Ben Beaumont-Thomas, The Guardian, May 10, 2013
Guaranteed sunshine. Chilled-out crowds. Discerning DJs. Boat parties. Cheap booze. Croatia's festivals have plenty of obvious advantages over their British counterparts, and these days there's plenty of choice, from Love System in late May to Unknown in mid-September. There's barely a weekend this summer when a festival isn't happening somewhere along the country's sun-kissed coastline.
The majority of them are UK-organised, but there are also promoters from Italy (Barrakud) and Croatia itself (Fresh Island, Terraneo), and now the world's biggest dance festival franchise, Ultra, is bringing Avicii and chums to Split in July. Collectively, they'll turn over every stone of today's dance culture, from sensual deep house to gurning EDM, on beaches, boats and in football stadia. So how has Croatia managed to transform itself from a dilapidated post-war backwater into a serious rival to Miami and Ibiza?
Its regeneration began 10 years ago, when Brummie club promoter Nick Colgan went on holiday to the Dalmatian coast. "I kind of fell in love with the place," he says. "There was absolutely nothing going on, but you could feel there was a willingness to move forward and try things, from young kids through to the authorities." Within 10 days he'd bought a nightclub in Zadar and began moving his family out there, followed soon after by fellow promoter Eddie O'Callaghan and his wife.
The pair needed an event to draw people over. This was the Garden Festival, held in the coastal village of Petrcane. Eddie says in 2006 they had "about 300 people, 150 of which were on the payroll, to be honest," but it grew to 3,000 people two years later, and they now cap the event at 2,500 to preserve its intimacy. Other promoters started collaborating with them, then spun off their own festivals such as Soundwave and Outlook, which in turn spawned others like Dimensions.
The combination of budget airlines and outside-the-Eurozone prices made Croatian festivals all seem suddenly very attractive set against the £12 beers of Ibiza. But it's not just pricing that gives them an advantage. "You don't get outdoor music any more after 11pm in Ibiza," says Mark Newton, founder of the Hideout and Unknown festivals. "The terraces at Space and Amnesia now have roofs, whereas you can party under the stars in Croatia. And Ibiza is very slow-moving; you always see the same big names. Croatia is about small individual promoters – they see changes in the market and move very quickly." Garden, meanwhile, preserves the original spirit of Ibiza, where DJs would play Phil Collins and Fleetwood Mac alongside new house records. "You think: How are they getting away with Thin Lizzy?" says Eddie, "but it's absolutely perfect."
Croatian authorities have welcomed these tourism-boosting events. "In the UK, there's so much red tape," says Mark. "The Croatian people embrace promoters, so it makes things a lot easier." But with Ultra bringing what Eddie calls "lowest common denominator" music, can Croatia avoid lowest common denominator crowds? "The people of Croatia are very conscious that they don't become one of those really bad youth destinations with lots of cheap alcohol and fighting," assures Mark. "Working with local councils and tourist agencies, we can try and combat that as much as possible. They listen to existing promoters and take advice on new events."
Nick agrees: "We work closely with the local council, the mayor, the villages and the people, and it's really important to include them in everything you do. It's not about a hit-and-run, it's about setting up something sustainable."
"We have very good relations with all current promoters," affirms Ivan Dabo, mayor of Novalja, whose jurisdiction takes in Hideout and Barrakud. "The young people who come are excellent guests, money made largely remains in the cities and villages, and we truly believe visitors will recognise what Novalja has to offer and return one day with their families."
Without wanting to write the Croatian tourist board's slogan for them, it seems it's clearly a case of: come for the beats, stay for the beaches.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk