We all know that Prague is a major international tourist destination, but have you ever wondered where the Czechs go on holiday? While Czech travel agencies advertise tickets and deals for far away places all over the world, the most popular destination for Czechs is a place not so far away. It's somewhere Slavic, and somewhere with a sea. It's Croatia. And every year around a million Czechs holiday there - or one-tenth of the Czech Republic's population.
Mirjana Zilic is the head of the Croatian Tourist Association in Prague, and she explains why Croatia is the top holiday destination for Czechs:
"I think that Croatia is a very popular destination for Czech tourists for several reasons. The first one is that it has the closest and most beautiful sea to their home. And because our sea, the Croatian sea, the Adriatic Sea, is very clean and very nice. Czech people are not the type of tourists who will come just to sunbathe and swim in the sea - they like to try out sports, adventures on the sea, and they are asking for many other possibilities, not only the traditional holiday."
But holidaying in Croatia is not just a current fad in the Czech Republic. Czechs have long had a fascination with the sea - considering that they do not have one themselves - and there is a long history of Czechs travelling to Croatia, one that extends well beyond the past decade.
"Czech people were among the first tourists ever on the Croatian coast. They went there even in the early part of the twentieth century, and they also established some hotels on the Croatian coast. There are some famous remarks on the Czech people on the island of Krk in a place called Baska. I think that Croatia and the Czech Republic have somehow been connected now for years."
During the communist period, Czechs could not travel to the Croatian coast so easily, because of the travel restrictions imposed upon them by the Czechoslovak communist regime. For those who could travel, Croatia - then part of Yugoslavia - was still a very desirable destination. After all, in the 1970s and 1980s, it had become a popular vacation spot for West Europeans. And after the end of communism in 1989, the Czechs were finally able to rediscover Croatia en masse.
"In the beginning of the 1990s there were changes in the Czech Republic, and Czechs could travel more, because in the communist period they couldn't travel to foreign countries every year. The living standards also improved here in the early 1990s, so Czechs had the possibility to travel to the Adriatic Sea, which is only around ten hours by car from their home, so it's not so far."
At the beginning of the 1990s, the Croatian tourist industry slumped because of the war in Croatia. West Europeans that had flocked to the Croatian coast every summer stopped coming, and it has only been in recent years that tourist numbers have approached their pre-1990 levels. But even during the war there was one group of tourists that was still keen to visit Croatia: the Czechs!
"They were among the first tourists who came to Croatia, because when the war started everybody was somehow afraid to go there. Of course, this is normal. But then we, our offices abroad, the Croatian Ministry of Tourism and the Croatian National Tourist Board, we tried to persuade them - all the tourists - to come to the places where the war never took place, like Istria, Kvarner, some parts of Dalmatia and especially the islands, because the islands were not at all touched by the war. So Czech people were the first - really the first - tourists who came to Croatia during the war. They were very dedicated to Croatia, and I think that Croatian people can also recognise that."
Yet while many Croatians appreciate the fact that the Czechs continued to visit even during the war, the reputation of the Czech tourist has not always been so rosy. Every summer one can read reports in the Croatian press complaining that even though so many Czechs are coming to Croatia, they do not spend as much as tourists from West Europe. I asked Mrs Zilic how correct she thought this stereotype was.
"It probably was true at one point. But I must also say that Croatia is quite expensive in some respects, not only for Czech people - it's expensive for Germans also. I know that and I am sorry for that! If you compare Prague, it is a great city, a big city, and if you compare the prices here in pizzerias, in restaurants and so on, not to the capital Zagreb, but to the coast, there is a big difference. I know that some tourists were coming to Croatia with cars and bringing along their food and the things that they didn't want to pay two or three times as much for as they would pay here. And this is understandable."
But with increases in the spending power of Czechs in recent years, Mrs Zilic says that the image of the Czech tourist in Croatia is also changing.
"The picture of the Czech tourist is changing in Croatian eyes, because at the seaside there our people see that Czechs are coming more and more in bigger cars, in better cars. They are using nicer hotels for accommodation, they stay longer and they are spending more and more money. They also rent out yachts. So they are really somewhere near the top of the list."
While Croatia has been the number one holiday destination for Czechs over the last five years, the Czech Republic is for Croatia the fourth largest source of tourists after Germany, Italy and Slovenia, and Czechs are the third largest group in terms of overnight stays. Official Croatian statistics show that 750,000 Czechs visited Croatia last year, but Mrs Zilic says that the figures are even higher, considering that not all tourists register with the authorities upon their arrival in the country. So it is a safe bet to say that around a million Czechs were swimming and sunbathing in Croatia this summer.
"It's really quite impressive, and I am always saying that almost every tenth citizen of the Czech Republic is travelling to Croatia. One more thing that is very impressive is that Croatia has been the top foreign destination for Czech tourists for five years already."
So next time you find yourself in the Czech Republic during summer, and you wonder where all the Czechs have flocked to now that their country is inundated with tourists, take a look south towards the beautiful Croatian coastline. On the hundreds of Croatian islands, in the bays and inlets of the Dalmatian coastline, and in the hills of Istria, you are bound to find a Czech somewhere...
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