Marcel Medak: Spas should be privatized according to the Slovenian model

The advantages of health tourism are the absence of seasonality, longer stays and higher prices.

Author  Blanka Kufner

November 7, 2023

The largest number of Croatian spas, special hospitals that form the backbone of the spa part of health tourism, are located in the central part of Croatia. Their role is to be the initiators and backbones of the tourist offer in their destinations.

In the past, spa towns were centers of cultural, entertainment and political life. Their meaning has come to the fore especially after the pandemic, he reveals Marcel Medak, director of the Tourist Board of Bjelovar-Bilogora County.

The offer of health tourism within the Cluster of Central Croatia

As a health tourism specialist, long-time president of the Health Tourism Association at HGK and former director of Daruvar spa, member of ESPA and EHTTA international associations from the European area, our interlocutor is very relevant to the discussion on the topic of health tourism.

"The pandemic has put health in the foreground as a motive for travel, which I consider an exclusive opportunity for the revitalization of existing spas. But for this to happen, Croatian spas should be privatized along the lines of the Slovenian model", says Medak.

Our spas do not pay enough attention to preventive programs, additional offers and quality accommodation, which at the moment are not at the level to be serious competitors to developed tourist countries from the surrounding area, such as, for example, Slovenia, Hungary or Austria, he continues.

Medical tourism is at a high level, with dental tourism leading the way, while wellness tourism is limited exclusively to the offer of wellness programs in hotels and smaller wellness centers.

"A great opportunity is medical wellness, which can be carried out primarily in health institutions, but also in hotels, with the prerequisite that the programs are carried out under medical supervision, which is currently most feasible in spas.”, says this professor of kinesiology who received additional education at the Faculty of Management and Tourism in Opatija and obtained the title of specialist in health tourism at the post-graduate specialist studies.

"The biggest advantages of health tourism as a selective form over other forms of tourism, in my opinion, are the absence of seasonality, a significantly longer stay and the higher price of such services", he emphasizes.

This is not only an opportunity for the continent, he says, but a way that existing entities at sea, precisely by using seawater as a natural healing factor and the backbone of preventive and wellness programs, can - if they want - ensure year-round business.  

"I also see a chance in connecting and joining international associations in order to gain and exchange experience and positive examples from practice. Thanks to my involvement in EHTTA, in addition to Daruvar, which has been in the association since 2011, the city of Varaždinske toplice and Lipik are also members today.", he states.

Internationally, from 2011 to the end of 2017, Medak was a member of the executive board of the EHTA (European Historical Thermal Town Association) in front of the town of Daruvar, and since 2019 he has been representing Croatia in the ESPA (European Spa Association) through HGK.

Photo: Marcel Medak / archive

Photo: Marcel Medak / archive

Plans for the period from 2024 to 2027.

When it comes to the tourist offer of the Bjelovar-Bilogora County (BBŽ), today it is primarily based on the offer of active tourism (cycling, horseback riding and hiking), quality picnic spots and a rich wine and gastronomic offer.

They are currently in the final stage of drafting strategic documents that will be the guiding thread for all activities that will be implemented in the next five-year period, and they are harmonized with national strategic documents.

"I personally believe that we have a very beautiful and challenging period ahead of us in the development of tourism in the area of ​​the county, where we actively participate with BBŽ in the realization of two capital projects for the development of tourist infrastructure - a bicycle path along the route of the old railway line with a length of 80 km and the Kukavice Project, a future educational an entertainment center and a leading center for schools in nature in central Croatia - which will surely position BBŽ on the map of tourist destinations in Croatia", reveals Medak.

Together with the seven counties of continental Croatia within the Cluster of Central Croatia, they operate towards foreign markets and in this way, he points out, show the strength and diversity of the offer and become more competitive, while they operate independently on the domestic market.     

"We definitely want to continue the project 'Raising the quality of accommodation service providers from the BBŽ area' for at least another two years. By the way, we have been implementing this project for two years and the feedback from the field is very good", he says.

With the project of granting grants to accommodation service providers in Bjelovar-Bilogora County, they want to raise awareness of the importance of the quality of accommodation facilities and investments in additional facilities within them.

