When they think of Croatia, most people think of the beautiful coastline that’s made the country globally famous. In the summer season’s peak months, millions of tourists swarm in cities like Split and Dubrovnik, often unaware of the forests, and mountain ranges only two hours away. Can mass tourism give place to sustainable tourism in Croatia?
In one of these forests, Ivona Ercegovic, an ambitious 32-year-old decided to buy four acres and build treehouses, far from the tourist crowds’ hustle and bustle in her hometown Dubrovnik. “The idea has been bubbling in my mind since I was a child, building treehouses and fantasizing about a place I would call my home. But I never dreamed it would be this big, to be honest.” Ivona says.
Ivona founded Tree Elements, an eco-friendly retreat near Korana, the river supplying the famous Plitvice Lakes national park, a UNESCO protected attraction nearby.
Founding a retreat so far from Dubrovnik, the most prolific tourist hotspot city in Croatia may not seem logical at first. But this made a lot of sense for Ivona. She didn’t want to play an active role in mass tourism development in Dubrovnik. Also, she admits that the price was one of the drivers for moving her business 500 kilometers out of the city. “For the price of my forest, I could not buy a garage on the coast.”
Slice of heaven two hours away from the sea
Mountain ranges, forests, and rivers of continental Croatia remain a secret to thousands of tourists who come to the beach and stay there. With an excellent broadband connection reaching all parts of the country, soon there won’t be rock or a tree that wouldn’t be able to be turned into an office; we hope digital nomads will discover there is more to Croatia than the beach, and so does Ivona.
“I aim for quality and pure, intact nature. Continental Croatia is gorgeous, and I want to help to put it on a map, which it deserves. There are so many things to do and see in the region. Plus, I am close to a river, so having any source of water is a bliss!”
After 15 years of working in the oversaturated mass tourism industry, she felt drained. “One day when I came home from a long and exhausting tour, I knew the time was right to start something of my own.” Her friends suggested building treehouses. “Why don’t you build treehouses? And that was it. Like a sign from the Universe.” she remembers.
That was just the start. The location had no infrastructure, so she had to conduct power and water, build an access road, and dig 600 m2 of soil before turning it into a garden. Unlike the three treehouses named after the three elements (Earth, Water, Air), the main house (Fire) will be on the ground. This will be a gathering point for the guests, where they will enjoy breakfast made of fresh ingredients from the garden, or relax in the beautiful library located under the staircase.
The guest will pick the vegetables directly from the garden, alongside which there will be a greenhouse and an orchard. But that is not all. Goats will “mawn” the lawn and chickens will give eggs for breakfast!
Ivona was inspired by Scandinavian minimalistic design, as shown in the 3D models of the tree houses. Each house will have a gallery with a king bed, a pull-out couch, kitchen, and bathroom on the first floor—the maximum capacity of all three treehouses will be four people.
The area is perfect for all outdoor sports lovers. If you are interested in rafting, there are five rivers in the vicinity. Velebit, the highest mountain in the country a mountain climbers dream, and the region is full of bike lanes and hiking paths.
Focus on nature
The retreat will merge with nature, and sustainability will play an essential part. We asked Ivona about all the sustainable features the houses will have.
“Heat pumps will be installed for every treehouse and the main house. These pumps use air as a source of energy; they transform the indoor spaces’ outside air for heating or cooling. The pumps will also double as water heaters.” She explains.
“Moreover, the bio septic sewage system will provide eco-friendly wastewater treatment, and biodigesters will process waste in every treehouse. The rain will be harvested through the roof of the main house. The effective roof area and the material used in constructing the roof influence the efficiency of collection and the water quality. We will install biodigesters to process waste in every treehouse.
Environmental friendly materials will be used in construction. We are talking about bio-architecture: all walls (including roof and floor) will be insulated with rigid insulating panels that optimize the house’s thermal performance and consumption”. She says.
Everything from bed linen to the food will be organic and fair trade. Tables and chairs will be built from recycled materials and conceived by local designers. The material from the salvaged house and the barn will be incorporated into the building.
All bathrooms will have water-saving shower systems, environmentally-friendly paper (from copier paper, toilet paper, paper towels), organic towels, and low-water toilets to significantly save on water. Composting material will be used for the garden while recycling bins will be placed throughout the property.
“We will be using all-natural, biodegradable cleaning products, while our treehouses will be equipped with natural luffa sponges for dishwashing. Upon request, a toothbrush or similar products will be provided, with no plastic, of course!” Ivona highlights.
Healing power of the forest
Tree elements will also have a vital social aspect: Ivona wants it to become an eco-kind resort, which is a term coined by herself. “The idea of “tourism for all” is reflected in giving the treehouses for free, to users of different organizations from across the country who help abused women, children and cancer patients. In the 21st century, the emphasis is on the environment and sustainability, but what if we could include social input? Being kind to one another? That’s why I have coined the term “eco-kind”, and that’s how I want to run my business.”
Kickstarter campaign starts in spring
Due to the corona economic crisis, the bank denied the project the investment loan Ivona hoped to get. She, therefore, decided to start a Kickstarter campaign in February 2021.
“The campaign is a reward-based one, and the first 48 hr of the campaign will be crucial. Since the number of rewards is limited, people should get involved from the start to get a reward they want. The campaign is all or nothing. If I do not raise the amount, people will get their money back.” she says.
One of the campaign perks will be a stay in a treehouse, with breakfast included, for a special rate available only on Kickstarter. The voucher one gets, can be used any time in the future.
Other pledges include planting trees, building birdhouses, bee hotels, or supporting local artists; you can name a tree or adopt a vegetable plot and name a vegetable! You can sponsor a wooden bench with your name on it, a wooden barn, a glasshouse, or even a huge wooden swing that will be placed in the middle of the forest. ”
Croatia has a long way to go
The idea of sustainable tourism in Croatia is becoming more present in the minds of local entrepreneurs. Many young Croatians are concerned about climate change, and with the pandemic trapping workers in their small apartments – or forcing them to escape the city – nature is regaining a vital role in our lives.
Sustainable tourism might be on a rise in Croatia, but it is still a novelty in the areas where tourism is a predominant industry. “It is challenging to be a responsible tourist destination in an overcrowded and overwhelmed tourist country such as Croatia where we depend on cruise ships and mass tourism. We still have a long way ahead of us before we show the world there is so much more to Croatia than sunshine and the coast.” Ivona adds.
“We are dependent on seasonality, meaning everything shuts down in November to reopen in March. That itself is not sustainable. But I have been exploring the market, the rise of the tiny house movement, and glamping sites in Croatia for years now, so I see a shift. I see a lot of little fishes – such as myself – in the pond, working hard in being sustainable, planting eco organic gardens, providing quality and being respectful to Mother Nature.”
Digital nomads welcome
Last but not the least, digital nomads will be welcomed with open arms. “I want to promote my property as an artist residency, and digital nomads are artists in their field. Whoever wants to express themselves, learn, get inspired, and be a better version of themselves, they are welcome! Imagine, sitting in a treehouse, contemplating life while observing the snowflakes falling around the forest, and writing an article about sustainability or Mother Nature? Oh my. Bring it on!” Ivona adds.
We are excited to see Tree Elements evolves. You can follow them on Facebook and Instagram to keep updated!
1 thought on “TREE ELEMENTS, the future of sustainable tourism in Croatia”
Ivona, herself, is a force of nature, so it does not surprise me she has taken on such a creative and challenging project. I look forward to watching her vision of Tree Elements grow.
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