Why is Međimurje not "sexy"? Međimurje must be the benchmark of our tourism

Rudi Grula: Sustainable tourism is a path, not a moment. It's a revolution.

Author  Goran Rihelj

13. December 2023.

As part of this year's Day of Croatian Tourism (DHT), a panel discussion was held on the topic: What is sustainability in tourism?, where one of the panelists was Rudi Grula, director of TZ Međimurje County, whose narrative about the development of the destination, and especially about sustainable tourism, gave an excellent practical example of how a destination is developed. 

O to the development of tourism in Međimurje  I have written many times myself, but I would like to point out only some of the positive steps they have taken in comparison to other destinations in Croatia, even beyond. 

Definitely the best domestic campaign"Međimurje gives more" and which cleverly used coupons to increase consumption in the destination. Instead of classic discounts, in Međimurje they decided on a different and, in my opinion, smarter approach – with the overnight stay or spending, the guest receives added value through free content in the form of bonus coupons. Namely, for every HRK 250 spent, guests received a coupon for one of more than 100 free services in Međimurje. 

Innovative concept - Hop on, Hop off bus ( HOHO ) or Bus on the move is a textbook example of the strategic development of tourism, which is being introduced for the first time in Croatia, even in Europe, for one entire destination. The goal is to transport or connect all tourist attractions and thereby significantly raise the quality of the destination offer to a higher level.

An excellent example is i B2B workshops "Little Međimurje - The Northern Gate of Croatia" where they went from Međimurje beyond their borders, not waiting for someone to remember them - but they imposed themselves, and proactively came "to the door" directly to travel agents and agencies in several cities in Croatia . 

As part of the workshops, 6 tourist packages were presented, the main focus of which is nature, active vacation and gastronomic offer. Also, after the road show, a study trip was organized, where the agencies came to see live all the tourist products and stories we have in Međimurje. In addition, it should be emphasized that the County of Međimurje has been subsidizing travel agencies for every overnight stay for years.

If anywhere there is a synergy between public and private in a destination, then it is in Međimurje, which is reflected in the growth of new contents, joint events, targeted strategic investments - from infrastructure, development of tourist products to new attractions such as a bicycle viewpoint with a view of four states on Magjerkina breg. 

Although he could list many more positive examples of strategic development from Međimurje, such as specially designed bottles and glasses for autochthonous types of wine from Međimurje -  smoker, or pioneers in the use of EU funds, but we will leave something for later articles. 

As a confirmation of quality and long-term work, it is certainly the news of the year that Međimurje was awarded the prestigious award for sustainability - Green Destinations i to for the entire destination, the first region in Croatia, only the fourth in the world.

Finally, it is interesting to emphasize how everything defined in the Sustainable Tourism Development Strategy, Međimurje already has it. All of the above alone is proof that Međimurje is a leader in our tourism and that it is they who set the direction in which tourism must develop.

However, Međimurje is not the "star" of our tourism. Although it should be many parameters. All the more so because it is a continental destination, and not some well-known sea destination that lives on tourism and that has absolutely all the prerequisites - from the number of tourists, human and financial capital, history and heritage, culture and lifestyle, to be a leader and pull the whole sector. 

Why is Međimurje not "sexy"? Why is Međimurje no longer in focus? Why is Međimurje not a mandatory internship for all tourism management students? Međimurje must be the benchmark of our tourism according to many parameters, especially in the domain of sustainable development and tourism. Unfortunately, it seems that they are being quietly "degraded" - they are small or out of the tourist flow. If it was a destination on the sea, the story would be different.

Maybe they are not "sexy" enough? For some, they obviously stand out too much in a positive frame because they show how tourism is developing, what is possible, which direction to take, which is the right path. Of course, Međimurje also has a lot of things they still need to work on, but as a profession and a society we should celebrate and support everyone who bravely shows the way and pushes us forward. Especially "small" destinations and those on the continent that do not have nearly the same resources and predispositions as destinations at sea. 

And we're talking about a continental destination, not a developed sea destination that has been living off tourism for decades. Although I do not want to make a difference, but these are the facts. Personally, since the first day of the HrTurizam portal, I have encouraged all quality tourist stories, wherever they come from.

In Međimurje, everything is developed in a planned, targeted and strategic way - and with very few resources. But very successful. The most important thing is what I have been saying for years, that Međimurje has strong, in fact the strongest foundations in continental Croatia, even stronger than many sea destinations, for the long-term development of tourism. It's all a process and nothing can happen overnight. 

But while sea destinations have a "safe" number of tourists, due to the sun and the sea, you can't come to the continent by chance, but on purpose. Unless we have some out-of-the-ordinary UNESCO-type attraction and the like that is a magnet for tourists in itself. Nothing is accidental on the continent and it is a totally different tourist product, tourism development and rules. 

I ask why we don't have a special department and strategy just for the development of tourism on the continent? I repeat, it is a totally different development of tourism, target group, reasons for arrival, communication, advertising than tourism primarily based on sun and sea as the main reason for arrival. We cannot promote and develop everything under one roof.

