A Tale of 2 Golf Courses: Dubrovnik and Lustica Bay, Montenegro

By 12 April 2019

April 12, 2019 - Continuing our look at the lack of foreign investments in Croatian tourism, taking a closer look at one of the government's flagship tourism strategies - golf. Oh dear. 

This is not an article about golf. 

This is not an article debating whether or not golf tourism is a good or bad thing, that is an entirely different discussion. 

This is an article about incompetence.

This is an article about a sector of tourism which is central to Croatia's tourism strategy (according to its own documents) and yet where not only has nothing happened for a decade in terms of progress, but the Croatian tax-payer is facing a potential imminent bill of 500 million euro from an Israeli investor who has now given up on his golf dream in Dubrovnik. 

golf-croatia-lustica-bay-montenegro (2).PNG

Meanwhile in Montenegro... 

Whenever I criticise something about Croatia (always in a constructive manner) and praise a neighbour, the haters flood my inbox with expletives and advice that I should leave Croatia. Apart from finding this pretty amusing, it highlights one of the main problems which is stopping Croatia from progressing, at least in my opinion. I call it the policy of deflection. Rather than accept that a foreigner might have a valid point and try and learn and improve, the standard response is abuse and attack - trying to deflect the issue. And so nothing changes. 

I can understand why some people get angry when I compare the incompetence of our Kings of Accidental Tourism with other countries. Lessons from Macedonia on how to promote the wine industry, for example. Lessons from Rwanda, on how to use football to promote tourism. And Lessons from Montenegro, on how to become a luxury tourism destination, while turning Dubrovnik into an extension of luxury Montenegro's offer in the process. But that does not stop me wanting to try. As a foreigner living here for 17 years, running news portals in Croatia, Montenegro and Slovenia, I have perhaps a different perspective, and I genuinely want the best for Croatia, which is why we need to learn what we are doing badly, and what others are doing well. And then learn and improve. 

golf-croatia-lustica-bay-montenegro (1).jpg

(All images and renderings courtesy of Lustica Bay golf development)

Today, we look at perhaps the finest example of incompetence in tourism strategy that I have come across in my time in Croatia. A sector of tourism whose lack of progress is the poster child of why foreigners are investing less money in Croatia each year than its diaspora are sending home in remittances. A sector of tourism where the neighbours are leading the way in luxury tourism.

The sector is golf. 

As mentioned above, this article is not about whether or not golf is a good thing for the region. This article is looking at the strategy of Croatia's tourism gurus and a comparison what is happening just across the border in Lustica Bay in Montenegro. 


Let's start at a fixed point - the Croatian Ministry of Tourism's Tourism Development Strategy 2013-2020. As you can see above, golf is central to the country's strategy. I contacted the Ministry of Tourism last year to ask for details: Here was the reply:

"The 2020 tourism development strategy foresees the construction of 30 new high-quality golf courses, roughly at the following locations: 14 in the northern Adriatic, 8 in the southern Adriatic, and 8 in continental Croatia."

Impressive indeed, except for one thing. Almost 5 and a half years into the plan, I had not heard of any golf course being constructed. 


I asked how many courses Croatia had and how many were being built. Nobody seemed to know anything for sure. The ministry said there were three courses in Croatia, one of which was actually a driving range, the Croatian National Tourist Board trumpeted four courses, one of which was conveniently located in the centre of Zagreb (see above), whereas in actual fact...

... it had been abandoned for years (see drone video above). 

Clearly, the strategy was not quite working, unless the Ministry was going to produce 30 golf courses and a white rabbit out of a hat. 

golf-croatia-lustica-bay-montenegro (1).PNG

This staggering non-performance did not deter our heroic ministry, however - far from it. In June last year, the ministry reported:

Joining the family of golf destinations is imperative for the Croatian tourism industry, because without it Croatia will remain a seasonal tourist destination, the first conference on golf tourism in Croatia said in the northern Adriatic town of Porec.

Assistant Tourism Minister Robert Pende said that Croatia would not be able to increase the accommodation occupancy rate significantly without making progress in the golf segment. He said that a lot had been done to adjust infrastructure as a prerequisite for any serious golf projects, especially on state-owned land.

golf-croatia-lustica-bay-montenegro (3).jpg

"With the existing investor interest, I think we have created preconditions for getting several golf projects in the next two to three years," Pende said, noting that Istria County was leading in that regard.

"Golf is additional content which all our competitors have. Croatia is very suitable for the development of golf tourism because of the proximity of outbound travel markets and the possibility of playing golf along the coast all year round. We must seize that opportunity," Pende said.

I contacted the Ministry of Tourism for clarification, but there was no reply. 


Croatia's smaller Western neighbour, Slovenia, has 13 golf courses, despite golf not being a core focus, as far as I am aware. Interested in golf in Slovenia - here is the Total Slovenian News guide

Croatia's love affair with pretending to be a golf destination then preventing anything from happening goes back much further than the 2013 strategy document. When I had my own real estate agency back in 2004, there were no less than 22 courses earmarked for Istria alone. And one of them had rather a famous backer. 

Jack Nicklaus Begins Work on Golf Course in Croatia

ZAGREB Croatia, May 19, 2006. Jack Nicklaus' organisation doesn't invest in dud deals. Any wise investor would do well to note where he is building his golf courses.

