Croatia: golf's next hotspot?

Sean Dudley

Jeremy Pern

Considered an up and coming tourist destination, Croatia offers great potential for golf course development. The national government, for example, has identified golf as a vital component of its tourist offer, with 62 golf projects in the country’s tourism development plan. Istria, the most northwestern part of the country, has 22 courses officially planned, with perhaps another 10-20 projects that are not on the government radar screen. What makes Istria such a highly prized location for golf course developers and why, after so long, are there no existing resort courses open for play in Croatia?

The answer to the first question is simple: Istria is a beautiful region, with an unspoilt coastline, a well established, but unsophisticated tourist industry and good communications both by road and air. Low cost airlines fly into Ljubljana, Trieste, Pula, and Rijeka and there are about 200 million people living with a six-eight hour dive. Add to that olive oil considered even in Roman times to be the best in the world, a rapidly expanding and improving wine industry, white truffles to die for, an ideal climate for golf and potential golf landscapes that makes the Algarve and southern Spain look frankly sad.

But why are there no resort courses already in play? Actually there is one, Brijuni, a museum piece built in 1922 and remodelled by Tom Simpson in the thirties, a sand-green 18 hole course situated on a delightful island a few kilometres off the mainland. Abandoned for many years it is slowly coming back to life: the exception that proves the rule.

After the end of the hostilities between Serbs and Croats in the mid nineties many investors started to take an interest in developing golf tourism in Istria, led by enthusiastic Austrian bankers. But as is so often the case when bankers become developers, interesting things happen, the bankers lose their money and the developments don’t happen.

Golf course developments stand on three legs – land, permits and money. Money is the least of the problems, when land ownership and permits are a nightmare. In Croatia, land can be owned by individuals (sometimes alive, sometimes dead, occasionally in Croatia), or the commune, or the region or the state. Land can be bought or let, privately or publicly in the form of a concession. Restrictions apply to who can buy what, and convoluted ownership systems abound. Just because you’ve paid for it, doesn’t mean you own it!

The land ownership issue becomes background noise once the planning permit stage is set. Like most of the rest of Europe permits involve an initial change of use zoning, followed by a detailed application for a construction permit, where an Environmental Impact Assessment is involved. Croatia inherited its administration from Yugoslavia, and although business tries to be dynamic, the old ways die hard. A centralised administration makes life tough for developers and an absence of any real understanding as to what a golf course actually is doesn’t help. Most local environmental planners seem to think that golf courses need the same planning stringency as an application to create an open air nuclear waste dump, sewage treatment plant and municipal tip in one.

But things are moving. Changes in the planning laws promulgated this October give more power to the local authorities that may speed things up. Recent golf conferences and seminars in Istria have done much to improve communications between developers and local authorities. One Austrian project actually broke ground in the summer of 2007 on the northern coast of Istria, but construction was stopped a couple of months later due to work permit problems.

Although things are slowing down in Spain and Portugal, golf course development in Morocco, Turkey, and Egypt is booming. Despite all the charms that Croatia has to offer, until a few golf course resort clusters become operational the overall quality of tourism there is likely to remain limited.

Many investors have already thrown in the towel and others are desperately seeking to cut their losses, but there are still a few who have sufficient resources and long term vision to keep going. Croatia does not want to go the way of southern Spain and the delays over the past 15 years will actually be of benefit, ensuring that what does get built will be environmentally and economically sustainable. Given the potential of its climate, landscape, culture and hospitality golf in Croatia, once it arrives, will be rewarding.

Jeremy Pern is a golf course architect based in France.

This article first appeared in issue 11 of Golf Course Architecture, published in January 2008.