In The Beautiful Croatia, All Animals are Equal, But Some are More Equal than Others

By 27 April 2018

May 4, 2018 - A snapshot of how modern Croatia works for the chosen few, and how the direction of a destination can be quietly changed to suit those chosen few. 

Coincidence is a wonderful thing in The Beautiful Croatia.

For in The Beautiful Croatia, when coincidence strikes, it often strikes several times at once, until you end up with the Mother of All Coincidences. 

Consider the recent public tender for one of Jelsa's prime pieces of real estate on Hvar, the waterfront Gradska Kavana (Town Cafe), which has lain empty and almost unused for as long as I have been living in the town. Located behind the iconic Jelsa Bench, the ground floor property is just off the main square, directly under the mayor's office and looks out to Jelsa's pretty harbour and out to sea and majestic Mount Biokovo. 

An idyllic spot and a perfect place for a quality restaurant. And so the story starts... 

A high-quality cafe, open 12 months a year, with a quality restaurant as well - this was the plan for the Gradska Kavana which I heard for some time. A great idea. A public tender was published apparently, back on April 12, 2017 for the Gradska Kavana, with some rather unusual requirements, and a very short application deadline - just 15 days. 

There was only one application, an IT company from Zagreb called Luksar Solutions, with seemingly no employees or noticeable revenue stream, at least according to the publicly available tax information. 

Three months later, rumours started to surface that Carpe Diem were taking over the small island of Zecevo, close to Vrboska and opposite the popular Camp Nudist near Soline. I called Mayor Niksa Peronja to ask him what he knew, and he confirmed over a beer that there was no chance of Carpe Diem coming to Jelsa, and that even if something like that did happen, he controlled the business hours and so there was nothing to worry about. He was very reassuring and it was - as always with Niksa - a lively and interesting chat. 

Which was why I was a little surprised to find out a few things about Luksar Solutions when I started to look into this IT company with no hospitality background, proud owners of a 15-year lease at a VERY nice price of one of Jelsa's most desirable properties. 

It turned out that at least one of the Carpe Diem websites had been owned by a director of Luksar Solutions, as we have written before.

Quite a coincidence. 

For some reason, Luksar is 50% owned by a restaurant/nightclub from Istria called Pietas Julia. One of the former directors of Pietas Julia, from 2009-2011, is one of the main guys from Carpe Diem today.

Quite a coincidence. 

When I went back to Jelsa for Easter and asked locals what they knew, everybody told me the same thing - the rumour was that Carpe Diem had not only taken over the Gradska Kavana, but also the island of Zecevo (the one the mayor was so reassuring about last summer). Everyone told me that Carpe Diem was coming, except one person.

The Mayor of Jelsa, who knew nothing about it. 

Niksa kindly met me for a drink on Easter Saturday to discuss everything. I asked him if he had ever met the Carpe Diem boss who used to be the director of Pietas Julia. He confirmed that he had, the last time being last summer, about the same time he was giving me assurances about the island of Zecevo. 

And about three months after giving the concession to Luksar Solutions, with the links to Carpe Diem described above. 

Quite a coincidence.

I didn't ask Niksa what he discussed in that meeting. Perhaps the weather or some pretty girls at the beach, for until just over a month ago, the mayor claimed he had no idea that there was any Carpe Diem interest in Jelsa.

Perhaps they talked about his favourite pizza, for reasons I shall explain below.

The concept of turning the Gradska Kavana into a high-quality cafe and quality restaurant is excellent, and it would be a seriously good addition to the town's tourism credentials. Properly done, the Gradska Kavana, positioned as it is at the gateway to the centre, would give a fantastic first impression to new arrivals by land and sea. The public tender made mention of this requirement:

the lessee must also in written form submit a conceptual project of business operations in the space in question, and elaborate in detail what importance such a concept would have on the positioning of Jelsa as a tourism destination, and why such a concept would be beneficial for Jelsa and what would be its contribution to the destination in view of tourism, with this concept becoming part of the lease contract

All good until... 

No sooner than the tender was given to this IT company than a request for change of usage was made (and granted on October 11, 2017). No need for a quality cafe and high-level restaurant now, the new plan, apparently, is to turn the historic Gradska Kavana into a pizzeria. Quite how that will enhance the positioning of Jelsa as a tourism destination is beyond me, but perhaps the mayor likes pizza (this is all happening below his office after all). It should be noted that Croatian bureaucracy regarding opening and running a pizzeria is MUCH less stringent than a restaurant. 

I was curious why nobody else applied for the tender - there are several Jelsa restaurateurs always on the lookout for better places. I asked one of them over Easter why he had not applied, and his response was rather interesting. 

