Lessons from Croatian gastronomy: a trigger for rural economic development

Is the approach taken to tourism in Istria, Croatia, a model to follow for Wales? Terry Stevens offers his reflections

Let’s begin with a confession. As a tourism consultant, advising on tourism policy around the world, inevitably I am asked for recommendations as to good places for a holiday. In a European context, there is never any hesitation with my reply: Slovenia and Croatia. The reason is quite straightforward: over the past 45 years, from when they were part of the former Yugoslavia to their independent status today, for business or leisure, they have never let me down. Both countries continue to delight, inspire and exceed expectations.

A number of common factors have been at the heart of their success in developing a sustainable year-round approach to growing tourism in the short period following independence in the early 1990s. Most notably there has been strong political recognition and commitment to high value-based (as opposed to volume driven) tourism as a key driver of the economy. In addition, both countries understand and adhere to the two fundamental and immutable rules of tourism development. Rule one states that you must always have great, innovative, products; rule two states that you should never forget rule one!

As a result, both countries have worked hard to create a fresh approach by encouraging innovation, engaging with the creative industries, turning their natural and cultural assets to competitive advantage by applying careful destination management and, crucially, both have placed gastronomy (harnessing high quality, local food and drink), at centre stage in product development. Tourism has become the primary vehicle to stimulate the revitalisation of agriculture and rural communities.

There are clear lessons for Wales to be drawn from the success of Istria, Croatia, in developing its rural tourism industry based upon the revitalisation and regeneration of its indigenous food and drink industries, especially in terms of (a) the potential to use tourism as a platform to celebrate and position Welsh produce and (b) the opportunity to align the tourist experience with that of enjoying high quality local gastronomy.

Dining out and the purchase of food and drink is a fundamentally important part of the touristic experience in Wales – for both the day visitor,  those who stay overnight, and the leisure and business tourist. The scale of direct visitor expenditure on these items is making a very significant contribution to the local and national economy (jobs and revenues) as illustrated from the selection of destinations in the table.

The Economic Contribution to Visitor Expenditure of Food and Drink in Wales (2015)


Destination £m direct visitor spend on food and drink % of total visitor spend Number of jobs directly supported % of total jobs in tourism
Gwynedd £182.0m 23.7% 3,300 26.4%
Ceredigion £75.0m 25.0% 1,200 20.0%
Pembrokeshire £133.3m 23.0% 2,417 11.0%
Cardiff £211.0m 26.4% 3,410 23.7%

(Source: Global Tourism Solutions, 2016)

In Slovenia and Croatia it is often the locally available food and drink that forms the basis of a wide range of the added value, premium, tourist products and experiences. This means that in their respective agricultural and fishing industries the rural and coastal communities have to be geared to, not simply being able to produce the best, but ensuring that there are efficient, local, supply systems to get this produce into local hotels and restaurants.

In addition, there must also be guarantees that those working in the tourism and hospitality industries understand how to make the best use of the provenance, backstory and character of these products in order to deliver the memorable experiences that tourists crave. This is achieved by having:

  • well-defined food and drink based experiences
  • easy access to local and traditional recipes
  • well-defined networks of destination based hotel and cookery schools
  • sommelier training programs (for wines, olive oils and truffles)
  • large cohorts of gastronomy ambassadors
  • destination management companies and organisations that embed the indigenous food and drink stories and products into their positioning and tourism ‘offers’

Istria – exemplar tourism and rural regeneration

With its high mountains that dive steeply into the cobalt blue of the Adriatic, within which sits a kaleidoscope of some 1,000 islands, perhaps the most appealing tourist destination in Croatia has to be the region of Istria. With a population of some 206,000, this 3,600 sq km (about twice the size of Pembrokeshire’s land area and population), this heart-shaped peninsula sits in the north of the country, sharing its border with Slovenia to the north and located some 50 km south of Trieste, the oft-contested, now Italian, Adriatic port city.

The peninsula’s 450km coastline has traditionally been the focus of tourist activity, in historic towns such as Pula, Porec and Rovinj and the resorts of Umag and Novigrad.

The Istrian rural interior is characterised by forest and river valleys with medieval hilltop villages (including Labin, Buzet, Motovun, Groznan and Hum – the smallest town in the world with a population of 21).

Over 90% of the population fled this area of Istria during the four years of conflict (1991-1995) abandoning villages and farms. This meant that, post-1995, Istria had not only to rebuild its tourism industry but the entire rural community, landscape and economy. In this situation it was logical to adopt a strategy that allowed agriculture and tourism development to be synchronised, aligned and be fully integrated in order to regenerate and revitalise the region. As a result, Istria is now acclaimed as an exemplar of rural economic reinvention as well as being the epitome of the successful transformation of Croatian tourism.

