When You think about cycling development in Istria (Croatia), one of the first names that occurs is Martin Cotar, of course. Martin works in IRTA, Istrian Tourism Development Agency.
First of all, you cycled professionally and been quite successful, even in a European context?
Yes, that is correct. Of course, as with any sport, it concerns about until the age of 25, and after a short break due to the completion of studies and continuing at the amateur level for another three years. That period was tied to road racing cycling.
During the past 15 years, you have been in charge of the development of Istrian cycling tourism. How did it look like at the beginning and where is Istria today on the cycling map of Europe?
Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I was personally, in cooperation with other people, engaged in activities that were initially focused on cycling, and since 2013 also on the racing and hiking segment, and immediately on outdoor products in Istria.
It is important to mention that in the time before 2013, many good ideas and prerequisites for the development of this segment of our tourism were provided by many individuals and their associations, many of which are still active today and with whom I work. Primarily, we talk about the first races (especially MTB and road preparations), then the first materials and activities designed to promote the region and other things.
Several years could be mentioned as significant milestones, first of all in 2004, when the Giro d’Italia brought two of its stages to Istria. I believe that 2008 was a key year for an organized system of cycling tourism, when we launched several basic standardizations for the entire destination of Istria: bicycle maps, signalization, education for bicycle guides, and then a brochure and an improved web.
All this time, since 2006, the Parenzana project has been realized. Personally, I had the privilege of leading the second of three phases of this exceptional county EU project.
The last phase in all this development was 2014. We like to say that it takes years to succeed overnight. Similarly, this 2014 required two years of preparation – to establish the Department of Bike & Outdoor within the Istrian Development Tourism Agency (IRTA d.o.o.).
Are You satisfied with all thing that You did in Istria?
A lot of work has been done, but time is running out. Looking at the wider environment, Istria has some elements of cycling tourism, but also other outdoor offer products such as trails, free-climbing, that can compete with reputable destinations. However, many things require even greater development and investment. Personally, I expected some things to go faster and easier, but the reality is as it is. One of the biggest problems is investing in infrastructure, and this has become a significant traffic problem.
When You think about cycling development in Istria (Croatia), one of the first names that occurs is Martin Cotar, of course.
Croatia has recently been branded as a cycling tourist destination. What does it look like in other regions? Does the whole of Croatia have cycling potential?
Well… we could say that many destinations are happy to show their potential. There is a lot of potential, a lot can be done, but in the end the real result is what is done, especially when time passes – five, ten, fifteen… years. I have watched several such processes and popular announcements.
There are destinations that have invested in their development, some more systematically, some less. Nevertheless, we are still, as a state, but also of individual counties, struggling with some basic development elements in order to start development at all. Here, in addition to finances, I must certainly include the lack of key people who will lead such projects, who have experience and patience. It is also important that they have the ongoing, multi-year support of those responsible and the institutions that need to support it.
Finally, we must say here that many legal and other administrative regulations and obstacles are an objective problem in development. In addition, they affect the direct priorities and allocations of funds (grants, tenders) which are then not invested optimally.
All this together results in years of talking about potentials in regions that live with cycling, or with tourism, for decades, without adequately developing and capitalizing it.
I am personally in contact with many cycling enthusiasts, among other things through the training for cycling guides that we conduct, and I also had the opportunity to help advise numerous associations and counties in the development of cycling tourism. Everywhere I met people ready to act. We have a beautiful country and it would be a shame not to use it.
What are the experiences of foreign tourists cycling through Istria?
Foreign tourists can get a lot of content concentrated in a small space – trails for all types of bicycles, all types of surfaces, and it is very important that in the last 7-8 years a significant number of small agencies and providers of quality rental, guidance, transport, service. Without that, there is no quality destination development.
Given the increasing intensity of traffic and cyclists using the same roads, the problem of traffic safety and the separation of cyclists from traffic and the sensitization of the local population and road users to cyclists is becoming more expressed. It also seeks to find solutions for the construction of additional roads (lanes, trails) for cyclists, which is a problem due to large funds, ownership issues, spatial possibilities.
Still, things are still working well enough for now, but solutions need to start being implemented as soon as possible.
How much effort, time and money does it take to develop a large project like Parenzana?
Parenzana is a project that is co-financed (mostly) from EU funds (through three related projects). This enabled the route of the former narrow-gauge railway, which connected Trieste and Poreč, to be renovated and arranged into a bicycle-pedestrian path. In the period from 2010 to 2012, the popularity of Parenzana jumped dramatically and became a huge brand itself. I think that the route itself, along with racing and other offerings, was one of the key elements for the development and popularity of cycling tourism in those years.
In Croatia, the Parenzana route is 78 km long – it starts on the border between Croatia and Slovenia – in Plovanija and ends in the center of Poreč. Almost the entire surface on that part of the route is macadam, which speaks of the complexity of its maintenance. One of the absolute priorities is the rehabilitation of the road surface, which should be thoroughly implemented for the entire route. In addition, there is a regular periodic mowing of vegetation and up to two or three times a month and ongoing maintenance of the substrate. Very demanding financially and operationally, all the more so because Parenzana is widely promoted and used.
However, I think it is necessary because we can freely say that Parenzana is one of the associations with cycling tourism in Istria.
Will we soon be able to see similar large infrastructure projects in the rest of Croatia?
We do not have a magic ball, but similar projects have been realized in some other locations (embankments along the Sava near Zagreb, renovation of the former railway “Ciro” near Dubrovnik, renovation of the railway “Ciro” on the route Bjelovar – Garesnica, projects along the Drava and others). This shows that there is interest, and given importance of cycling tourism both before and after the season, let’s hope that there will be funds and support and that these projects will be realized in the future. It would be nice to have significant projects like Parenzana in several places in Croatia.
What are your favorite cycling destinations in Croatia, but also abroad?
As for the local scene, there are many beautiful destinations where I have cycled, although there is always a lot to visit and see. I definitely consider island Krk one of the top 3 destinations, both for the bike and for the racing and walking segment, and as an island it is similar to Brač. The Sibenik area has a great diversity, and Gorski Kotar is still a kind of mystique. I also like the configuration of the terrain around Virovitica and Slavonski Brod.
I must warn that I am not a classic recreational athlete – for my rides I like spontaneous and unofficial trails, I prefer climbs and untouched nature, and this is not very common for light recreation.
Outside of Croatia, I think going to Mallorca is an extremely useful experience to compare transport infrastructure. Graz in Austria is an example of urban transport integrated with bicycles, certainly Bolzano in Italy. A good experience is undoubtedly going to big races abroad, also a great opportunity to see the great cooperation of the local community and events, which is one of the fundamental components for the better development of any outdoor segment, cycling in this case.
In the end it is always convenient to return home and go somewhere in nature for a ride through the woods.