Rujana Bušić Srpak: The development of continental tourism should be a strategic national and regional decision

The tourism sector is the most affected sector caused by the coronavirus pandemic. All the analyzes and data say that. But in the whole story, continental tourism is again left out, which is still on ...

The tourism sector is the most affected sector caused by the coronavirus pandemic. All the analyzes and data say that.

But throughout the story, continental tourism, which is still on hold and out of focus, has been left out again, at least if we look at the investments and focus of institutions in it. I have a feeling that we are only advocating for it declaratively, because when we want to take it seriously, it will be visible through significant investments, without which it is unlikely that the continent will move significantly forward.

Many forget or are not even aware that the peak of the season on the continent is just before the season and a half, the period when in fact the coronavirus pandemic hit the most, both Croatia and the whole of Europe. While maritime tourism had at least some season and traffic, the continent had a complete lockdown.

On the other hand, it is precisely the continental tourist offer that has begun to grow in recent years and optimism has awakened in the field. Investments in continental destinations have started, which is crucial, as well as a clear indication that things have started to roll for the better through the growth of arrivals and overnight stays.

I talked to a woman who runs tourism in the easternmost county about how to start continental tourism and what the situation is 268 kilometers east of Zagreb. I was interested in the real situation on the ground in Vukovar-Srijem County, to which I am especially attached, and I keep saying that it has great potential. It was an occasion to talk at home, which I moved to in 2008, because I am convinced of the great potential and great opportunities for progress in all directions, not just tourism. Considering how subjective I am Rujana Bušić Srpak I asked him to summarize the situation after 20 years of experience and leadership of the Vukovar-Srijem County Tourist Board. An inside look is what we sometimes miss to see the whole picture.

According to all indicators, before the appearance of the coronavirus, 2020 should have been the best year for continental tourism. What were the announcements and indicators in the first few months, before the appearance of the crown. Also, the growth is certainly not accidental?

The numbers at the beginning of 2020 confirmed that in previous years we have done a good job in cooperation with partners, the county, the economy and the tourist system and that tourist traffic is going in the desired direction - an increase of 12% overnight stays in January and 30% in February 2020 .in relation to 2019. The increase in January and February is a significant indicator of the efficiency of the implemented activities because these are the months with the lowest tourist traffic. Promotional activities have intensified over the past few years as certain special-purpose funds of the Croatian National Tourist Board have been opened, which we were able to fully use with the support of the Vukovar-Srijem County.

2020 was a year of extraordinary circumstances that required an urgent rearrangement of priorities and types of activities. After opening in the spring, we started independent and cluster campaigns and relied on our loyal market - domestic. We achieved the most we could in the given circumstances. In July and August, the most significant tourist traffic was realized in the covid months, and we ended 2020 with 43,78% of realized overnight stays compared to 2019.

How to say. The crisis is also an opportunity. It is the continental offer, longer stay, as well as the focus on the domestic guest that is currently in focus. Domestic guests have had the largest share so far? How to position the continent in post-covid time?

In the area of ​​Slavonia, the domestic guest is the key to the success of the tourist year 2021. Experiences from 2020 have confirmed what the regional tourist boards of Slavonia have been emphasizing and insisting on for a long time, and these are significant campaigns aimed precisely at the domestic guest and the domestic market. I believe that the programs announced by the Ministry of Tourism and Sports in 2021 and the new Strategic Marketing and Operational Plan of Croatian Tourism for the period 2021-2025, which we expect to complete in the second part of the year, will recognize the importance of this market segment for continental Croatia. and that the cooperation of the Ministry of Tourism and Sports, the Croatian National Tourist Board and the entire system of tourist boards will achieve positive changes in the perception of domestic travel by both supply and demand, but also more serious tourist results on the continent.

We should not ignore the fact that Croatia is a beautiful country primarily for its inhabitants. No one loves a country more and more beautifully than its inhabitants. In Croatia, this is especially visible and pride in the beauty of the country we live in has never diminished, despite all the crises and problems. Our message is an invitation to our fellow citizens to get to know their country, its beauties and diversity. Developing awareness of the need to preserve everything that is given to us, development, but also support each other and through tourism, for me is the first and fundamental message.

Nothing in Croatia is far away, and a lot of beautiful content is more economically accessible than you think. Just look at the accommodation prices or call any restaurant, museum or ask for the price of the guided route. All of the above is confirmed by the numbers. The share of domestic guests is always about 80%. Foreign markets are traditional and are tied to certain key products in certain markets. Certainly, we are far from using the potential of foreign markets because the budget is limited for more serious activities in the domestic market, and for foreign capacity is even smaller, but some rules of growth of tourist traffic apply equally on the coast and on the continent - more serious, but still sustainable, there is no growth without a foreign market. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t harness the full potential of domestic.