This is reflected in the comments of the Croatian Minister for Tourism, Gari Cappelli:

‘The most important thing that ensures appropriate growth each year is constant improvement but these improvements have to be in accordance with the whole destination and have cohesion between the public and private sectors. We must focus on quality if we want to increase our competitiveness… Our mission was, and is, to ensure a good business environment and guidelines for development for everybody in the tourism sector.’

Today, Istria is making one of the most significant contributions to the achievement of the national strategic goals. It is already become the most important leisure destination in Croatia. In 2016 Istria accounted for 23.5% of all tourist arrivals (3.37m) and almost one third of all overnight stays (20.97m). It has an accommodation capacity of 266,500 beds (25% of the total for the country) with Rovinj the third most visited urban area after Dubrovnik (UNESCO World Heritage Site) and Zagreb (the capital).

Denis Ivoševic, the Director of Tourism for Istria stresses three main aspects of the approach: ‘Firstly, we were very aware of the complex and delicate process involved in establishing an image of the destination. It had to be based upon a combination of the inherited and, importantly, the newly created. Secondly, we knew our positioning had to be systematic, thorough and well thought out in order for Istria to be recognised as a competitive, quality, lifestyle destination. Finally, this meant we had to be exclusively focused upon the quality of our products and services in order to deliver guests with unique, unforgettable, Istrian experiences charged with positive and warm emotions.’

Symbol of Change: The Gourmet Experience

It would be impossible to deliver a credible, quality, tourist gourmet experience unless there was an investment in creating unprecedented levels of quality in the production of the local products and contemporary design in their presentation, promotion and marketing. As a result, tourism development had to commence with a programme of support for those producing the local wines, olive oils, vegetables and harvesting for forest for truffles and mushrooms and the seas and rivers for fish.

For Denis Ivoševic it was all about ‘packaging existing and forgotten traditions in an interesting way; it was about telling beautiful stories involving all the senses and creating a brand for Istria that could be wisely managed. This all sounds very straightforward but product development is complex. You either have a product or you don’t. There is nothing in between. But our situation was even more difficult. The rural areas of Istria were abandoned when war broke out. Throughout the 1990s our villages were empty, crops neglected; we had to rebuild and repopulate our region.’

Today the Istrian gourmet product includes: international award winning wines and wine tourism trails, visitor centres and other products (there are 106 wine producers in Istria); and extra-virgin olive oil tourism (there are now 60 growers and producers), prosciutto tourism, agro-tourism and truffle tourism (based in the village of Livade) together with a whole program of year round activities and events packaged with appropriate rural-style accommodation (farmhouses and the unique village hotels )… and it helps that Ivoševic is a sommelier in wines, olive oil and truffles. Today Istrian hoteliers, small scale producers, chefs and truffle hunters all feature in the key world tourism guide books and magazines.

The regeneration of the agricultural economy is evidenced by the accolades achieved by the core products:

  • Best Olive Oil Region in the World 2016 and 2017
  • Best European Wine Destination 2016
  • 10 Best Wine Travel Destinations in the World 2015

It is also evidenced by the way the tourism industry has embraced gastronomy as a theme for marketing and promotion. For example, the Hotel Lone, owned by the Istrian-based Maistra Group has recently launched The Bike and Gourmet Tour which follows two different thematic routes (The Hobby Trail and The Mare Trail) designed to sample the full spectrum of Istrian delicacies. The Istria Tourist Board has also defined unique Istrian products that include:

  • Farm restaurants that can only serve food and drink produced on the farm or from the farms that ‘touch’ the host farm; here guests have to book for breakfast, lunch and dinner, spend time on the farm between meals but are not allowed to stay overnight… instead they are signposted to.
  • Village hotels which have a village location, can only have a maximum of 12 bedrooms, they must have a swimming pool and a spa and serve local food and drink.

So, what is the opportunity for Wales?

Slovenia and Croatia (especially Istria) have set the bar at a new height. They are great benchmarks for us. Other competitor destinations, such as The Basque Region, Galicia, Catalunya and Austria are similarly injecting momentum into making gastronomy a cornerstone of their tourism proposition and sense of place.

We now have a fine new brand for Wales. This is a brand that oozes confidence and strikes out to demonstrate Wales’ relevance to contemporary domestic and international tourism markets. Our locally produced food and drink is continuously improving in all aspects of its quality and presentation. The tourism and hospitality sectors must now fully integrate these products into the meaningful, creative, real and honest Welsh experiences that will define and shape the success of tourism in the next ten years.


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Professor Terry Stevens is Founder of Stevens & Associate, an International Tourism Consultant and Director of International Dynamic Destinations at the School of Management, Swansea University.

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