Traveler interview: Louise Doughty on her trip to Croatia
Croatia boats. Photos by sobrecroacia.com.
One of our regular travelers, Louise Doughty, who travelled to Croatia mid to end August 2017 chats with our travel writer, Catherine Mack, about the issues of overcrowding and ever growing tourist numbers in Croatia in peak season. Has Croatia hit critical mass?
First of all, I just wanted to express how sorry I am that you were disappointed by the overcrowded nature of your summer vacation in Croatia this year.Yes it is a shame because we have enjoyed all our other Responsible Travel vacations as in the past you have been very good at finding places that we wouldnít have found on our own. And I think what we found was that it was a perfectly fine vacation if you like that kind of vacation. I donít want to be too hard on Andy [the tour operator who organised the trip] as he booked it all very efficiently and everything else. It just seemed to me a very odd thing to be offering through Responsible Travel, because that specific itinerary is all the tourist hot spots. So that is what I would question really, not so much that there was anything wrong with it as a vacation if you like that sort of thing, it just didnít seem like a very responsible travel vacation.
So which vacations had you been on with us before then?Cirali beach in Turkey and then a place in Lanzarote, which was a lovely apartment in a quiet town that was quite high up, with lots of windows for natural ventilation and everything.
I understand that you hadnít been to Croatia before. What made you want to go there in the first place?I canít remember really. I think we were just browsing and looking for a vacation, and werenít really too fussy about the location. I think at one stage our daughter thought that she might go on to a music festival in Croatia. But really we were just curious because we hadnít been there before, and we like to go to places where we havenít been before if possible.
Was this an independent trip or tailor made vacation?It was a tailor made itinerary for us, all done by Andy, not using a car but having transfers and ferries all organised for us.
Where did your trip start and how was your first encounter of Croatia?It started in Dubrovnik, and we knew it would be touristy and had seen some of the publicity about that, particularly about the cruise ships coming in to the city. We actually booked our own accommodation in Dubrovnik, as we werenít so keen on the place that Andy offered there. And so we were in the old town, and we really liked that. It was a small family run place, just a two bedroom apartment in the heart of the old town.
And how was Dubrovnik, in terms of crowds?I think it is an amazing city. I just would never ever go there in July or August. I mean the streets are so crowded, youíre walking along with your nose almost on the shoulder blades of the person walking in front of you. I think if it had been just Dubrovnik that was touristy I wouldnít have minded so much, because I did sort of expect that. I think what surprised me was that the rest of the itinerary was very touristy as well.
And were you aware of the cruise ship surge say in the mornings or afternoons, when everyone disembarked?Yes I was, but I must say it was pretty busy even when the cruise ships werenít in. It is still incredibly crowded. There seems to be a big night club scene, and we arrived on a Saturday night and there were a lot of large groups of clubbers out on the streets. So I think it is pretty busy in July and August whether the cruise ships are there or not.
Had you been warned or read up on the fact that Croatia was going to be really busy before you left?Well I did know it was busy and had seen the news coverage about Dubrovnik. I think I just had no idea how busy. And also I did expect it of Dubrovnik but not of the rest of it.
Do you have a personal view on what can be done about this growing issue?To be honest, as someone who thinks as herself as green leaning, I donít think Responsible Travel should be selling there in July and August, unless you can find an itinerary that is really off the beaten track. And I am sure there are locations in Croatia that are, particularly if they go on a fly drive vacation. I would imagine if you drive for an hour in to the interior of the country it is completely undeveloped. Because a lot of the development in the areas we were in was clearly very hasty.
Hvar island beach. Photo by Arnie Papp.
Yes indeed. There are many national parks and so on inland in Croatia.Yes, I just donít think that there is any way at all that the main tourist areas of Croatia can be sold under Responsible Travelís remit. I think it damages your reputation being a green travel company if you are sending them to the these very busy places in July and August because there is no way that could remotely be considered a green vacation. It is so overrun.
I think it is an interesting debate, however, as Croatia is a real victim of its own success. And the one thing I did find fascinating was the idea that this was a country at war 25 years ago, and still in economic doldrums ten years ago. And it has had this extraordinary tourist boom where it has completely reinvented itself. But I think it has met critical mass.
Well, we shall certainly be taking up this debate at Responsible Travel, and we really appreciate your views on it.Yes, I think it is a debate worth having. Because I think that it is just really nice to find a travel company that does sell vacations off the beaten track, and does take those issues of sustainability seriously. It is quite a rare thing. And I think maybe there is a temptation to just expand a bit too much when you are successful at that, and then you end up sort of losing what makes you unique in the first place.
And how about Split Ė was it any better?It was again very crowded, but not as bad as Dubrovnik. Because although it was busy, it does feel like a working town in that there is a proper market there with fruit and vegetables, and fish, and we were staying in a little hotel right inside the Diocletian's Palace. But it was very, very crowded and yet a really interesting town. But again, I would never have gone there in July and August.
