A Century and a Half of Hvar Highlights

We really want you to read the following text so the header image is intentionally placed - the photo shows Oja Kodar & Orson Welles on the boat Saracen, filming "The Deep" in Hvar Town in 1967.


Did you know that next year 150 years of organised tourism will be celebrated on Hvar? Or that this is officially the oldest organised tourism in Europe?

Today, Hvar is known around the world for its outstanding beaches, pristine waters, lavender, food and wine, the oldest public theatre in Europe, the most UNESCO heritage of any island in the world.

But back in 1868, the attraction was something altogether different, and was not dependent on the summer months – health tourism.

Back then, Hvar had a nickname – the Austrian Madeira. Known for its temperate climate, it was the ideal place for convalescence for the aristocratic sick in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Hvar Health Society was founded in May, 1868, to offer health tourism in this idyllic part of Europe for those who needed it and could afford it.

Tourism on Hvar today has little to do with health tourism, which is enjoying a resurgence in other parts of Croatia, but today’s tourism has evolved considerably from those heady days in 1868, and Hvar is today rightly regarded as Croatia’s premier island and one of the top ten most beautiful islands in the world. Its hard-to-pronounce name is now known throughout the world, and tourists today come from much further away than Vienna and Budapest. As the 150 year approaches, the story goes full circle, as the first 5-star hotel on the island is planned to open on the very location (today’s Hotel Palace) where organised tourism began.

The 150 years have seen enormous change, tourism today is stronger than ever and an essential part of the island’s psyche. So what are the highlights and moments of change in those 150 years?

It was only seven years after the establishment of organised tourism that the Emperor himself, Franz Josef I came to visit, stopping in Stari Grad and Jelsa in 1875, putting Hvar on the map. There is evidence of that visit in Stari Grad today, although the original stone where Franz Josef disembarked in Jelsa was lost in the new riva upgrade.

Tourism developed quickly after that. Dr. Eugen Meneghello starting offering tourism in his house on the Pakleni islands in 1906, and today the Palmizana Meneghello business is one of the top places to visit in Croatia. No water, electricity or other amenities, things continued that way for decades, but people loved the authenticity. Today, there is an arboretum, art gallery and some of the finest restaurants in the region to match the magnificent tranquillity.

Meneghello started his operations a full five years before the first hotel appeared in Jelsa, and when Hotel Jadran opened in 2011, it was clear that tourism was spreading across the island. The next high profile royal visitor to arrive was the recently abdicated King Edward VIII with American wife Wallace Simpson. They dined at Jurin Podrum, a restaurant still in the same family hands today. Stari Grad then had possibly a bigger appeal than Hvar, and one Jackie Onassis went waterskiing there in 1964, having been accompanied by a Yugoslav navy patrol boat supplied by Tito.

The 1960s were a period of huge growth for the island. Mass tourism was the rule of the day, and the hotels of Suncani Hvar started to appear. Hvar was already attracted the celebrities too, and Orson Welles was just one of them, filming The Deep in Hvar Town in 1967.

With the birth of mass tourism, Hvar became one of the leading destinations for naturist tourism, which became a huge business in Croatia. Even today, the island of Jerolim and Camp Nudist (the clue is in the name…) are some of Croatia’s premier naturist destinations.

The 1980s were perhaps the golden era of tourism on Hvar. There was a great equilibrium between the different types of tourism. The first disco in all former Yugoslavia opened in Jelsa in 1964, and by the 1980s, Jelsa had no less than four nightclubs and there was even one in Pitve!

The golden era was tragically cut short by war in the region. During the Homeland War, hotel beds in hotels took in not tourists but refugees and the internally displaced from other parts of war-affected Croatia. It was a devastating time for Croatia and the island’s tourism.

The recovery had been spectacular. As early as 1997, Conde Nast named Hvar as one of the most beautiful islands in the world (it really is!). Orco Group took a stake in Suncani Hvar hotels and gave them a glitzy makeover. Hvar Town was back as an elite destination, and the celebs followed – Beyonce, Bono, Prince Harry, Tom Cruise, Demi Moore. But more importantly than the celebs, Hvar is known as an egalitarian island, where the backpacker rubs shoulders with the superyacht owner. It is an island for everyone.

150 years of organised tourism on Hvar, an anniversary to be celebrated next year in style. What will the next 150 years bring?

*Author - Paul Bradbury
*Photo Source - Perić family fundus, the owners of the boat Saracen in 1967