"By combining the funds of TZBBŽ and BBŽ with the funds of HTZ, we plan to encourage investments in raising the quality of accommodation service providers, by raising the category of accommodation, introducing additional facilities such as jacuzzis, saunas, swimming pools, children's playgrounds, new furniture, as well as renewable energy systems", he describes, adding that the goal of these measures is to increase tourist traffic.

"With this project, we want to offer accommodation service providers to equip their facilities with products from Croatian companies in the decoration of accommodation units. We want to direct accommodation service providers to environmental awareness, the use of renewable energy sources, environmentally friendly materials in furnishing and decorating according to sustainable tourism", he points out.

This initiative also aims to return part of the financial resources paid into the budget of TZ BBŽ (through tourist membership fees and taxes) to registered accommodation service providers - thus, in a way that enables them to invest in raising the quality of accommodation units through clearly defined criteria, thereby creating better conditions for guest satisfaction and destination image.

"This kind of project, based on our example, is implemented by several other counties", reveals Medak.

In addition, after the completion of the operational plans in 2023, the plan is to start creating a new branding campaign and a new BBŽ logo in the coming year. The creation of a new website will also follow, which will integrate the entire tourism offer of BBŽ in a new, more modern way.

"We will also design new tourist products and educate all employees in tourist offices within BBŽ for future DMC jobs that will result from the new Act on Tourism that will soon come into force.", we learn from our interlocutor.

Photo: Marcel Medak / archive

Law on Tourism

The new Act on Tourism, which is to enter into force on January 1, 2024, is extremely well thought out and if the by-laws are well prepared, it will greatly change Croatian tourism, according to the director of the TZ of Bjelovar-Bilogora County.

What regional and local tourism boards have to do and which has long been recognized by the profession, should now take root.

"I am an optimist by nature and expect a lot from this law. I believe that it will be an excellent leverage and tool that will help local and regional self-government to systematically manage tourism in their areas.", he says.

A great role and responsibility lies with the leaders and directors of tourist boards, who can use this regulation for a qualitative step forward in the development of tourism in their areas, he says from the perspective of the director of the regional tourist board.

"However, some may prove unprepared for the role assigned to them by this law", warns Medak.

Trends in tourism have changed drastically after the pandemic, and the newly created situation is a strong wind at the back of domestic continental tourism, he points out.

"Tourist demand is now focused on sustainable destinations, preserved environment, local gastronomy and smaller accommodation facilities. Today you can get all of this in most of the continental counties of Croatia", he claims.

At this moment, we are witnessing a change in the consciousness of the local population and the belief that tourism can also make a living. New accommodation facilities are being opened, in which holiday houses and apartments with 3,4, 5 and XNUMX stars are leading the way.

"New tourist products and specific niches are being created in which BBŽ has comparative advantages over its competitors. These are, for example, the first ecological swimming pool, gravel races, the BEER LIST project, the 6-element project, and many others.", he tells us.

A huge experience

Marcel Medak was born in Metković, finished primary and secondary economic school in Ploče, after which he entered the Faculty of Kinesiology at the University of Zagreb, where he graduated in 1996. After completing his studies, he went to military service.

He was a volunteer of the Homeland War and, as a member of the Comin Company, a participant in the military action 'Green board - Small ponds', during which the military warehouses in Ploče were liberated in the fall of 1991.

After completing his military service, he and his wife moved to Ploče, where he began working in an elementary school as a physical education and health teacher. In 2002, he moved with his family to Daruvar, where he started working as Head of the Croatian Home at the Open University Daruvar.

In 2006, he became the director of the city company 'Daruc' Daruvar, where he worked until the end of 2009. From then until 2017, he worked as the director of the Special Hospital for Medical Rehabilitation of the Daruvar Spa. At the end of his mandate, he becomes the director of Sunčane toplice doo, where he will remain until the end of 2020.

"From that position, I am going to the position of director for the development of health tourism at the company Gitone Kvarner doo, where I will work until September 2021. Then I will take over the position of director of the TZ of Bjelovar-Bilogora County, where I am currently", describes Marcel Medak.

From 2011 to 2022, he held the position of president of the professional association of the Community of Health Tourism at HGK. In the period from 2016 to 2021, he was a member of the HTZ Council as a representative of the continent for special forms of tourism.

Photo: Marcel Medak, archive

Author  Blanka Kufner

November 7, 2023