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Could Croatia become the most sustainable travel destination in Europe?

Could Croatia become the most sustainable travel destination in Europe? season travel and regional destinations are at the forefront of the Balkan country’s sustainable tourism strategy.

Could Croatia Become The Most Sustainable Travel Destination In Europe?
Could Croatia Become The Most Sustainable Travel Destination In Europe?

 

Nikolina Brniak was elected Croatian Minister of Tourism in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, when international travel was hit harder than ever.

Despite the challenge ahead of her, she focused not only on rebuilding the Balkan country’s damaged tourism industry, but also on making Croatia a benchmark for sustainable travel.

Ahead of the summer season, she spoke to Euronews Travel about her plans for the future of tourism in Croatia.

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“During COVID-19, tourism has been one of the hardest-hit industries globally, but these crises have also highlighted the need for profound change in tourism development and management,” says Brinjak.

“Enhancing tourism resilience by creating tools to ensure its ability to adapt to different challenges is part of a bigger picture of building sustainable tourism.”

Croatia  adopted its first ever tourism law which came into effect this year.

In a country where tourism develops unevenly at the regional level, it aims to decentralize the industry and adapt it to local and regional needs.

“Previously, tourism development was based only on economic interests,” Brnjak explains. “We wanted to find a way to enhance resilience, implement sustainable practices and move away from a perception of success that is based solely on the number of overnight stays and revenues from tourism – that is, we wanted to find the right balance between the business and economic aspects. Environmental and social pillars of sustainability.”

She hopes the tourism law will help local communities develop destinations, with the help of the national government. They will be given the necessary tools to improve the quality of life of local people and mitigate the negative impact of tourism on the environment.

This is something the law has written in stone as well, as it provides a framework for investment incentives in tourism, based on  sustainability  criteria.

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Croatia became a member of the European Union in 2013 and of the Schengen Area in January 2023.

Brniak has worked hard in cooperation with the European Union to reach its sustainable  tourism goals , securing grants from the private sector, from the bloc’s Recovery and Resilience Program and the EU’s Multiannual Financial Framework, as well as through the Croatian state budget.

“We have also secured grants for the green and digital transition of private tourism infrastructure worth more than €180 million,” she told Euronews Travel.

“I am confident that this investment cycle will make a strong contribution to sustainability, and to the green and digital transformation of our tourism, which is essential for future competitiveness and success.”

Croatia has been recognized as a leader in the development of sustainable tourism, not least by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the European Commission.

The United Nations has also taken notice and the World Tourism Organization recently announced its initiative to create a sustainable tourism center in Egypt  and Croatia  – the first in Europe.

In cooperation with the University of Zagreb, experts will research, develop and promote sustainable tourism policies.

Teams at the Center will be able to exchange knowledge and best practices in the field of sustainable tourism, including Croatia’s statistical framework and its application to broader policy development.

Why did Nikolina Brinjak lead the decision to focus on sustainability in  tourism ?

“According to recent surveys, tourists have changed their travel habits, and interest in sustainable destinations is growing,” Brinjak explains. “Travelers are increasingly aware of climate change, and this is also shaping their views on holiday travel.”

“They are aware of the potential impacts, such as extreme temperatures, changing seasons, and more unpredictable weather conditions,” she adds. “I am sure that in the future our work in sustainability will have a positive impact on their overall experience in Croatia.”

She hopes it’s not just tourists who will be impressed by the country’s sustainability efforts, but other countries as well.

According to Brnjak, this is already happening.

“At the policy level, we have had many bilateral and multilateral contacts with colleagues working in tourism, who face similar challenges and are interested in learning from Croatia’s model,” she says.

Croatia has become more expensive since the adoption of the euro – but it is a win for sustainability

After the Balkan country joined the Schengen Area and adopted the euro as its currency in 2023, some say Croatia has become  too expensive  for many visitors.

However, Brinjak says its efforts towards sustainability are bolstered by higher prices that provide a better all-round experience for tourists.

The higher costs help promote sustainability in other ways as well, including by encouraging travelers to visit Croatia outside the peak summer season.

“Croatia had its best shoulder season results ever last year, and when we talk about the whole year, the tourism results were on par with the record-breaking pre-pandemic years and, financially, the best in history,” says Brniak. .

In fact, in 2023, there were 20.6 million travelers who stayed 108 million nights in  Croatia which was up nine percent on the previous year.

For Brenjak, no criticism seems to distract her from her focus on sustainability.

“It’s not just a buzzword for us,” she says. “It is the basis for improving the quality of our products and services.”

“Tourism is primarily an industry that provides experiences, and sustainable tourism development equals a high-quality experience for our guests – preserving natural and cultural resources, traditions, hospitality and security, along with tourist attractions and infrastructure adapted to the needs of our tourists.”

Hence, high prices may continue, but Brnjak is determined to stay on its current path: “Sustainable tourism development ensures value for the money spent.”

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