ECONOMY

Croats promote unspoilt Istria peninsula as Europe’s new hot agritourism area

DIVSICI, Croatia – For years, Portugal’s Algarve, France’s Provence or Tuscany in Italy have been leading the field for farm holidays in peaceful rural settings. The picturesque Istrian peninsula in Croatia’s northern Adriatic is keen to join their ranks. Judging by the Stancija Negricani, a sprawling farm estate surrounded by pastures and woodland in the hamlet of Divsici in the south of the peninsula, the idea may take off. In the past few years, the number of rural households offering accommodation and homemade food has risen from a handful to more than 200, spread across the triangle-shaped peninsula whose lush vegetation belies the closeness of the sea. «Istria and Croatia have long attracted tourists because of the pristine coastline and crystal-clear sea. A decade ago we started thinking, ‘Why not also take advantage of our unspoiled hinterland?’ and a few years ago kicked off the project,» said Marino Brecevic of the Istrian Tourist Board. Now the tourist board wants the «agrifarms» to take care of business for themselves. «We can carry on promoting agritourism, but the owners will have to organize themselves and… facilitate their business by linking up with tour operators in Europe who sell such offers,» Brecevic said. Istria was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918 and was then ruled by the Italians until World War II, and many inhabitants speak both Croatian and Italian. It was spared the devastation of the 1991-95 war following Croatian independence. Since 2000, tourists have been steadily returning to the Adriatic, which, thanks to 50 years of communism and a decade of war and isolation, has remained pristine and alluring. Delicacies Stancija Negricani, north of the largest Istrian city of Pula, is one of a few dozen more exclusively furnished farms in the area. It covers 34,000 square meters (3.4 hectares) and is equipped with a playground, pool and beach volleyball pitch. The owners, Mirjana and Marijan Modrusan, quit running a restaurant four years ago and invested in buying an estate and making it suitable for about 20 guests. «We ran up a considerable debt to start this business. We wouldn’t have achieved this had we not enjoyed refurbishing an old farm… (and) if our only motive had been quick profit,» Mirjana Modrusan said. The guests, mostly from Britain, Germany and Italy, can enjoy delicacies such as ham, cheese or pasta with truffles and homemade bread and sausages made to a family recipe. They can learn how to prepare traditional Istrian dishes and spend time in the wine cellar – another indispensable part of an Istrian country household. The Modrusans have a contract with a British travel agency and also advertise on a website. However, they agree that agritourism needs a more organized effort. «It is difficult to define what a real farm holiday should include. At the moment, accommodation, food and facilities on offer at rural estates are not properly classified and vary a lot,» Marijan Modrusan said. Villa holidays A more luxurious version of Istrian agritourism includes villa holidays, aimed at wealthier guests. Rented villas are particularly popular with British tourists, who account for about 80 percent of villa clientele. The business is evidently booming and some foreign media have dubbed Istria «the new Tuscany.» The recovery of Croatia’s tourist industry has spilled over into the capital, Zagreb, whose refurbished facades, new luxury shops and central European charm are proving a tourist draw. Sprawling between the Sava river in the south and Mount Medvednica in the north, the city of 1 million has never been a tourist hotspot, unlike the scenic coast. However, the Zagreb tourist board says about 38,000 foreign tourists visited the city in July this year alone, a rise of 38 percent compared with last year. «Many of the tourists are interested to see life now, after the war, compared to what they saw here under communism,» said tour guide Hela Markanovic, 40. Most tourists like to explore the cobbled lanes of the old Upper Town but many also roam the wide downtown streets lined with shops selling designer clothes and high-tech equipment. A sore point remains the unwillingness of shopowners in this conservative Roman Catholic society to work on Sundays. «Along with lack of public toilets and parking lots, the main problem is that shops, souvenir shops and exchange offices are closed on Sundays. That shows how much more effort we need to have a professional tourist industry,» Markanovic said.