In a more painful way, we realized that our thoughts were correct. Much more positive and affirmative communication in public space is needed about what tourism specifically means for the local economy. It’s the simplest and most convenient way to support the local economy and local people - come see what they’re doing. We saw an example of this approach at the time of the first closure when domestic producers offered their products. The same model is applicable to travel. Visit domestic destinations, praise or recommend how to do better, all for guaranteed value for money. The experience of Croatia as a tourist country as a whole is the task of the entire tourism sector, and its fulfillment is still ahead of us.

The offer of the whole of Slavonia, as well as the Vukovar-Srijem County, is rich and develops from year to year. Regardless of everything, there is something to see and experience in Vukovar-Srijem County. What products have you developed over the years? Was the focus on specific products? 

Highlighting one attraction of Vukovar-Srijem County was and remains quite a challenge, but a challenge to which we readily and dynamically responded by making the ruined county a tourist destination. It is a process that has lasted for more than 20 years and which would not have given recognizable results if it were not for the understanding and cooperation of local self-government, entrepreneurs and the system of tourist boards. The work on creating a destination is by its nature such that it is never actually completed, and the only guarantee of success is the continued understanding of the needs of the tourism sector by all levels of tourism development management and evaluation of the most valuable resource - man, knowledge and work.

I believe we have chosen the best way to bring all the attractions together and present them to the market. Activities are aimed at strengthening the visibility of the content of key tourist products, namely cultural, enogastronomy and staying in nature. Within these products, there are a number of different contents, which we have connected over the years in the so-called Thematic routes. Thematic routes, in addition to strengthening the visibility of the content and the providers themselves, also represent a proposal for a thematic trip. It is important to emphasize the necessary cooperation between the tourist board and the bearers of the offer, because without that, each of our ideas remains only on paper.

The owners of the facilities are the hosts who arrange their space, create an offer within the facility and are in direct communication with the guest. In this process, it is necessary to learn from each other, to understand each other and to develop the destination together. On this basis, each product, content and thematic route is developed, but also maintained. Also, funds for promotion are always small, so it often happens that the key promotion of our facilities is through the system of tourist boards.

The destination is geographically small and a trip of a few days gives the opportunity to visit several locations with the same content. Realistically, each of our visitors actually tours a combination of content, from culture, through enogastronomy to a stay in nature. Day trips are tied to a minimum of different facilities, but any trip that includes an overnight stay is definitely a combination of facilities. We did not do all this arbitrarily but based on the documents and analyzes that guided us. For example, the project of branding Vukovar - Srijem County as a tourist destination has shown that one of the most important motives for coming to our destination is river rides. This is exactly the content we have developed on the big river, the Danube, but also on the small one, Bosut. Both ships are connected by the marked bicycle route Srijem, and pass by cultural sights and connect rural areas. And that’s a combination of the content I’m talking about.

Photo: Borna Saturday

As we created themes in the destination, we also adjusted the promotional activities. One of the examples is the Wine Stories of Srijem, which you yourself wrote about, but also the Srijem Breakfast. Promotional materials, a website and a blog were created in the same way. Recognizable content is a key starting point for a promotional basis. All promotional activities always have a theme, clear, recognizable, memorable and accessible. The promotion also takes place on the wine list of any restaurant with wine from Srijem. Kulen, pechenitsa, sour cheese or salenjaci speak of a destination anywhere. The inspiration for travel for travelers who love destinations like ours, is everywhere. They look for it in equal proportions, and where there is, they find it. We want to be an ubiquitous inspiration.

How specifically to launch the continent? How to accelerate development?  We know that the continent is neglected, that you have much less resources (human and financial), that we are "underdeveloped" - in the context of the Adriatic, that tourism has not been a strategic focus for counties and cities so far. What is the role of the Tourist Board as an institution in the context of tourism development on the continent? How to accelerate the development of continental tourism?

The development of tourism in the continental part of Croatia should be a strategic national and regional decision, and the development plan should be carried out according to the operational organizational and financial plan. In Vukovar-Srijem County, a decision was made on five strategic sectors of the county, and tourism is one of them. Taking into account regional and local specifics, there must still be a harmonized direction of development that is applied in certain destinations in a way that is acceptable to local development and the needs of the local population. We need to make it clear which product has the strongest potential in which area and what is worth investing from a market competitive position. The level of quality must be a condition without which it is impossible and I believe that investing in quality is first on the list of priorities.

