Next summer will mark a decade since the first international festivals appeared in Croatia
What began as a series of small beach parties mostly run by regional UK promoters has morphed into what the wider music media regards as the leading festival destination on Earth. Ally Byers looks back on how we got here, and what’s happening next.
The Garden Festival is held in the garden of a hotel in the fishing village of Petrcane. Run by Birmingham promoters Nick and Eddie it attracts a few hundred Brits, most of them friends of the handful of DJs playing. It’s the first ‘international’ Croatian festival.
2008 - Outlook festival launches. Interested in carving a niche, it promotes an unusual brand of downtempo DnB and bassy electronica. This would later come to be known in the mainstream as dubstep. Outlook would over the next few years be regarded as the one of the most cutting edge dubstep events on earth, further upping Croatia’s status as a festival destination.
2011 - Backed by UK powerhouse The Warehouse Project, Hideout Festival launches. It’s slick social media and location on Zrce Beach- ‘East Europe’s Ibiza’- propels Croatia firmly into the mind's of the UK's clubbing public.
2012 - Croatia’s first hip-hop festival, ‘Fresh Island’ launches to acclaim in Novalja. The promoters behind Germany’s Timewarp launch Sonus festival on the same location. Up in Pula, the promoters behind Outlook launch Dimensions festival - an electronica and techno event.
2013 - Ultra Europe launches. The international Ultra franchise agrees a deal to make Croatia the only Ultra festival destination in Europe. Over 160,000 attend the festival in Poljud Stadium in Split in the first year alone.
2014-present: The Garden Festival rebrands as Love International. Stop Making Sense and Unknown festival go under from lack of ticket sales. Barrakud is shortened. Meanwhile Movement Croatia, Defected and a string of new festivals launch.
Locations Have Upgraded
A former holiday hotspot back when it was Yugoslavia (think East Europe’s answer to Spain for the Brits - lots of family camping holidays and budget breaks for couples who probably wore really sensible shoes) Croatia pre-2007 was to an extent forgotten - partly as a hangover from the war of the previous decade. Pula and Tisno were quiet backwaters, Split was mostly just a working port and Zrce beach was a holiday resort with some waterparks strapped onto the sea front.
All this gave Croatia something of a unique charm. “Like Ibiza pre-90s” was the standard gush. It certainly wasn’t perfect, but it was cheap and there was something inherently neat about listening to music in a dilapidated or mostly forgotten venue - an air that most Shoreditch venues try hard to mimic but charge you painfully for the process.
Now the locations have upgraded substantially. The abandoned fort at Pula - home of Dimensions and Outlook, has a high-tech campsite, ever more stages and areas shunted into every nook and cranny of fort Punta Radman, lights, railings and bars. Finding a boat party is now more dawdle than Duke of Edinburgh award. Meanwhile former family campsite Tisno -home of Love International, Electric Elephant and others- boasts 3 on site stages and ever more pop up bars.
The biggest change however can be found at Zrce beach. What was once a cheap family run beach bar and a couple of water parks is now 4 enormous superclubs - the most recent, Noa, being built in 2014. Not only are the clubs upgraded, the entire beach feels more slick. Installations abound for each festival. There are mood lights and teepees on the beach. The whole location now feels more genuinely festival like, as opposed to a party takeover in a few odd East European clubs.
Prices Have Changed Too
Actually, prices on Zrce beach have simply altered. Beer works out cheaper than before: in 2012 a bottle was 30 kn. In 2016 a large can is 50 kn. (about £3 and £5 respectively). Outlook and the other Pula festivals operate a token system, so drinks have never been especially cheap but have remained stable. The most dramatic increase has been in Tisno - where The Garden site is slowly but surely converting all beer on site to it’s own brand Garden beer - which comes in at 35kn for one small can.
Accommodation is an increasing problem in Croatia. Larger group bookings and a need to be able to pre-drink without receiving noise complaints has caused plenty of friction particularly in places like Novalja - the feeder of Zrce beach. Prices across the board haven’t crept up by much, but the airline model of adding on new levels of premium, VIP, deluxe, etc means basic accommodation is now, well, more basic than ever.
Croatian festivals pride themselves on niches. You go to Outlook for bass, Hideout for house, Sonus for techno. Whilst large segments of that still stand, the lines are beginning to blur. Hideout booked Skepta as their headline act this year. Sonus are going down an ever housier route whilst Ultra Europe - former EDM powerhouse, is aggressively promoting its techno stage.
In a word - younger. Croatia started as a haven for festival explorers - typically mid to late twenties, bored or turned off by the Ibiza scene who actively flocked to Croatia as an alternate destination. Now, as a firmly established festival hotspot that is still substantially cheaper than Ibiza, Croatia has attracted students, recent graduates and even sixth form leavers in their droves. Zoo Project Ibiza have reported a fall in the San An population as a direct result of Croatia, whilst on the plus side, security say there are less fights as a younger, more diverse crowd means less trouble.
What This Means
Croatia is changing. There are plenty of ironic snapback wearers and pundits who like to argue that Croatia has peaked and that there are other destinations that will soon eclipse it. They’re not right, but then they’re not fully wrong either. No disrespect to the world’s leading location for garage but Croatia has to decide whether it’s going the way of Ibiza or Ayia Napa. A reliance on cheap apartments and cheap flights is only a short term strategy that’s already beginning to suffer under ever creeping prices.
For Croatia to adapt, it needs to become more Ibiza like - more hotels, more bars, more non-festival activities. There’s resistance from the local population to new development, but slowly the country is changing. Zagreb is fast becoming a hipster centre of indie beer breweries and electric car racing, Sibenik has put serious money into developing its beach front and year on year in Novalja another ‘premium apartments x hotel concept’ sneaks up. Maybe the country will lose some of its faded charm. But you’ll have a better holiday as a result.
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