Exponential Tourism Growth in Croatia, Friend or Foe?
Within the last decade the tourism industry has increased dramatically in Croatia. Although tourism practically ceased to exist in the 1990s during the war, the introduction of budget airlines, cheap accomodation, the opening of marinas and the development of cruise lines, have helped tourism figures steadily increase. Growth and investments in infrastructure coupled with marketing, including an influx of publications and travel articles praising the natural and cultural aspects of Croatia have also contributed to the dramatic increase in tourism.
This fast paced development has had a particular impact on coastal cities and islands, especially on the local residents that live there. There are over a thousand islands in Croatia of which 66 are inhabited. Popular islands such as Hvar and Komiza are already renown tourist destinations, but even more are becoming prime destinations for new tourist developments. Sustainable tourism development, which acknowledges economic, environmental and cultural impacts is needed in order to mitigate the negative impacts that may result from sudden, unregulated changes.
The sudden increase of tourism has, without a doubt, significantly impacted the Croatian economy. The tourist season is generally from the beginning of June to the end of September, in which the occupancy rate of hotels reaches about 60 to 70 percent. About ten million guests per year contribute to roughly 15% of the GDP. Yet in 2017, 15 million tourists had already visited the country between January and August. This sharp rise reflects the future trends, which point to increased GDP from a booming tourism market.
Tourism has also expanded from the traditional sense and now includes eco-cultural and nautical tourism. Marine tourism has previously been an important contributor to the Croatian economy. It had an 11.2% increase in income in 2017 compared to 2016 according to the Croatian Bureau of Statistics. Nautical tourism also attracts a more demanding type of tourist, which leads to more foreign investments and more tourist facilities such as marinas, hotels, restaurants and boat charters.
Conflicting opinions regarding the sudden increase in tourism are revealed in local and national newspapers as well as by research conducted in popular coastal areas. Government officials tend to view tourism more positively due to its contribution to the economy. The Tourism Minister Garry Capelli acknowledges the negative impacts that unchecked tourism can have on the environment and has stated that a more sustainable tourism development plan needs to be developed.
Many newspaper articles have revealed the negative aspects of tourism through the eyes and perceptions of local residents. Overcrowding and tourism overexposure often leads to drunk and disorderly tourists flooding Croatian towns and islands; understandable so, many residents would prefer to live without such behaviour. Vast increases in tourists coming to Croatia can also be dangerous and pose a threat to the Mediterranean Sea as yachts, ships, sailboats, jet skis, and lounge rafts fill marinas and harbours without proper regulations.
Research has revealed a more complicated picture of residents. Many residents understand the economic benefits that come from tourism and some believe that it could actually help preserve local customs, while others fear that it will contribute to overcrowding and degradation of the marine environment.
Few comprehensive and thorough studies have been conducted regarding the environmental impacts of tourism, especially in regards to islands and coastal areas. Information from various institutions and publications have been sourced to reveal the impact that the sudden increase of tourism has had on the marine environment.
Negative impacts on the marine environment are usually related to the unsystematic development of nautical tourism and unregulated nautical activities. This includes, but is not limited to: beach extensions using dredging and bulldozing and marinas constructed with inadequate infrastructure leading to sea pollution. Marinas constructed in inappropriate places, including national parks disrupt the natural landscape and result in bay pollution due to inadequate sea exchange.
A lack of proper sewage facilities on vessels also causes pollution. Even with the declining amount of cruise ships arriving in Croatia, their collective impact on the environment is worth noting. Water waste from sewage and cleaning chemicals usually trail behind the ships, while other waste created on board is merely thrown overboard. Studies have revealed that direct pollution related costs are about 6 to 7 times higher than the current economic benefits.
Development without regulation has led to negative impacts on the environment because development is forced to accommodate the influx of tourists. Without proper policies for sustainable development, environmental degradation will steadily increase.
Tourism planners have advocated for local involvement in tourism development since the 1980s, as residents ultimately determine its level of success. As tourism increases, local involvement becomes even more important. It is also important to keep local stakeholders involved for the purpose of keeping the local populations in touch with the potential socio-cultural impacts.
Nautical tourism, in particular, can greatly impact living conditions of coastal towns and islands. It initially brings about more profits for local residents through fishing activities, catering and berth charges at ports. New facilities also provide cultural and entertainment options for both visitors and residents. Job creation can also decrease emigration from the islands creating a better sense of community. In general, residents have mentioned that tourism can bring about a sense of pride by allowing them to share their customs with visitors.
Essentially, the negative impacts that occur are usually as a result of poor systematic development. Environmental degradation is a common concern for residents as well as advocacy groups who often come together in opposition to tourism development. Overcrowding also disrupts local residents living and work conditions. Local authorities tend to have varying attitudes about regulations, particularly those related to charging for services, which can cause confusion. For example, there can be few free areas to anchor boats. Fisherman are unable to find free spaces to moor their boats which disrupts their daily life. Although issues can come up as a result of poor development, negative social impacts can usually be mitigated by working with local stakeholders to understand on a large and small scale how they could be impacted throughout development.
Although many negative impacts and perceptions are related back to tourism, the issue is an unsystematic approach. Sustainable tourism development which acknowledges a variety of impacts would help mitigate problems related to tourism itself. By listening to local stakeholders and remaining environmentally conscious, tourism can continue to flourish without significantly disrupting the lives of residents or the marine environment.