And what about the islands?We went to two islands, Korkula and Hvar, and again they are just very busy and popular islands. In Korkula there was this really entertaining waiter there, when we were having a lovely pizza meal out one evening. I donít know whether he was joking or not, but he was saying that Korkula was trying to get itself taken off the internet! He told us that they all used to do twelve hour days during the tourist season and then the rest of the year they would spend time with your families. But everyone on the island felt that the tourist season was just expanding and expanding at either end, and that just no one was seeing their families anymore and they had got to the point where they had just had enough. He was being perfectly nice about it, he wasnít hostile. But it was quite striking to hear that from a waiter whose livelihood is obviously dependent on tourists. He was just shaking his head at how incredibly crowded it has got. And actually we thought that Korkula was the least overcrowded of all the destinations we visited, although it was still busy.
Was Korkula busier than Hvar?Hard to say really as we were only on each for three nights. I donít think it was as busy as Hvar. I mean Hvar is a real party island and there were lots of night clubs and thumping music. And Korkula certainly didnít feel like that. And we really liked the hotel too that Andy found us on Korkula. It was just out of the old town a bit off the beaten track.
How were the ferries?Our vacation referred to the journeys as Ďisland hopping on a catamaraní which does make it sound quite bucolic, but the ferry rides are commercial and closed in. You couldnít go outside at all. They were really stuffy, in fact quite claustrophobic and horrible. The air conditioning didnít work very well, and everyone is packed in to this enclosed space. And you queue forever to get on with hundreds of other people.
When you are doing four different stops on a vacation and traveling quite a lot on an eleven day vacation, you really do want the traveling itself to be pleasurable. Because the traveling between stops took up quite a lot of our vacation time. And actually we really just hated the ferries. All four of us. And I think when it is a boat between islands where you canít even go on deck, I think people should be warned about that. Because obviously I didnít expect it to be a sailing boat, I was thinking it would be one of the larger catamarans where you could stand on the bow for an hour and just watch the islands go by. And it definitely wasnít that. It was a very stuffy, commercial ferry.
Did you go to any spots that were less crowded? And if so, which were your favourites?Korkula was our favourite bit. And we did sort of regret that we werenít on a fly drive style vacation, because I think if weíd had our own car, and planned the vacation around that we could have explored a bit more. Even on the interiors of the islands, it would have been good to explore some more and arranged that in advance.
What other tips would you give to visitors going to Croatia in July or August?Maybe just to do a fly drive option so that you can get up and go to other quieter places. And maybe also to then bookend it with busier areas, but for the bulk of the vacation to do something a bit more off the beaten track. Our vacation was tailor made, but we just followed Andyís (the tour operator) recommendations and the itinerary he came up with. And I suppose I just assumed that because we came through Responsible Travel, it would be a responsible travel type of vacation. I didnít check with him at any point if this was an eco or green vacation, and just assumed that he would take that as read as it was on Responsible Travel.
Well his company would have met all the Responsible Travel criteria, such as using small locally owned accommodation and so on, but at the moment our criteria arenít linked to tourist numbers in destinations.Yes, and certainly all the accommodation he booked for us were fine. However, I do think that tourist numbers is now an issue that you do need to take on board at Responsible Travel. Particularly with somewhere like Croatia which has got a bit like Venice. The development in Croatia has been so rapid and so huge. So, for a start they need to just ban the cruise ships. The taxi drivers were telling us that the cruise ships dock and the people donít spend any money in town. Because they arenít eating in restaurants or staying in hotels. They just walk around, crowding the whole place out and wearing out the streets. And then go back to the boat to eat and sleep. And so, perhaps Responsible Travel does need to look again at places that attract huge numbers of cruise ships, and that is really worth doing. Because then the levels of pollution and degradation of the environment are taken into account.
It is interesting to note that some vacation companies that offer activities such as hiking and cycling often donít offer trips during July and August. Not because of crowds but because of the heat. And because the heat is a health and safety issue when it comes to strenuous activities. Perhaps overtourism in some destinations, such as Dubrovnik, has the potential to fall into this Ďhealth and safetyí category.I think that is probably right, yes.
And on a positive note, was there one person locally you met whom you will always remember?Well, probably the waiter in the hotel in Korkula. He was actually very funny and having a really good laugh with us, and at our expense! At the end of the meal, for example, he asked us if we wanted a small bill or a large bill, and we told him a small bill. He came back with the bill folded up into a tiny piece of paper. He was a real joker. I thought the Croatian people were absolutely lovely. I would say that is the benefit of it being a relatively recent tourist boom, in that there wasnít any of the cynicism you might sometimes get in other tourism destinations. The Croatian people were just fantastic. Really friendly and really nice. So despite the huge numbers of people going, there was no sense of hostility at all. Far from it, which I think was really interesting.
Would you go back to Croatia?I would, but only out of season. In fact, I would really like to go back out of season to see the difference and maybe do one of the walking vacations when it is cooler. And go to the national parks. I think I would like to try that. And the history of the place is amazing. We have already been to Slovenia, but I would like to go to Bosnia-Herzegovina as well. I would like to go to Mostar. So on the more cultural and walking side, out of season, definitely.
Mostar, Bosnia. Photos by Enrico Pighetti .