Although Croatia cannot compare with major tourism powers such as France, Spain, Italy or Greece in terms of the number of tourist arrivals, with around 20 million tourist arrivals in 2019 and a trend of increasing numbers for many years, Croatia has certainly become one of the most popular countries on the Mediterranean.
Since 2000, the number of tourist overnights has doubled. This is also reflected in some indicators that have been happening over the past decade, such as: the ‘discovery’ of Croatia in an increasing number of articles in leading world magazines and other media praising its natural and cultural attractions; the obvious rise in the number of tourist arrivals from a growing number of generating countries; the significant share of tourism in the total GDP of Croatia (20%); the rise in the number of objects of protected tangible and non-tangible cultural heritage; the increase in investment in tourism and auxiliary infrastructure; the increasing variety of what is on offer for tourists, etc.
Tourism is certainly a most lucrative activity, especially in the coastal areas in the summer. Here, there is a generally accepted division of all economic activities into 'in season' and 'out of season' ones. The summer tourist season, which mainly lasts from the beginning of June to the end of September, is the main stimulus for the development of this, the most attractive area for tourists, where 84.4 million tourist overnights were recorded in 2019 (29.5% of all overnights). Of the total number of overnights in 2019 (91 million), 92.2% were by foreign visitors. Most foreign tourist overnights (30.2%) were spent in the County of Istria, where tourism is the most developed in terms of infrastructure. The other coastal counties follow: Split-Dalmatia (20.1%), Primorje-Gorski kotar (16.6%), Zadar (10.3%), Dubrovnik-Neretva, Šibenik-Knin and Lika-Senj (altogether 18.4%). The remaining counties, i.e. the continental ones, accounted for 4.4% of the total number of overnights. Accommodation capacity is distributed in line with these figures, mainly along the Adriatic coast. The largest number of overnight stays was achieved in rooms, apartments and holiday homes (48.8%), followed by hotels (22.7%) and camps (20.0%).
Since contemporary tourism trends do not favour accommodation in large hotels such as those that were built during the socialist era, there is a move towards more individualism, resulting in the fact that most of the beds today are in private accommodation. Therefore, most nights were spent in private accommodation (34%) and then in hotels (26%). For similar reasons, the once very popular workers’ and children’s holiday homes, as special forms of accommodation, have been abandoned or converted.
Historical overview. The tradition of organised tourism in Croatia dates back about 150 years, although even before that, at the beginning of the 19th century, some forms of travel, similar to tourism, did exist (such as pilgrimages or trips to spas for cures), so the first inns, hotels and spas were built for that purpose (Daruvarske Toplice, Stubičke Toplice and Varaždinske Toplice).
The period from the second half of the 19th century to the First World War was marked by the construction of road and rail routes and the introduction of steam ship routes on the Adriatic Sea, as a requirement for a serious tourist industry. At that time, the first hotels were opened, first of all in Opatija (the Villa Angiolina in 1844 and Kvarner in 1884), then in Zagreb, Samobor, Zadar, Crikvenica, Dubrovnik, etc., the first tourist guide books were written (on Poreč and Pula in as early as 1845), while, in Zagreb in 1892, trips began to be organised to Velebit and the Adriatic, and the coastal towns (especially in Kvarner) became centres of health tourism. The first tourist boards were also founded at that time (in Krk in 1866 and on Hvar in 1868).
In the time between the two World Wars, tourism in Croatia received a boost, receiving an average of one million tourist arrivals a year (in about 1930). Compulsory tourist taxes were introduced, exchange offices were opened and tourist reviews issued, and domestic and international air routes established.
It is possible to talk about tourism as a mass phenomenon from about sixty years ago. After the Second World War, the tourist infrastructure that had been destroyed in the war was restored and nationalised. At the same time, national parks and nature parks began to be founded, and drama, film and music festivals began (the Dubrovnik Summer Festival, the Split Summer Festival, the Pula Film Festival, etc.). During the economic expansion of the 1960s, work began on building many tourism facilities: hotels, marinas, campsites and even entire tourist villages, mainly on the Adriatic, but also inland (spas in Hrvatsko Zagorje and Slavonia, and in the national parks in Lika and Gorski Kotar). A very important year for tourism was 1979, because in this year the first three locations in Croatia were registered in the UNESCO World Heritage List (Diocletian's Palace in Split, Dubrovnik's Old Town, and the Plitvice Lakes National Park).
At the beginning of the 1990s, with the transformation and privatisation of tourist companies, the ownership structure changed. During the Homeland War, due to the danger of the war and the blocking of transport links with the coastal areas, tourism practically died out, and many displaced persons from all parts of Croatia and refugees from neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina were accommodated in tourist facilities. There was another surge in growth after 1995, and especially after 2000, when a large number of Croatian tourist resorts recorded strong growth in the number of foreign tourists, and Croatia itself was placed at the peak of tourism in the world.
Trade and tourists. Over the past thirty years, the tourist industry has seen three important phases. In the second half of the 1980s, the number of tourist arrivals continued to increase steadily, exceeding 10 million arrivals. Then came the time of the Homeland War, during which, understandably, the number of tourist arrivals fell dramatically (in 1991 and 1992, fewer than 2.5 million tourist arrivals were recorded). In 2019, around 20 million arrivals were recorded, and around 91 tourist overnights. Due to the pandemic caused by the coronavirus, the number of tourist arrivals in Croatia was greatly reduced in 2020 (7 million).
From 1980 to the present, the proportion of foreign tourists is greater than domestic tourists, and the traditional tourists are from Germany, Slovenia (earlier counted as domestic tourists), Austria, Italy, the Czech Republic and Slovakia (the former Czechoslovakia). In the past ten years, the number of tourists has increased from Poland, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Hungary and France, but also from overseas countries.
Apart from the intensive advertising already mentioned, which has certainly led to an increase in interest in Croatia over the past decade, the change in the structure of tourists in terms of country of origin, with the addition of new tourists, is also the result of the introduction of low-budget airlines, and a variety of forms of cheaper accommodation for tourists with lower purchasing power. On the other hand, with the development of cruises in some destinations, especially Dubrovnik, and the opening of marinas and the extension of their capacities, Croatia is visited by an increasing number of tourists with greater purchasing power every year. In terms of the way people travel, individual arrangements (66%) still dominate, and only a third arrive as part of an organised package. On average, tourists stay for 5 days, longer in the summer, and shorter in other seasons.