Before continuing this article, I would definitely emphasize once again that it is precisely the system of tourist boards that we must strengthen and transform, because they are key to the strategic development of the destination. And that is why the managers of our tourist destinations, although not by function but by vocation they should be, are key to the development of the destination, because they create, develop, connect, promote and brand the destination as a public sector, i.e. in cooperation with the private sector, they create tourism mosaic to be complete. Someone has to deal with development, and that is the tourist boards, which should be in the form of a DMMO. 

Let's go back to Rudi Grula, director of the Tourist Board of Međimurje County.  

Rudi Grula: Sustainable tourism is a path, not a moment. It's a revolution.

To the opening question, what is sustainability in tourism, Grula emphasized that there are many good things that should lead to sustainability. 

"It is a path - not a moment or a revolution. That's evolution.Grula emphasized in his opening address and added that sustainability is "sexy".  

"Getting a certificate does not mean that you are ideal, but that you have carried out certain procedures as in any certification. You have carried out this ISO, that ISO, and other certifications - all this, let's be honest, is a bureaucracy where you have to prove that you carry out these proceduresAnd what are we doing? You have to prove real things and you have to have them if you are realistically viable. You have to plan, and if you plan, then you have to do it in a democratic way, respecting certain procedures. After planning, you still have to talk a lot, persuade a lot - take it easy, don't go too far, lead by example and enforce laws. So, implement the rule of law." pointed out Grula, stressing that he is aware of the different complexities and challenges of tourism development from the position of continental tourism and the different development of tourism in the Adriatic.

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Rudi Grula, director of TZ Međimurje County

"I testify that everything I am saying is not a theory, I am speaking from my own experience, and I am often in a dilemma, not to appear overbearing, not to appear arrogant, because - I must be honest - it is one thing to speak from the position of a county with 110.000 inhabitants, which has tourism is three percent of the total income, which has 1500 people directly employed in tourism, and it is another thing to speak from the point of view of, say, a colleague from the Split-Dalmatia County. So, these are still some other levels. And it is not now that we are diminishing what we do and what we have achieved." emphasized Grula, who also gave a shining example by referring to the importance of spatial plans. 

Because as we know, resource and spatial strategic planning are two key aspects that the Adriatic did not think about in their development and are now paying a high price for future development. Resource is the most valuable currency. Today, all those who did not think about it are paying a high price and the question is how much they can correct the mistakes of the past. They can certainly be mitigated or redirected by future development, but the fact is that the main resource was consumed by unplanned construction and reconstruction. 

If you use up the resource, it is very expensive to restore it later, Grula emphasizes, and states that the Germans are now digging bends after channelizing all the rivers.

"The fundamental thing for us to be sustainable is for us to solve our spatial plans, for these spatial plans to be made without a finger in our pockets. Or, God forbid, the mafia do them for us, because there are countries and regions where it is exactly mafia work. If you have that's how the basic document on which the entire space rests is structured... We in Međimurje County realized that space is our fundamental resource, long before we even thought about tourism. Of course, there was little space, people were in a difficult situation because with that little land it was necessary, for example, to send the children to school... and we started to care a lot about our space. 

It was lucky that we had smart spatial planners. Let's be honest that even in the former state, a lot of good things were planned in space, that's my personal opinion. So, it's not all black, let's face itIf you use up that resource, then it is very expensive to return it to, I would say, a correct state later. It is possible, everything is possible! The Germans are now digging bends after channelizing all the rivers. So much rain falls due to climate change that not a single embankment can withstand it anymore. But now they realized that they still need to let some water into the field. But in order to let water into the field so that it does not flood your town, you have to agree with the farmer, because now in the rule of law he will sue you and you will have to pay him. So, a community consensus should be reached. That's another resource we deal with, and that's people.Grula pointed out. 

When asked how much the Međimurje character and conscientiousness of the people contributed to this, Grula points out that people in Međimurje are ready to invest in the long term and want to build a future for themselves and their families and for their community.

"The key is people and character - we are no less greedy than anyone else. Let's face it, we also like money and we like to earn it quickly. But still, our people are ready to invest in the long term, they want to earn and build a future for themselves, their families and their community. But not within three months, not within three years, but within generations - one generation, the second generation, the third and so on. That's important, we all have to understand that. It has nothing to do with Međimurje and that we are something special. If we think only in the short term - it will cost us a lot in the end."

When asked who are the guests of Međimurje and what they come for, Grula points out that they are primarily Croats and that they want more and more of them. Which is logical, because we know that the base for the development of continental tourism is the domestic guest. 

Grula: We encourage guests to leave their cars in the parking lot

"Over 55 percent of our guests come from Croatia and we absolutely want more of them. We want to increase this structure even more for local guests. The second group are regional guests, namely Slovenians and Austrians. There are more and more Poles who are in transit, at first they just slept over when they were going to the sea or home, and now they stay up to 3-4 nights. As a destination, we want domestic and regional guests, they are the absolute best guests, and they are sustainable guests. Because those guests, as long as we don't arrange our railways, which are talked about a lot, don't have to come by plane. We know that airplanes leave the biggest carbon footprint. 