He had been approached to see if he was interested in the space, and he was. He was told that in addition to the high financial investment, he would only be allowed 4-5 tables outside, that the conservators would be watching his every move during the renovation, and that he would have to operate a cafe by day and a restaurant by night. The message was clear - there was little point in applying under those conditions. 


(And voila! If you are the right applicant, additional outside space can be found - Fountain Square, the concept)

And so it was rather fascinating to learn that no sooner has the tender been granted than the original plan of a quality addition has been abandoned, and the new pizzeria will have as much outside space as it can handle. Not only is the waterfront terrace available, but so too, according to the mayor, will be space at the back on the building at the newly paved Fountain Square (which is currently minus a fountain). 


(And the reality - the fountain centrepiece is due to be installed shortly, I understand)

Opportunities in Croatia are all equal, but some are more equal than others. 

It was time to look at the detail of the public tender. Perhaps I have been here too long, but when someone uses the phrase "There was a public tender" to justify something, I already know there is a problem.

The public tender in Croatia (and in other countries, I am sure) is a wonderful institution. It allows one to do everything legally, so that there can be no complaints. It is no secret that many public tenders in Croatia are written specifically for the person pre-chosen to get the concession or job. It is just one more reason why Croatia's youngest and brightest are emigrating in their droves. Let me give you a very simple real example. 

A tender came out some time ago for a school secretary. The preferred candidate happened to have a law degree. The less preferred, but better-qualified candidate (who also had experience of the position) had no law degree. When the tender came out, one of the requirements for the position - this is for a secretary of a school, remember - was a law degree. The less qualified candidate may have had the experience, but she did not fulfil the terms of the tender. Not very fair, but all perfectly legal. 

My favourite sentence in the tender is this one:

- proof of at least two years of continuous catering services of the lessee or company member of the lessee must be submitted in writing

It seems very odd to me to state that if a company does not have the required experience, the tender stipulates that it would be ok for a member of the company to have the experience. At least it would be odd if the tender were not written specifically for someone.

The company which won the tender does not have two years of continuous catering experience, but one of the shareholders, Pietas Julia, does.

Quite a coincidence. 

I could go on. There are so many things to point out that are so wrong about this deal, but it is a done deal, so does it really matter? But for the record:

The tender states that the company granted the tender must move its company headquarters to Jelsa within 3 months, so latest by July, 2017. The mayor confirmed that this had not happened a month ago, and a quick online search shows Luksar Solutions is registered in Zagreb still. And so no local taxes are being paid.

The change of use from cafe and quality restaurant should result in another tender by law. It hasn't. 

When I was in Jelsa over Easter, no work had actually begun, despite the tender setting out the mighty goal:

- Jelsa District intends to complete 2/3 of the offered and contracted investments in the first year of the lease contract, at latest by December 31, 2017, and the remaining 1/3 at the latest by May 31, 2018

An opening date of May 15 was pushed back to June 15 when I met Niksa last month. Given the speed of the works now, I need to confirm if that is June 15, 2018 or 2019. 

The other question that keeps coming to mind is why Carpe Diem and a restaurant/nightclub so far away in Istria have decided to switch direction and make pizzas in a small family destination? I bet there is a good answer to that, and it will involve a coincidence. 

The rumours about the island of Zecevo continue to grow, and my inbox was a little fruity after we published the initial story a month ago. Various sources from Hvar have told me that Zecevo is now a done deal, and our old friends, The Yacht Week, are back in the picture. Carpe Diem to Stipanska, the Jelsa version in the making? A crazy notion, surely?

It is interesting to note that one of the registered company activities of Pietas Julia is "Occasional transport of passengers along the coast" ('povremeni prijevoz putnika u pomorskom obalnom prometu').

That would be a coincidence too far. 

Wouldn't it?

I was discussing the whole thing with a local cafe owner last month. Apart from being depressed about the inevitability of it all, she was depressed about the effect the new course Jelsa will take. 

"It is just so senseless. Jelsa is handicapped by its poor hotel situation, but we have managed to build up a great business with high-paying guests, particularly Scandinavians, who come here for the peace and quiet. And now this."

I am sure that things will start slowly (especially if the current pace of renovation is anything to come by), but change is coming. Some will welcome it, others hate it - as is the case in Hvar Town. Wandering the streets of the old town of Korcula this weekend, I was struck by how two similar islands can move their tourism in two opposite directions. 

I am sure that this article will be perceived in some quarters as an attack on Jelsa Mayor Niksa Peronja. It is not meant to be, and while I do not agree with everything he does, I do enjoy our meetings very much. He deserves enormous credit for the infrastructure overhaul of the town in the first five years of his term. Until a month ago, it would have been unthinkable that his legacy would be anything other than the infrastructure works. Now I am not so sure. 

Jelsa, you have been wonderful to me for 13 years, and I thank you for that. I fear for your future but wish you well.