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 Istrian Golf Course Development Targeted by Environmentalists
Ten Year Plan Allowed for 23 Golf Courses May Not Reach Goal 
by Barry Napier, July 2007

In 2006 I wrote about the Ten Year Plan implemented by Istria, a region of Croatia that brings in almost half of Croatian tourism revenue. The Plan is daring in concept and is already well on the way to finalisation.

Part of the Plan was to build up to 23 golf courses, but, an in the opinion of one official, there will probably be no more than about 10-11. However, environmentalists in this beautiful country are fighting the Plan all the way.

INVGolf, carrying a photo of Croatian Prime Minister Dr Ivo Sanader playing golf, says that “Croatia, as a tourism destination wishing to enter the EU, must have golf courses.” But, this is hotly refuted by activists, who have fought every plan put forward for regeneration of Istria.

Those who monitor trends in these newer free countries advise that Croatia is very different in the way it attracts investments, as I have previously observed myself. It wants inward investment, but is not willing to sacrifice itself for easy  money. So, it slows-down developments, whether commercial ventures or private building. This sets Croatia apart from its nearest EU hopefuls who, sadly, are already well on the way to becoming clones of early Spain. INVGolf and the Istrian Ten Year Plan might want golf courses – but a very few people, it seems, do not.

One way golf is being silently combated is by the hiking-up of land prices by a handful of local land owners. But, other protests are more vocal and perhaps not realistic. They can also damage the economy.

Tim Kenny, of Nicklaus Design, USA, says that his company never dreamt it would have any golfing interest whatever in Croatia, but now things have opened up, with a signature course well under way at the new Porto Mariccio development.  Porto Mariccio will certainly remove some trees, but it will also remove a very tired, unused, run-down holiday village built under communism. Therefore, though the site includes a golf course, it will bring much-needed income to Istrians. It will also make the site far more attractive than it is now.

Jonathan Smith of Golf Environment Europe (Scotland), says that properly designed and managed golf developments can provide immense “economic, social and environmental enhancement” to a country. But locals in Istria seem not to share this expansive view! This is why INVGolf has noted Croatia is “lagging behind.”

However, INVGolf properly identifies one reason – that golf courses need a lot of water and, many investors have not put forward convincing waste management solutions. They also mention something not to be waved aside, that a golf course in many locations would double or triple local populations, making them anxious. Surely the answer is not just to stop all investment, but to monitor it and make sure it is managed properly? 

The plan to extend the very small existing golf course at Motovun was abandoned because of these fears. Tiny communities have come to learn that a golf course on its own is of no use – it needs a whole new resort built around it. This is the reasoning behind the design of Porto Mariccio. It is my view that, like the Skiper luxury site in north-west Istria, this site will enhance rather than damage the environment. 

The Istrians are ‘naturally green’ in their outlook, hence their emphasis on wellness and the improvement of employment conditions and health. One very small new hamlet of just three homes has just been completed on the fringe of Vizinada village. To get to it, you take a narrow, bumpy and mainly dirt road past fields and vineyards. But, locals (rightly) objected to the way electricity supplies were being provided. They all physically barred the way to diggers, because they feared an old tree might be damaged. 

This opposition went on for weeks, involving the mayor, until everyone reached agreement. If this happens with a hamlet already built, and which will bring visitors to the locality, what do you think golf companies might have to endure, if they take huge tracts of land requiring large amounts of water? Golf companies are very careful businesses using modern and technically proficient techniques, so it is anticipated that their use of the environment will be professional and in keeping with local needs. 

Istrians care deeply for their country and the way it is heading, so no golf company should underestimate the power of the people. Even though obstacles appear, INVGolf still think Croatia has big potential for investors. What it comes down to is sensitivity to local needs and voices.

Those who object to 23 golf courses advise locals to say “No to Senseless Construction of Golf Courses!” (Title of article in One World Southeast Europe website). This comes from Zelena Istra (Green Istria), who say that plans to build 23 courses is “used as an excuse for further urbanisation and ‘apartment-ization’ of undeveloped sections of nature and coastal land.” 

Zelena Istra see golf plans as proof that local authorities have succumbed to pressure applied by investors, that will lead to long-term damage. Six golf sites have already been approved, and, say Zelena Istra, that is more than enough. They list the downside of golf courses: “excessive waste of water, funds, urbanization of preserved natural environment, excessive use of pesticides, which leads to loss of natural diversity.”  They add: “one mid-sized 18-hole golf course spends the same amount of water every 24 hours as a small town of 8,000 people.” They say, “Water is our wealth and basic requirement of life – we can’t allow it to go to waste, which will inevitably happen if we build so many golf courses.” 

The activists say that in order to market themselves, golf developers must take the most attractive land and demolish forests, fields and coastal strips. “Furthermore, the use of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides needed for conventional landscaping cosmetics of golf courses, creates high level contamination of the ground, which can lead to contamination of… water springs.” This is disputed by golf company chemists, as is the claim that golf companies only take the best land.

Zelena Istra say: “there is great cause for concern… applications… for golf courses (are) rising exponentially.” In actuality they are not! Zelena are even more irate because permit allocations have been simplified and golf developers will be exempt from water tax - the cost of water to golf courses will be just one sixth of what locals have to pay. 

Golfers tend to spend more than other tourists, by a factor of about 5. So, it comes down to one golfer spending $100, or five non-golfers spending £20 each. Anyone who looks hard at the Ten Year Plan will find it filled to the brim with countless possibilities.  So, fewer golfers would be easily balanced by more non-golfers. The Istrian tourism team have already examined the variations in great depth. Thus, if the number of golf courses are fewer, they will already have investigated contingency plans to ‘fill the gap’. Indeed, the sheer scale and variety within the Ten Year Plan allows for this.

Talking to others in Istria, I am not convinced by Zelena Istra. Authoritative sources tell me that  Zelena ‘spread fear and oppose everything that might improve Istria’s economy’. In effect this keeps poor people poor and denies them any possibility of improvement in their lives. This is a shame, for Istrian ex-pats are now starting to return to their homeland.

Head of Tourism, Denis Ivosevic, is a dynamic believer in progress, but not at any price. He knows Istria must maintain its beauty and authentic rustic charm. He also knows that the Plan put forward, and which is steaming ahead, is the very best for his country, for the people, and for the environment. 

The golf part of Istria’s plan for renewal is for sustainable development. That means proper and responsible use of all resources, which, in effect, removes the arguments put forward by opposing parties. It is undeniable that economic improvement in any country enables it to be more green, not less, because money is needed to bring about a better environment.

The Ten Year Plan is being implemented by a mixed group of people in every municipality, representing everyone in their communities. 

The ‘word on the street’ is that the Plan for Istria already anticipates far fewer golf courses. But those that are built will be sustainable, ‘green’, and sympathetic to the environment. In other words, those who fight golf plans have no basis on which to fight. 


Barry Napier


Also See: Opportunities in Istria for Golf Courses Combined with Hotels / January 2007


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