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Fernando Kirigin: Opatija’s main concern is to remain known as a 'safe destination'

Fernando Kirigin: Opatija’s main concern is to remain known as a 'safe destination'

An interview with the Mayor of Opatija

Fernando Kirigin was born in Rijeka, Croatia on 27 January 1971. Before pursuing a career in politics, Kirigin studied tourism and hospitality. In 2013, he began his PhD in Sustainable Development Management. During the same year, he assumed the position of Deputy Mayor of the City of Opatija where he worked until 2017.

From 2018 to 2021, Kirigin held the title of Director of the County Port Authority in Opatija. This summer, he was elected Mayor of the City of Opatija. 

Mr Mayor, how would you describe the City of Opatija and its main attractions?

Opatija is a magnificent coastal town on the Adriatic Sea, renown as the first Croatian tourist destination, and one of the first in Europe. The mild and pleasant climate made Opatija a favourite winter health resort for European royalty, famous artists, and literary geniuses, and it makes our town a perfect year-round destination, visited by numerous tourists from all over the world.

What makes Opatija so special is the perfect blend of seemingly conflicting influences. It is a city that carries the essence of the Mediterranean, surrounded by stunning Central-European architecture; a city born on the narrow strip of land between the sea and Mount Učka, combining the best of both worlds.

It has a climate that combines the fresh mountain air with the healthy sea breeze and cuisine that pairs typical seafood from the coastal places that have a long fishing tradition with the heartier dishes of the inland villages that have survived thanks to farming and livestock. Beyond this, it offers a wide range of sporting activities – from water skiing on blue waves to sledding on snow-covered slopes.

Throughout the year, events such as Advent with the Chocolate Festival, Carnival and summer festivals make every visit to Opatija an unforgettable experience. 

You were elected Mayor of Opatija earlier this year. How do you hope to improve and transform the city during your time in office?

I am pleased that the citizens have recognised my vision for the Opatija of the future and have decided to share it. Its realisation will mean the transformation of our city in all areas, from urban planning to financial transparency.

Our program includes building better and more affordable housing for residents because real estate prices in Opatija are rising at a pace that locals cannot afford. For example, prices for a square meter range from 3,000 to 10,000 euros, while the average salary is around 1,000 euros per month.

The lack of parking spaces is a problem faced by many European cities. We have a plan to gradually move the parked vehicles to the outskirts of the city and eventually turn the main street into a promenade. Linked to this is the transformation of Slatina Square into a new city centre, along with a central city beach and flea market nearby.

The first step is the construction of two new parking garages in areas considered traffic bottlenecks to allow better traffic flow, increase the number of available parking spaces and reduce the time people spend looking for a free space. 

Much attention will be paid to sports infrastructure, as our program includes the construction of a new stadium and swimming pool. We will strive to improve the already good social program, build a new health centre and ensure the harmonious development of all parts of Opatija.

In cooperation with Liburnia Riviera Hotels, the largest company in Opatija, whose new owners have shown serious intentions to invest in the city and have established themselves as a sincere and serious partner, but also with other members of the local economy, we will strive to create better paid and more interesting jobs for the citizens of Opatija.

Having a degree in tourism and hospitality, what projects do you have in mind for the development of sustainable tourism?

The principles of sustainability relate to the environmental, economic, and socio-cultural aspects of tourism development. If we want to achieve long-term sustainability on the Opatija Riviera, an appropriate balance must be found between these three dimensions. 

Recently, Opatija has taken a significant step towards implementing many of the ideals of sustainable tourism. For example, our Feel & Taste program includes about 60 local family-run businesses, small entrepreneurs and taverns that offer visitors authentic experiences and homemade products. Another example is the inclusion of our local products in the meals offered by restaurants and hotels, but also the promotion of endemic ingredients such as Marun chestnuts, Kvarner scampi, asparagus, etc.

Our tourism startup incubator Hubbazia was founded with the idea of using smart technology and youthful creativity to develop new approaches to industry challenges. This is a start, but to truly make our destination a prime example of sustainable tourism, we have more work to do. 

We need to ensure that economic activities are sustainable and that they bring social and economic benefits to all stakeholders that are equitably distributed, including stable employment. Nonetheless, sustainable tourism must maintain a high level of satisfaction among tourists while promoting awareness. This is not an easy task, but it is inevitable.

In March, Opatija received the title of City for Youth 2021-2024. Can you comment on this certificate and its significance? 

We are happy that our city has won this prestigious title, but the title alone is not enough. Opatija faces many challenges when it comes to keeping our youth in the city. Rising real estate prices are one problem we are trying to solve by building affordable housing. We are making great efforts to provide access to childcare and education for all of our citizens. 

The city offers incentives for newborns, excellent conditions in preschool facilities, scholarships, etc. I also expect help from the business community, especially in creating jobs in tourism, where there is a great shortage of staff. Together, we need to encourage young people to learn certain professions, such as cooks and waiters, but also ensure that the prices of labour are reasonable.

Finally, we will strive to create an atmosphere that is attractive to the younger generation through a carefully planned offer of culture, events, and leisure activities. Opatija is a city that offers its residents good living conditions, but we also want to make it lively and vibrant.

Finally, how does your administration seek to accelerate Opatija’s post-COVID recovery?

This year's tourism season has exceeded expectations, not only with tourism results on track of a record 2019, but also with increased consumption, a vibrant atmosphere, and a positive image for the city. In July and August 2021, Opatija recorded 392,000 overnight stays, which is 81% of 2019 traffic and 43% more than the previous year in the same period. At the same time, 93% of overnight stays were realised by foreign guests. 

But unfortunately, the pandemic is not over yet. The City of Opatija has given incentives to our citizens and the economy affected by the pandemic in the amount of more than 10 million Croatian Kuna.

Since tourism and hospitality make up about 90% of our economy, our main concern is to remain known as a "safe destination" this winter and next year, even though we hope that the pandemic will finally end.

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