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Croatian returnee aiming to reconnect people with their heritage

Matej and Nicola (Private album)

Over the past few years, there has been a concentration of young people leaving Croatia’s shores to seek opportunities and adventure. There have also been a number who have returned back home and are using their new-found experiences to their advantage. 

One of those people who left and returned home to start his own business is Matej Maravic. Matej was was born and raised in the picturesque small town of Delnice in the north western region of Gorski Kotar.  

“Snow covered winters were a lot of fun as a kid, not as much as a grown up because shovelling becomes one of the main recreational activities. I consider myself very lucky growing up in a safe environment (apart from the war time when we suffered from air raids) spending my days playing sports, running around the woods, bruising my knees and getting in as much trouble as you’d expect a kid to get into,” Matej explains.

Whilst it was a great place to grow up in, the lack of opportunity to build a career and almost no variety of jobs on offer, forces many young people from Delnice to move either to the bigger cities in Croatia, or in Matej’s case, abroad.

“I moved to Sweden at the young age of 21 following a job offer in the financial sector, and this was my first experience of how cold a foreign country can be, both figuratively and literally. Looking back now I feel lucky that I was young and “stupid” enough to go on my own and experience the hardship which I believe made me a lot stronger, I still remember listening to Oliver by myself  wondering “what have you done?” or “just go home”. You might have guessed that Sweden wasn’t the best option for me at the time,” he says. 

Matej then decided to change his career path and did a 180 degree turn from finance into tourism. 

“I started working for a UK based company where I was offered great learning and management experience in the travel industry, after 10 years it was time to move on.”

And move on he did. Matej decided to return back home to Croatia and launched his own business – Horizon Sail. 

“I think I just missed it too much, the good the bad and the ridiculous. All the things we love about Croatia. On my travels I kept telling people how amazing Croatia was, I decided to take the next step and start hosting people in Croatia on our tours, and actually showcasing the best of our homeland. I’ve travelled to every continent and I still claim that Croatian lifestyle is one that suits me the most. I’m not going to say it’s the best, because not everyone is into crystal clear waters, untouched nature, sun, sea, football and spending days in laughter with your friends!

My girlfriend had never been to Croatia before meeting me. After her first visit and after spending a bit of time around the Dalmatian coast she completely fell in love with the country (maybe a bit more than me), and she ended up being the main catalyst of us moving there and starting Horizon Sail. We saw a lot of sailing tours around the Croatian islands spending a week in drunken antics, never experiencing the “Real Croatia”, we felt there was a hole in the market for people that wanted to connect and truly travel rather than just being another tourist. So we just decided to do it our way, the better way.”

Matej and Nicola (Private album)

Matej has designed a unique itinerary taking people on a journey through past and present where people can hear, taste and feel Croatia every step of the way.

“Our trip educates on the past by visiting places like Vukovar, Ovčara, Zadar and Dubrovnik where guests learn about the Homeland War and all the hardship our people endured. We use our local expertise to showcase the best of all regions through eyes of the locals living there, real people, real stories and unforgettable experiences. As well as living in the present and enjoying the best of our heritage such as Tamburasi, Klape and all the local foods you can think of (Slavonski kulen, štrukli , peka, pašticada, I could really go on forever here), whilst we also visit the must see destinations such as Zagreb, Plitvice Lakes, Hvar, Korčula and more. Croatian nightlife has become world famous, we’re here to show the bests spots as well as a few surprises and hidden gems we will keep up our sleeve.”

Horizon Sail’s ‘Traditional’ ship

Horizon Sail offer “Traditional” and “Premium” 8-day sailing trips between Split and Dubrovnik and a tour, he says, tailored for 2nd, 3rd or 4th generation Croatians wanting to reconnect with their roots.

“The difference between the two are the level of accommodation. Our traditional ships are smaller in size with maximum capacity of 22 passengers in twin share cabins, with shared bathroom facilities and centralised air conditioning. Whilst our Premium cruiser offers a capacity of 36 passengers with individually air-conditioned twin or double bed cabins, private en-suites and larger deck spaces. Both categories boast spacious sun decks to soak up the sun and dive off into the sea daily. We had a very successful 2019 season with nothing short of brilliant feedback from all of our guests. Our consistent 5* reviews blew us away.

Guests enjoying on the island of Korcula

And our brand new “Back to the Roots” trip offers 13 nights combination of coach mainland travel and island sailing, tailored for true Croatia enthusiasts. Hoping to reconnect people of Croatian descent to their heritage as well as offer a truly in depth cultural experience for Croatia enthusiasts willing to join on the adventure. 4* Accommodation and our long list of inclusions offers great value for money for our launch year of 2020. 

Guests in Hvar

We are very passionate and hands on, we personally meet all of our guests and ensure everyone is having a great time. I myself guide the “Back to the Roots” trips because I simply love seeing happy guests on our tours – it really gives us the drive to do what we do. We are small and niche and concentrate fully on the delivery of our products, therefore we limit the number of tours and spaces we offer in order to keep the quality high. We like to say we are like that dish your grandma makes at home, just better than the same dish at the restaurant!”

Local wine and olive oil tasting

Now that he has had hands-on experience in the tourism sector, what improvements does he think can be made? 

“This is a very good question which spurs constant debates within the circle of us working in tourism. There a few things we would love to see improved only to keep us competitive on the global market. Flight prices is the one that comes to mind first, I believe Croatia is still one of the most expensive countries on the Mediterranean to fly to. I believe this plays a big role in peoples decision making process since the market is changing, and we have to change with it if we plan to keep up. Another one that comes to mind is what we ourselves offer, I think we should all look to improve on the variety of content we offer to the visitor, Split and Zagreb are a great example of bursting forward with improving the gastronomic and cultural picture of the cities and offering more to the visitor. Gone are the days when “sun and sea” was enough, I think we have learned that now, and we need to be pulling in the same direction of exceeding expectation for every visitor,” Matej says.

Guests enjoying this summer

Now living in Split, Matej says he couldn’t be happier with the decision to move back. 

“I absolutely love the Dalmatian attitude. “Pomalo” is something quite hard to get used to, especially after working in fast-paced environments. What Split and Dalmatia taught me is that sun will still rise tomorrow weather I stress about it or not!. It’s almost surreal how the city quietens down in the winter, the tourist crowds are gone, winds and rain arrive and everyone is just waiting for that sunny day to walk down the Riva. I believe Split is two different cities, one in the summer and one in the winter, we love them both equally.”

Winery excursion

Matej has some advice for the Croatians abroad who are homesick and are thinking about returning. 

“Arm yourself with patience. Things are not as organised or efficient as you might be used to, especially the bureaucracy. It sometimes doesn’t make sense, and might be annoying. But once you get past that and arm yourself with a positive attitude, “it’s not wrong, it’s just different (ok sometimes it’s wrong)”, you’ll be fine. The lifestyle adjustment is great in my personal opinion, because I enjoy the culture of 3 hour coffee and football weekends,” Matej concludes.

Pucisca Bay

You can find out more about Horizon Sail and their offers on their website.

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