Also, the continent of Croatia must be a stronger part of the overall Croatian tourist brand. Croatia is a brand on the tourist market, and its continental part is an opportunity for a new, unknown and unexplored Croatia. The continent is an opportunity, not a burden. Nowhere, including in the continental part of Croatia, will tourism develop more seriously without sectoral and cross-sectoral investment. I accept any calculation that will show that some investments are not profitable. That’s fine, let’s move on, there’s a lot of potential, and tourism isn’t the only one. But, after all, we should know where what can be developed and where not, but also outline a clear dynamics of investment in development and, consequently, create support programs with very precise and defined criteria and monitoring continuous quality maintenance, cooperation with local stakeholders and others. elements of networking at the local and regional level. I would not talk about large or small amounts because even a small amount well targeted can give a very good result. Also, the amount is sufficient or not in relation to whether it ensures the realization of the goal or not. 

In the context of sector development, tourist boards have their very broad but clear tasks. In real life, in the absence of institutional support for more serious development projects, tourist communities are often expected to achieve a result that is beyond the scope and capacity of the community itself. Tourist boards should be stakeholders in all tourism development projects because they initiate, create, develop and promote a tourism product, and these products range from the organization of local events to investment projects. With higher capacities, the result is higher. It has often happened that the Tourist Board as an institution, due to its limited capacity, cannot be formally the holder of an EU project, but as a partner it is involved intensively and responsibly, from the preparation of project activities to implementation. There are a lot of such positive examples in the field. Financial capacity does not necessarily have to be in the tourist community, but in the interest of destination development, respect for the profession as a guarantor of quality development, tourist boards should be involved in all tourism development projects because in the continental part the tourist board is often the only institution dealing with tourism. .

The Slavonia Cluster was established - how do you see the current development and cooperation of all county tourist boards through one Slavonia brand? What are the goals and next steps in the plan? What is your vision of tourism or how do you see the tourism of Vukovar-Srijem County in 10 years? 

The regional tourist boards of the area of ​​Slavonia: Virovitica - Podravina, Požega - Slavonia, Brod - Posavina, Osijek - Baranja and Vukovar - Srijem, have been cooperating intensively for several years. The cooperation started with joint promotional activities in foreign markets, because it was clear to everyone a long time ago that each of us individually cannot achieve much. This cooperation has never been questionable or problematic on either side. Personally, as a cluster coordinator, since the signing of the first formal agreement and the development of the Strategic Marketing Plan for Tourism Development of Slavonia with a branding plan for the period 2019-2025, but also after certain years spent in the system of tourist boards, I can responsibly confirm that cooperation of regional tourist boards Slavonia exemplary example of institutional cooperation in Croatia.

It is clear that these are communities without a lot of resources, there are five of us directors in that cooperation, we all have our presidents and community bodies, but really no one ever suspected that we were on the right track. What we feel is that we are moving slowly. But we don't stop. Last year, at the time of complete closure, the platform was created. By the end of the year, it has been translated into German and English, and new content options are currently being set. No, we didn't stop at all. We have already agreed on the plan of activities and candidacies according to the public calls that we expect in 2021, and we have the direction - in the adopted strategic development document. However, I also think about this topic in the way I described - we can't do it alone. Not only the financial aspect is important, it is indescribably important to accept the partnership as well as to respect the specifics of both individual areas and individual institutions.

Photo: Borna Saturday

How do I see the county in 10 years? We need investment in content development and raising the level of quality. In the county there is an opportunity for new investments in tourism that will not disturb or endanger the space in any way, and which will bring some exceptional content closer to visitors. Today’s man is overwhelmed with excessive and exaggerated stories of the unattainable of which there are not many, and what he has is often stress and sometimes frustration. I want us to be what we are, but to really be responsible, creative and honest. I don't see a way to keep it unrecognized, it's impossible. The decision on that is still up to us.

In the end, Bušić Srpak points out that what I would really like in the space in which he lives can be reduced to one thing: "I want Srijem and Slavonia full of satisfied people with hands full of work."

The more I research, the more I am sure that tourism is the branch that could start this dormant county, although here decision-makers are still focused exclusively on agriculture and the wood industry. I am afraid that it will take much more than good will for tourism to really start here, and without significant support, neither Rujan nor other "Rujans" on the continent can save tourism.

The numbers will certainly grow, new ideas will be born and the story will surely slowly rise, but for a real flywheel and concrete progress, concrete support and local self-government units are needed, which tourism still sees only on paper, but also the Ministry and Croatia. tourist communities that must find the means to raise the quality of services and the development of new tourist products and finally clearly for promotional activities without which the continent remains just a letter on paper.

The key question is how to accelerate tourism development? This requires strategic, long-term, targeted and concrete help, not a one-time help on a dropper.

Cover photo author: Borna Subota

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