside the village and expanded each year until he reached the seventy acre space of today, where he then went about setting up ''Zlatni Lug''.
Today, there are two sport fishing ponds, a park for barbeques etc, a playground, a sports ground, a fishing house, there are even black Slavonian pigs, deer and various other animals which have decided to breed there, so the children come to school fully immersed in the local nature. Zlatni Lug is currently under the control the eldest of his three sons, Leo, who is also a representative of Požega-Slavonia County. Leo spoke to Jutarnji via phone and told the paper more about the situation, while Marijan Bek, the restaurant and accommodation manager, led them through it.
''The restaurant and the rooms were supposed to be in another section, but the bureaucracy of our country slowed down us and to this day we're still waiting for the paperwork for the location permit and other buildings we've planned to work on. When a few years ago we realised that it wouldn't go very smoothly, we bought a house in the village that we did up as a bed and breakfast. We started with five rooms and twelve beds, and today we have come to 49 beds in 21 rooms! So, we're the only ones in the county who are able to receive a bus full of guests. In addition, we have practically completed an auto-camp that we will soon open,'' Leo told Jutarnji, adding that they financed everything from their own funds and without a loan, and the only state support that was provided was for the newly built pool. All the rooms are tastefully furnished, air-conditioned, and have access to the Internet and to satellite TV.
"We are full at weekends all year round, and it's also pretty good during the week. Aside from individual guests who come for shorter stays, there are many businessmen and even hunters who come too. We already have 7-8 groups of hunters, mostly foreigners - French, Italians, Austrians, Germans, Slovenes, booked for the winter!'' Pandžić said, who was not surprised by the fact that there were no hotels in the county. He already knew that, of course. But it does not mean it will remain that way.
''I don't know about the rest, but in the near future we see the construction of a mini hotel with 80-100 beds. The problem here is when there is a bigger event, such as the recent Aurea Fest in Požega; Then there is a chronic lack of beds. We currently have enough, but we know that because of the lack of capacity we can not get a group. Of course, we are trying to help, sort some other accommodation out, direct them to colleagues who are doing the same job, but it's not that easy. Still, I am an optimist because I know how much potential is hidden here, and we are only at 30-40 percent of what it needs to be, and can be,'' said Pandžić, who very much liked the recently announced idea of Tourism Minister Gari Cappelli on plans to abolish categorisation of accommodation capacities.
''I don't think it's a bad idea. We are registered and we don't have categorisation, and before we had three stars, although we have everything we need for four. But the problem is that there are plenty of business people who work for companies who do not allow them to sleep in a four-star hotel, it has to be a three star facility, and some are required to be in a five-star hotel! Photos today show a lot, and coming and staying is the best way to see what a place is and what it's about. Still, I'm not happy with the relationship between the Ministry and continental tourism. We have the sea, and that is our treasure, but I don't know why it is still the thing we promote the most, when it's more than sufficiently advertised. People know about the Adriatic across the globe. Why should we not now focus on the other side, on the continent, central and eastern Croatia? The ministers are always ''with'' the sea, and us in the interior aren't given enough attention, which is sad because we have [a lot] to show and offer'' stated Pandžić.
A touch of Italy in... Kutjevo?
Approximately 25km east of Zlatni Lug, in the already mentioned Kutjevo, which boasts 40 of the top winemakers, there is yet more news of poor accommodation capacities. Only one of those top winemakers decided to offer overnight stays to guests. There are 14 beds in 5 rooms in the Sontacchi family accommodation. Most of the rooms are well equipped with old-fashioned furniture from their old house, which generations have kept and loved. Antun is the oldest member of the boarding house and catering company today. The Sontacchis were originally from Trento in Italy, and relocated here back at the end of the 19th century.
The whole family came here, and although none of the Sontacchis speak Italian any more, their surname clearly speaks of their origin.
''A young Dutch couple have just checked out. They landed in Zagreb, rented a car, and came to us for the day, and I persuaded them to stay one more. Now they left for Dubrovnik across Bosnia. One day, there was an American and a Mexican, people from all over the world stayed one, two, three days, and the ratio of foreign and domestic tourists is half and half'' states Antun Sontacchi, who advertises on Booking.com. To him personally, he says, it is not a problem that there is no hotel in the county, although he probably would have had more work in catering if there was one.
We have only just started, but we're satisfied with the [level of] interest and the number of guests given the fact that we're new in this business. I think this region has huge tourism potential, but the problem is that Slavonia is still not well positioned on the Croatian travel map, although we have beautiful natural beauty and good resources. There is much more to do in general in that respect in Croatia'' said Salak.
Things have started moving despite the setbacks and various other issues that this county faces, and this can be confirmed by the recent opening of the Duboka Velika auto camp, where 206 overnights were realised in two months. From scenery to Kutjevo to Papuk nature park to the Pleternica wine roads, this is all just a drop in the ocean regarding what this incredible and wrongly overlooked inland region could and should offer tourism wise, which would also increase its own economic potential.
Translated from Jutarnji.hr