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In Croatia, tourism boom has environmentalists worried

September 19, 2023

After introducing the euro and joining the Schengen area, Croatia has seen visitor numbers balloon. But what does this mean for the environment?

Tourists tour historical sights in the old city center in Dubrovnik
Dubrovnik is one of Croatia's most visited destinationsImage: Grgo Jelavic/Pixsell/picture alliance

Croatia is again a very popular travel destination, with visitor numbers this year expected to surpass the record set in 2019, according the Croatian Tourism Ministry.

There are several reasons for the 2023 boom: Croatia joined the Schengen zone in January, meaning that many European tourists are no longer subject to border checks when they enter the country. On top of that, Croatia has swapped out its old currency, the kuna, for the euro, making transactions more seamless for travelers from the eurozone.  

People relax on the beach on Krk island
For many travelers, the Croatian islands — including Krk — are ideal for a beach holidayImage: Nel Pavletic/PIXSELL/picture alliance

"Compared to previous years and the pre-pandemic period, we have seen increased tourist numbers in the first half of 2023," a ministry spokesperson told DW. He said the Schengen travel freedoms are making it easier for travelers to visit Croatia for a city break or weekend.

Tourism already contributed up to 20% of Croatia's gross domestic product, and it is increasingly becoming a pillar of the economy, especially in the coastal regions.

Euro simplifies travel to Croatia

Joining the eurozone has led to greater transparency for vacationers, who can better judge if goods and services offered are value for money.

In addition, uncertainties linked to exchange rate fluctuations are now a thing of the past. All this makes it easier to plan and budget for a Croatia getaway.

"Joining Schengen and the eurozone will considerably benefit the Croatian tourist industry," the ministry spokesperson said. "Especially considering that about 80% of tourists staying in Croatia overnight come from the Schengen area and almost 60% hail from the eurozone."

Yet these changes also have a downside, including recent reports of price hikes. 

But tourism authorities have attributed the higher prices less to joining the eurozone and more to global inflationary pressures. The ministry referred to studies finding that prices rose in other Mediterranean holiday destinations that have been part of the eurozone for far longer.

That said, the spokesperson acknowledged that "unfortunately, there have also been cases where the introduction of the euro has been used as a pretext to raise prices." He promised Croatian authorities would monitor such "unfair practices."

Conservationists warn of mass tourism impact

It's not a surprise that Croatia is becoming an increasingly sought-after travel destination, with 1,880 kilometers (1,170 miles) of Adriatic coastline, more than 600 islands and iconic towns like Dubrovnik.

Yet mass tourism can cause serious environmental harm, for example in Croatia's northern Istria region, which sees the most visitors by far. Conservationists with nonprofit Zelena Istra, Croatian for Green Istria, are concerned about this development.

Tourists are seen in Porec's old town
Istria has seen the largest influx of touristsImage: Frank Hoermann/SVEN SIMON/picture alliance

The consequences of mass tourism are varied. It can overwhelm local infrastructure such as waste collection and recycling services. It may also spur the illegal construction of holiday resorts which can remain vacant for months, or the privatization of beaches, shutting out locals, according to Dunja Mickov of Zelena Istra.

Mass tourism can cause biodiversity loss, pollute the air, sea and groundwater, Mickov told DW.

"But is anyone monitoring this? Who is taking action?" she asked. "Everything is happening too fast, the monitoring bodies are not acting and there are no penalties for anyone who does not comply with the law."

A Croatian island is seen, surrounded by sea
Croatia boasts hundreds of islands that are popular with visitors and locals alikeImage: Markus Mainka/picture alliance

Croatian government aims to make tourism more sustainable

Sunce, another Croatian conservationist group, is trying to help the country's tourist industry become more sustainable.

"Croatia's tourist sector experienced significant growth in recent years," a Sunce spokesperson told DW, adding that balancing this visitor influx with the need to protect Croatia's nature cultural heritage was challenging.

Most recently, Sunce launched the Dalmatia Green project, which certifies particularly sustainable tourist accommodations in the region and is backed by the Croatian government.

Croatian authorities have seemingly recognized the need for greater regulation of the tourism industry, which is why a comprehensive tourism law is now in the works.

One planned measure is a tourism levy that will be used to help pay for nature conservation efforts. The tax will be introduced only in areas blighted by mass tourism, however, and not before 2025.

This article was originally written in German.

Jonas Martiny -  Travel Online-Autor
Jonas Martiny Reporter, correspondent