(With thanks to Ilija Veselica for the photos)
Tourism on the Dalmatian coast is booming. An enviable combination of sun-kissed beaches, pristine water, astonishing heritage, island-hopping options, varied water sports and outstanding gastronomy, coupled with EU entry and a massive increase in incoming seasonal flights mean the tourism future for the Dalmatian coast all but guaranteed.
Less than 30 minutes from the coast, however, the tourism looks very different, is much less developed and yet has arguably more long-term potential than its seaside neighbour, as it has the potential to utilise inland Dalmatia’s rich heritage and natural resources to build a sustainable year-round tourism industry.
Located within a short drive of coastal destinations such as Split, Sibenik and Omis, the inland area of Zagora has a diverse and undiscovered range of tourist attractions, which have the potential not only to complement the neighbouring beach and sun tourism, but to develop the region into a longer season destination.
The main settlements of Zagora are mostly old and historic towns, with plenty of heritage and tradition. Trilj, Sinj, Vrgorac, Vrlika, Dugopolje and Imotski. It is a region of rich cultural heritage, with the annual festivals and traditions attracting national media interest, including the Sinj Alka every August, which was last year named as best cultural event in Croatia by Experience Croatia 2012.
Zagora rich in natural beauty, whose attractions include the Red and Blue Lake in Imotski, the mighty Cetina River,which Lonely Planet named among Europe’s Top 40 Amazing Experiences in June 2013. The leading travel guru said of the Cetina:
'The Cetina is the longest river in Dalmatia, the sea-kissed jewel in Croatia’s crown. Stretching 105 km from the eponymous village, it flows through the Dinara mountains and the fields around Sinj, before gathering speed and pouring into a power plant around Omiš. It is an extraordinarily scenic journey as the limpid blue river is bordered by high rocky walls, thick with vegetation, and the best way to enjoy it is on a rafting trip, braving the rapids on a three-to four-hour trip.'
Its indigenous gastronomic offerings often take visitors by surprise, both by the individual and unique dishes to each region, as well as the guaranteed freshness of (very often) organic products, while the wines of Dalmatia are starting to attract serious international attention.
It is the area of adventure tourism, however, where the biggest potential lies, and the potential to develop Zagora as a major adventure sport destination, including a centre for winter training for sporting associations from less temperate northern climes, has already started to be realised.
The Vrlika Lake2Lake Green Tourism rowing project on Lake Peruca is a cross-border EU-funded initiative, with financial support from the Zagreb Rowing Federation. It aims to develop adventure tourism in the area with Olympic-class rowing facilities, while offering year-round rowing facilities for associations from colder climes in Europe and beyond.
Rowing is but one adventure sport in the region. It is home to some of the best paragliding in the country at Hrvace near Sinj, whose starting point is an altitude of 820 metres, while skydiving is becoming increasingly popular, especially the Alka Skydivers Cup in early August, which coincides with the main Alka festivities, where divers from all over the world attempt to land in a signature Alka ring using various parachutes.
The Cetina is home to various activity sports such as white water rafting and canoe safaris, and the region has the ability to develop its water activities into more organised competitive challenges for visiting sporting teams. The recent 3rd Cetina Adventure Race, a 100 km combination of bike, kayak and running, is an example of what can be organised successfully. A strategy of encouraging international sporting associations to take part in such events, while combining the visit with a holiday on the coast for its participants, could quickly bring a range of competitive sporting events for enthusiasts, which would help establish the area as an adventure destination with beach and heritage in close proximity.
The Cetina is also a popular destination for fly fishing enthusiasts, and its cold depths make it an attractive proposition for a wealth of fish species, including brown trout and grayling, and the Cetina Sports Fishing Club has over 450 members, and is responsible for fish stocking and preserving the cleanliness and beauty of the river. .
While the Sinj Alka Tournament may be the most high profile event featuring horses, equestrian sport is well established in Zagora, and several local and international hurdle and gallop tournaments are held annually, and there are a number of private stud farms of great reputation in the Greater Sinj area.
Zagora is a cycling and trekking paradise, activities which are set to increase in popularity with the completion of cycling paths in February 2014 with another EU-funded project, MEDPATHS, whose primary objective is the protection and revitalisation of local heritage (cultural and natural) alongside the Adriatic coast. One of the results of the project is the detection/creation of management model in local zones based upon natural and cultural heritage.
As demonstrated by the Lake2Lake project mentioned above, cross-border cooperation with neighbours Bosnia and Herzegovina, and another EU project, The Our Lady of Sinj Route is already underway, aiming to develop small scale infrastructure along Our Lady of Sinj Route in order to enhance the attractiveness of the cross border region as a tourism destination.
All this screams one word - potential. In isolation, Zagora’s natural beauty and abundant resources for adventure tourism sound exciting enough, but there are several other factors which indicate that these initial EU-funded projects could be the beginning of a bigger story which will see the region transformed into a major adventure tourism destination.
The first is the timing. This month saw Croatia enter the EU as its 28th member. There is funding available for numerous projects for the newest family member. With committed professionals on the ground with a record of successful application for funding, a coordinated strategy of developing adventure tourism in Zagora should bring more funding and benefits to the region.
The second is location. EU entry and the sharp increase of flights to the neighbouring airport in Split (more than 80 destinations for the 2013 season via 43 airlines) means that accessibility to Zagora is not an issue.
Thirdly, climate. The more temperate climate of Dalmatia was a significant factor in the support of the Zagreb Rowing Association for the Lake2Lake project, and there has also been international interest in using the facilities for winter training from rowing associations from colder climes. This interest will not be restricted to rowing if other activity facilities are built.
And finally, location again. Access to Zagora is covered above, but access from Zagora is another trump card in the region’s development. Within one to two hours of travel, the treasures of the Dalmatian coast await - Dubrovnik, the Pearl of the Adriatic, the Dalmatian capital of Split, gateway to the magical islands of Hvar, Brac, Vis and Solta. Having some prime tourist attractions on the doorstep is attractive indeed, but the greater prize would be to coordinate developed adventure tourism into the Dalmatian tourism strategy, which would lead to longer season tourism for all.