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Is Croatia Doing Enough to Protect Itself From a Booming Tourism Industry?

07/07/2014 16:33 BST | Updated 06/09/2014 10:59 BST

From war-torn to holiday hotspot in a very short space of time, Croatia's popularity with tourists is all the more remarkable given its very unsettled, very recent past. The wars only ended in 1995; walls pock-marked with bullet holes are still visible and when speaking with local people you are speaking to those for whom the conflict is a very fresh memory.

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Cruise crowds in Dubrovnik. Credit: Amanderson2

Already popular with the sailing elite, as peace descended on the region Croatia's natural beauty, historic towns and network of accessible islands were always going to be a strong magnet for foreign visitors. Indeed tourism now accounts for 20% of the Croatian GDP, and has played a major role in stabilising a once politically fraught area. But with its first year of EU membership not bringing the economic uplift hoped for, and Croatia's government looking to double tourism revenues by 2020, is Croatia doing enough to protect itself, its people, culture and natural heritage from tourism overdevelopment?

Starting on the right foot

Croatia learned lessons from nearby Bulgaria, and other holiday destinations which emerged at the same time and hasn't adopted a "develop or die" approach to its tourism offering. Instead authorities do seem to have taken steps to ensure the protection of what is most beautiful about the country, and seem to have started off on the right foot. Development of large scale hotels along the pristine coastline is subject to stringent regulations and 444 protected areas, including 8 National Parks preserve some of Croatia's most unknown and most spectacular areas. For a truly authentic, off-the-beaten-track experience head inland and explore these parks, it's a hinterland crammed full culture, forests, turquoise lakes and wildlife, and Croatia's biggest tourism problem, the cruise ship, most definitely won't get there.

Cruising for a bruising

For Croatia to retain its sense of authenticity in the face of the tourism boom, it must control a rapidly increasing cruise industry threatening to crowd out local culture. Over the last decade Dubrovnik has seen a four-fold increase in cruise visitors, and while this will have some economic benefit; it is debateable whether the tourist revenues outweigh the problems caused. A recent sustainability report undertaken by local officials has limited cruise passenger numbers to just 8000 per day visiting the city, however, in peak season cruise ships are allowed to exceed this, and it is not uncommon to see two or three large ships unloading at the same time.

With cruise passengers arriving in the city after breakfast and returning in mid-afternoon, local cafes and restaurants are transforming into fast food outlets, and traditional craft shops into tacky imported souvenir shops to meet the demands of time-poor visitors, at an economic cost to their owners. And over-crowding in Dubrovnik's, winding cobbled streets is compounding the problem. Although cruise passengers spend on average $50 per day in the city, land-based tourists are estimated to spend three times as much, and stay much longer. The worry is that the tidal wave of cruisers will crowd out land-based visitors, put off by the hordes of day trippers on shore excursions. Tourism is clearly working for Croatia, but for me the answer to its economic problems does not lie in welcoming more or bigger boats. For cruise ships to have any lasting benefit in Croatia, passengers need to spend longer on shore and have a greater economic impact, supporting local businesses without the current overcrowding.

Spreading the wealth in Croatia

While Dubrovnik, Split, Korcula and Hvar battle the cruise ship crowds, other areas of Croatia remain forgotten by foreign visitors. Inland national parks and protected areas also need support from tourists to ensure their survival, and to ensure communities here take their fair share of the tourist wealth. Head to Eastern Croatia, from Zagreb and beyond and you'll find a world away from the tourist mayhem of the coast. But this beautiful area is worth the trip - a world of wetlands and wineries, and culturally-rich towns such as Osijek and Vakovar. Importantly, this area was one of the worst hit during the wars, and as an agricultural area suffered huge losses during the floods of May 2014; tourism revenues here are all the more important.

Croatia has had a meteoric rise to tourism fame and rightly so. Its turquoise waters beg us to grab a kayak and staggeringly historic towns cry out for us to get lost in them. It is a country new to tourism, and while it seems to have set out on the right foot in terms of protecting its natural and cultural heritage, its popularity with cruise ships, if not curbed sooner rather than later, will continue to threaten the authentic identity of some of its most enticing towns. Tourism has a huge role to play in keeping the peace in a recently very volatile region, growing local economies and celebrating a shared cultural heritage. But with an economy so dependent on tourism, for sustainable growth those assets which bring in visitors from around the world are precisely those which need to be protected from the tourism boom. Ensuring tourist dollars reach local communities who need the support most will bring most benefits and preserving the unique cultural and natural heritage will keep holiday-makers coming back to support the country year after year.

Read more in responsibletravel.com's new 2 minute guide to Croatia - http://www.responsibletravel.com/holidays/croatia