The world's most famous golfer was met by Prime Minister Ivo Sanader (who only last week started a prison sentence), and a 200 million euro golf resort in Istria was announced. Want to know how it is going? Whatever Happened to Jack Niklaus Croatian Golf Course, Approved by PM Sanader? You can also check out the plans, looks very nice.

Jack's very same project was being offered on YouTube a decade later.

And the paperwork is almost finished... 

Of course, the biggest golf story in Croatia at the moment is the failed Srd development above Dubrovnik from Israeli investor, Aaron Frenkel. 


There is a LOT to this story, and I do not have the knowledge of the project to go into great detail about the reasons why the Srd golf project did not happen. That is was not popular locally was perhaps best exemplified by the results of a 2013 referendum on the project, where 10,051 votes against trumped the 1,846 for. From various people I have spoken to more familiar with the project, it appears to have failed through a cocktail of corruption, environmental campaigners, objections from those who defended Dubrovnik during its 1991 attack, and (I suspect) an element of local accommodation owners not fancying so much high-quality villa rental competition. 

golf-croatia-lustica-bay-montenegro (4).jpg

The investor has taken the case to arbitration in Washington, with a ruling due shortly. The Croatian taxpayer (that's you and me folks) looks set for a possible bill of up to 500 million euro. 

So, we are now 6 years into the Ministry of Tourism's strategic plan to develop Croatia as a regional golf tourism tiger. The results so far: absolutely nothing close to the first phase of construction, and a potential bill of 500 million euro, as well as further loss of reputation among foreign investors. 

Outstanding job!

Meanwhile, just over the borders... 

I want to talk about Lustica Bay and Montenegro, but thought it also worthwhile mentioning a project just across the border in Republika Srpska, about 15 minutes from Dubrovnik Old Town. I have not heard anything about 'Dubrovnik Heights' in a while, but there were certainly plans to build a course just over the border. Using the brand of Dubrovnik, access to Dubrovnik Airport and the city as major draws. And while golf in Bosnia has been out of the news lately, here is an intriguing paragraph from the latest Gary Player newsletter, the famous golfer behind the signature 18-hole-course in Montenegro:

golf-croatia-lustica-bay-montenegro (5).jpg

We would be delighted to start another project in Montenegro or the surrounding countries, but Lustica Bay is the one we are focusing on at the moment. Our design team is working on some feasibility studies for projects in Albania, Bosnia, Serbia and Romania so it’s a very active part of the world for us right now.

Albania, Bosnia, Serbia and Romania. But not the country with the defined tourism strategy to build 30 courses - Croatia. 

And so to Montenegro.

golf-croatia-lustica-bay-montenegro (6).jpg

I upset a few people a few days ago with an article called How Dubrovnik is Becoming an Extension of Luxury Tourism in Montenegro. Apologies for those who were offended, but I am only stating what is the truth. As part of the 2.5 billion euro investments of Lustica Bay, Portonovi and Porto Montenegro (to name but three), Lustica Bay will have that Gary Player 18-hole course as an additional luxury tourism offer. With the airports of both Tivat and Dubrovnik offering increasingly year-round services, the options for high-spending luxury tourism are tantalising indeed. And with a visit to Dubrovnik a wonderful extension of that, the future looks very bright indeed. In a recent interview (which you can read here), Player had the following update:

The Marina and Chedi hotel is completed and opened last year, the marina village residences are also open. For the golf, 9 holes will open in 2021 and 18 ready for play in by 2022.

golf-croatia-lustica-bay-montenegro (7).jpg

There are certainly many challenges ahead to ensure that the golf course does open on schedule (and discussions on water supply are ongoing, as I understand, for example) but almost all of the excavation and preparatory work has been done. But Player is clearly excited - here he is talking about whether or not the Lustica Bay development is a typical project for him:

Not at all. The course has dramatic elevation changes throughout the layout. The topography is quite steep so the shaping and contouring will be very bold and dynamic with stepped fairways, small cavernous bunkers, and small putting surfaces that will nestle into the steep topography.

We are going to manufacture our own capping sand from the excavated rock by crushing it to the appropriate specification and all the irrigation water will be treated effluent from the nearby town.

The driving range will be open this summer, and the first nine holes next. You can learn more about the Lustica Bay golf facility and keep pace with progress.

golf-croatia-lustica-bay-montenegro (8).jpg

Meanwhile in Croatia... 

There are just three golf courses in Croatia, one of which opened in 2009, another in 2004, and the one on Brijuni which dates back to Tito's times. Perhaps so few golf courses is a good thing - as I said, this article is not about golf. 

But if the strategy is not to develop Croatia as a golf destination (a very successful strategy so far) then stop putting golf at the heart of tourism strategy. And if the plan is to develop golf as a tourism strategy, what on earth has the ministry and its team been doing for the last six years, and longer? 


(Bay of Kotor, Montenegro - Photo credit Marko Stefanek)

Montenegro is not perfect, far from it, but the closer one looks, the more impressive it becomes. And while detractors will talk of the alleged corruption in Montenegro compared to Croatia, let's not forget why Porto Montenegro (and other projects) are not in Croatia. And when compared to Croatia's innovative strategy of 6 years with golf at the heart of what they are trying to achieve, with a result so far only of a 500-million-euro lawsuit, I don't think Montenegro is doing too badly by comparison. 

Do you?