95 percent of our guests, as in Croatia after all, most come by car. What we are trying to do is stimulate guests to leave their cars in the parking lot, we have organized a 'hop on - hop off bus' throughout the county, which is not commercial, which we as a tourist board co-finance and give a message to guests: leave your car. We have 888 km of organized bicycle paths, 300 km of footpaths. All the messages go towards that - ok, now you released CO2 to get to us, but here you have the opportunity to be ecologically sustainable."

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As we know, according to all research, the awareness of sustainable travel is growing, but the question is whether there is real action by guests behind it. In the domain, do guests really choose sustainable trips, i.e. do you see the sale of sustainable packages, accommodation...also on the market. 

When asked exactly how guests react to sustainability in destinations and how much it actually costs to be sustainable and green, Grula states that a positive trend can be seen. 

"I won't say that we can talk about the masses, everything is in the development phase, because I have to be honest - people are afraid, does it really work? The most common question is: Will the bus really return in two hours? Because guests are not taught that outside of a big city, it works. And it works. And, of course, it must have its own economy. And here it is also important to be realistic - sustainability costs moneyEverything can be calculated, but I don't have that calculation, but we want to calculate it in the future. The satellite balance, which is now regulated by law, will calculate this for Croatia as well. We only talk about profits, we never calculated how much it costs us."

As always, the market is the best regulator, but to initiate change, we must move forward. And that's why I'm coming back to the context of the destination and the key role of tourist boards. As it is a public sector, they do not have the imperative of profit, but of strategic development. And that is precisely why they can allow themselves to develop tourism products in the long term and direct the tourist destination in cooperation with the public sector, of course, and give the direction of development through initiatives, subsidies, financing, campaigns, branding and strategic documents. Development cannot happen by chance, only strategically and purposefully. 

"There is absolutely money. My personal opinion is that this country, this nation, has never had so much accessible money at such low interest rates or non-refundable. Therefore, never in history have we had such an opportunity to take that money. Funds are waiting for us from which we can and will take money, and in a way they force us to spend it with the aim of increasing sustainability. This is an incredible chance. We recognized three resources along the way: space, people and time - and we must not waste this resource. We recognized in time that we should go into that story. 

Sustainability was not sexy, nobody knew about it. Some said that we are small, so we can "play" with it a bit, while others said that we are too big, wait for the season to pass, then another, then another... And what did we do? We were stealing time. We were stealing time from ourselves and our future generations. That costs money. The more we steal time, the more we will pay. That is why this law that was passed now is truly reformist. For 20 years, I have held positions in the tourist community - this is a reform law, people. Now this is really a chance and let's not steal time, because we steal it not only from ourselves, but also from our children. And that's actually the most expensive thing we'll pay if we don't take advantage of this now. Right now, I don't think there is a better opportunity for us as a country, as a community, to take advantage of what we have on our plate right now. And if we miss it due to a little more arrogance and greed, we will pay dearly for it, and it will be very dear. We started on time and our cost of sustainability is bearable."

Finally, on the topic of how important optimization is, Grula pointed out that the key things are - ecological, economic and social sustainabilityt ie achieve the optimum between these elements.

"And that is what we have been trying for 20 years. There is no perfection, but there are opportunities to do it optimally. We see ourselves as a laboratory of Croatian sustainable tourism. We offer ourselves. We are small enough that if we screw up, there will be no big harm, and in a laboratory sometimes you have to and make mistakes - the greatest inventions actually came from mistakes. Secondly, we are in an area where we can measure, and we measure what we do. It is in the destination that we measure the satisfaction of the local community. And that is what sustainable tourism actually is. Not only us tourism workers , not only those who live directly or indirectly from tourism - these are the stakeholders - but the local community as a whole. If you achieve this, then you are sustainable. Without the satisfaction of the local community, there is no success... But to know if people are really satisfied, you have to ask them, you have to survey them, you have to do it professionally on a scientific basis. We will write ourselves as the first goal in our sustainability plan: to increase the satisfaction of the local community with tourism by 10 percent compared to the year 2023Grula concluded. 

As a summary of everything, I can highlight a couple of key elements: business processes, planning, management, strategic development, measurement, synergy, communication with all stakeholders, people. 

That tourism is complex, it affects various factors in the destination, it connects horizontally and vertically various industries, and that is why strategic development and management is crucial. Someone has to deal with management - and that is the role of tourist boards. And that's why tourist boards are important. Of course not in the current shape and form as it is currently in Croatia, but they need to be strengthened and professionalized. If of course we want to accelerate development. It is simply a logical business decision from any aspect of business today. 


PS And in the Međimurje hotel industry, through Terme Sveti Martin, there is benchmarking for all hoteliers, namely in the domain of sustainability and connection with short supply chains and the entire destination. It is possible to combine agriculture and tourism and also employ the local population throughout the year. As in the case of holiday homes run by hosts, which are occupied for more than 200 days. 

Author  Goran Rihelj

13. December 2023.