Editorial

After Days of Croatian Tourism in Slavonia, What Happens Next?

By 7 October 2019

It was quite a show. 

Days of Croatian Tourism was held in Slavonia for the first time last week, easily the most high profile tourism event to be staged in the region. It was a chance for Slavonia to shine - and shine it did, oh so brightly - and for over a thousand tourism experts and workers to get to know Croatia's least discovered region a little better. 

And judging from the selfies and many postings on social media, it would appear that many of the event's visitors - some on a first-time visit to Slavonia - discovered plenty of interest. I certainly did, even though I have been to the region on a number of occasions. Here are 10 things I didn't know about eastern Croatia last week, for example

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Days of Croatian Tourism had its centre in Osijek, but an attempt was made to spread it around the region, so that visitors could experience as much as possible in a short time. The newly renovated palace in the centre of Virovitica is almost ready for its grand reopening. It looks magnificent and will be a major asset to both the town's tourism and its entertainment programme. 

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The programme for Slavonski Brod took place at a restaurant just outside the town, which meant that most participants missed out on the star attraction, the magnificent Slavonski Brad fortress. A reason to return soon. 

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Wine lovers headed to Pozega and Kutjevo for a Grasevina feast, taking in the magnificent cellars of Kutjevo and the amazing 6 barrels which tell the story of its 800-year history - you can learn more here

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Vukovar, the City of Heroes, which is most associated with the tragedy of war and siege in the 1990s, but which is also a beautiful city rebuilt on the Danube. And nowhere is more glamorous than Eltz Palace which hosted the opening night. 

Move over Rome, and visit the Vucedol Museum, which documents a stunning portrayal of life 5,000 years before Christ. The Vucedol Museum (get a flavour in the video above) is one of Croatia's most popular and most impressive museums. 

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And for more ancient heritage, look no further than Vinkovci, the oldest continuously inhabited town in all Europe, dating back 8,300 years. Birthplace even to no less than two Roman Emperors. 

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And some went in search of nature, where the nature parks of Papuk and Kopacki Rit (Mario Romulic photo, above) have plenty of diversity to enjoy. 

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A magical region, where time has stood still in certain ways. (Photo credit Romulic & Stojcic) 

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Some made it to the paprika festival in Lug, just north of Osijek. (photo credit Romulic & Stojcic)

Paprika is just one of the ingredients that make up the famous Slavonian cuisine, and there are a number of niche food festivals which celebrate its goodness. 

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And food is finally at the centre of some excellent branding, with the Head on East/[email protected] at the core of events last week, including a great street food festival.  

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I spoke to several people in Slavonia last week, both locals and visitors. The general consensus from the visitors who are used to celebrating Days of Croatian Tourism in comfortable coastal resorts on the coast was that Slavonia had not only put on a great show but had really gone above and beyond expectations. And the locals I spoke to were both proud and I think a little surprised that things had gone so well. Osijek old town in particular was magnificent on the last night, and the live television coverage of the awards ceremony was beautifully done. 

That level of surprise that Slavonia had exceeded expectations got me thinking as I came to the obvious question after the party had finished, the hospitality tents dismantled and the fancy lights turned off:

What happens now?

The Croatian National Tourist Board told me that they have invested significantly in bringing in foreign bloggers and influencers to promote continental Croatia, and all promotion is of course welcome. 

I wonder, however, if something closer to home might be more cost-effective, help to build a better longterm tourism base and be implemented in time for next season. 

Two simple ideas. 

1. I am constantly amazed at how little people living in other parts of Croatia know about the east of their country. It is not a criticism, it is just an observation and a reality. I often ask people where exactly is Slavonia, which parts of the east are included and which not? There is a real black hole in many people's knowledge of what is out there east of Zagreb, something I completely understand. The east is sadly known mostly for the war and suffering, for the tragedy of Vukovar, and for the crushing emigration which is ongoing. As I said in a previous article, it is often treated as a poorer cousin with a disability which is in need of sympathy and protection, rather than being allowed to stand on its own two feet. 

The one place that everyone knows about in the east, of course, is Vukovar, and it is entirely right and fitting that the country remembers the terrible events of 1991 each November 18, the anniversary of the fall of Vukovar. Schoolchildren visit Vukovar as part of their education in 8th grade, and for many, that is the sum of their physical association with Slavonia and the east. Little wonder that local people do not associate Slavonia as a desirable place to visit or go on holiday. 

And yet it is. Just ask each and every person who attended Days of Croatian Tourism last week. I would be genuinely surprised if there was even one person who did not have a good time. 

And so imagine what might be achieved if we took this concept further and started educating. The Croatian Chamber of Commerce ran a big Buy Croatia campaign a couple of years ago. 

Why not a domestic campaign to Head on East and discover the magic of Slavonia?

At the recent Croatia 365 conference, the Austrian speaker from ITB Berlin was talking about how Austria developed its tourism. I was surprised to learn from him that foreign tourists make up only 50% of Austria's tourists, with the other half locals. According to his numbers, the corresponding ratio in Croatia is 86:14. And while it is true that a large number of locals are not counted in the tourism statistics as they do not register when they go to their homes on the coast for the summer, the Croatian balance of local to foreign is far from the Austrian 50:50. 

There is another great reason to educate Croatians about tourism in Slavonia - it is INCREDIBLY good value. The sad reality is that prices on the Croatian coast continue to rise, and it is becoming less affordable for more Croatian households. Slavonia, on the other hand, offers excellent value for money (and far more generous portions in the restaurants). It also offers an excellent, albeit different, holiday experience to the coast, and with things happening throughout the year. And if, like me, you visit Slavonia and want a bit more (I am returning with the family in 2 weeks for the weekend), a steady and loyal tourism base can begin to grow, tourism can expand, and it will be even more attractive to foreign visitors.

2. My second idea involves engaging with the diaspora. Without the financial muscle of the diaspora, the Croatian economy would be in even more trouble - last year, for example, Croatia received more in remittances from its diaspora than from foreign investment. 

They also have an incredibly strong love for the homeland. Encourage the diaspora to take a greater interest in Slavonia and to include it in their next holiday plans. Unlike many appeals to the diaspora from the homeland, there is no humanitarian element to this. If the diaspora do come to visit Slavonia as part of such an initiative, they are going to have such a fantastic time that they will be saying thanks for pushing them into the eastern region for reasons others than remembering the tragedy of Vukovar (and they can, of course, pay their respects at the same time). 

Give a man a fish and he will come back for another tomorrow. Teach a man to fish, you know the rest. 

Slavonia has SO much potential, but not only potential. It is ready now. Just ask the 1000 plus tourism professionals who were there last week. 

Want to learn more about eastern Croatia? Here are 25 things to know

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