Tourism is people

Published in Highlights

From the 1960s, package tourism was the mainstay of the trade on the Croatian coast (which was then part of now-defunct Yugoslavia).

Martin with his father Harry Martin with his father Harry Photo courtesy of Martin Gannon

The most important element in any tour operator's success was the human factor. Martin Gannon's whole life has been dedicated to caring for people, in diffferent ways and varying contexts. His experiences in the travel trade in the 1980s and 90s show the importance of the courteous human touch for providers and guests alike. The true measure of success in the travel trade was and is the satisfaction of all the people involved. 

Martin Gannon's tale:

I worked for several years in the travel trade, much of the time in former Yugoslavia. That was during the years of Socialism. Although then-Yugoslavia was liberal compared to the Soviet Bloc countries, contact with foreigners and foreign travel were not quite as straightforward for Yugoslav nationals as for their Western counterparts. Starting out as a foreigner working for UK travel firm Saga, there were certain rules and practices I had to get used to. One incident I remember was when I was working in Poreč before I came to Hvar. I was guiding tours to Trieste (Trst) and Venice by coach, then favourite shopping destinations for Yugoslavs. The local Police Inspector quietly warned me that the Yugoslav passport was valuable to smugglers, so I should be alert and careful that any Yugoslavs I took over the border did not have their personal things stolen; oh - and no smuggling of coffee ( there was a shortage then) because we will check!

In 1982/3 I was guiding Saga holiday coach tours from Vienna to Dubrovnik, via Lake Bled, Plitvice, Split, Makarska then Dubrovnik. I arrived in Dubrovnik and had a 6-day break before taking a group of Saga's American tourists back up to Vienna. At the time Saga was looking at buying Laker Holidays but it was all going wrong (Laker Airways had gone bankrupt on February 5th 1982). One day Maja, my contact in the Atlas tourist agency, said to me "do you fancy working on an island? We keep losing the holiday reps there". Well I was up for the challenge, and as I had time to go and see this place that had "lost" its reps, off I sailed on the Jadrolinja ferry to Hvar town. Atlas Dubrovnik informed the local office I was coming, but slightly wrongly. The wonders of the Croatian language meant that when it was teletexted, of the two similar titles Holiday Rep and Holiday Director, the second was transmitted. So on arrival at Hvar I see all of the Atlas staff lined up, waiting for someone Very Important. On getting off the ferry, I spoke to one of the men in the welcome group called Tonči, saying I was Martin, and who were they all waiting for? oops, ME! But it broke the ice, and was laughed about for years afterwards.

Harry with friends enjoying Jelsa. Photo courtesy of Martin Gannon

After seeing the island, I decided I liked it and within a couple of weeks I was back on Hvar working as the Rep for Pilgrim Holidays in Jelsa. I lived mainly in Starigrad and would catch the 5.30 am bus over to Jelsa from Starigrad square, where an old lady baked these incredible biscuits which I would buy (one extra for the driver of the bus) to sustain us in the morning. Then I'd walk up to the Mina hotel and hold my welcome meetings for the tourists who were from the UK. It was busy, not a single room spare, so I always made sure I was on good terms with the reception staff, which meant that my clients were never overbooked and shifted to another hotel, as used to happen in those days.

Working with Atlas we planned lots of trips, fish picnics, short island tours, and some lovely walking tours to learn about nature and life on Hvar. I would guide some of these trips as well, and achieved the best sales of the trips for the number of guests we had. Jelsa and Starigrad at that time attracted mainly families and older couples, the largest group being from the UK, followed by Scandinavians and Germans. People enjoyed the resorts and spent well, on trips, local cafes and ice creams. There was no hassle, and yet Jelsa actually had discos, which were well run and not any trouble at all.

To get our clients to Jelsa and Starigrad from Split airport we used Hydrofoils which were Russian, very noisy but so fast, on a calm sea day we could achieve the journey from Jelsa to Split Harbour in just 35 minutes.

So overall it was a well run operation transferring the clients quickly to Jelsa and Starigrad and getting them accommodated in the plain but comfortable hotels, where they had their breakfast and dinner (none of the fully inclusive packages which are commonplace nowadays). They would go out on excursions, they spent money in the local cafes and bars, and had a great time.

Martin with Eco-Hvar's Nada Kozulić, July 2018. Photo: Vivian Grisogono

This is why Jelsa won the award for the best resort in the whole of then-Yugoslavia in 1983, because it was delivering what people wanted for their holiday, somewhere to relax, enjoy good food, great customer service, and fun, delivered with a smile. In May and September I would even have the same customers taking holidays twice a year, and many others would be booking up for the following year. For me it was hard work, but enjoyable because I was delivering a service which was appreciated. That made the job well worth while and gave very good job satisfaction.

Living in Starigrad, I also had my down time. Once I'd finished doing my evening duties of looking after clients' needs, after dinner had been served in the Arkada Hotel, I would slip out with some of the waiters and row out into the bay of Starigrad to fish. Looking up to those star-lit skies was very humbling, while catching and landing fresh fish in the company of locals was a real honour, and having a glass or two of the local Plavac Mali made the hard work worth every moment.

Martin with Frank John Dubokovich in Jelsa, July 2018. Photo: Vivian Grisogono.

So Hvar planted itself in my heart. However, in 1984 I was head-hunted by Phoenix Holidays which was a division of Inex petroleum, a Yugoslav company, and Inex Adria Airways. I attended a joining meeting in London then another in Zagreb. The London meeting was very straightforward and just about resorts etc. In Zagreb they explained the self-management set-up of the company and its socialist beliefs, meaning being fair to its workers and to staff, and remembering this in delivering one's work. I was employed mainly by Phoenix, but also had to obey instructions from Inex Adria, as I was dealing with dispatch and loading passengers. I worked mainly in Vodica and Šibenik where I had an exciting time. In 1985 I returned to work on Hvar, this time for a bigger tour operator, Intasun, and I began my extended international travels.

In 1987 the then Yugoslav airline JAT bought Pilgrim Holidays, the company I had represented in Jelsa in 1983. I was head-hunted by them to work in London to run the operation. I became the company's Sales Manager, and the job involved coming over to Croatia to contract hotels and plan tours and operations, so I kept in close contact with what was going on in tourism there. I also launched Pilgrim Tours, which operated to Međugorje, with charter flights from London Heathrow to Mostar at tour operator rates. The planes going out every Friday were packed. To achieve this I had to go to Belgrade and meet with the workers' committee to present my plans to them. I was assisted by my London Director who was a Bosnian from Mostar, and put together my ideas based on my main holiday brochure for resorts. I would then take my ideas to Belgrade to present to the workers' committee. So I became well versed in the workings of a self-management company and its special ways of working. This job gave me an official work and residence permit. My previous work in holiday resorts involved attending to repeated detailed paperwork. So, for instance, on Hvar I would get a letter from the Hotel Director and the Atlas Agency, which I would take to the local police station in Hvar town to register that I was officially working and living on the island. I would receive a temporary work permit which was stamped into my passport, and on leaving I had to make sure it was stamped out. (Once it happened that a friendly policeman in Split overlooked doing that, which caused me problems later on in Belgrade!!)

Martin's mother Thomasina in Hvar. Photo courtesy of Martin Gannon

Just before all this happened in 1987 my parents Thomasina and Harry visited Jelsa. They decided it was just the place for their retirement, and lived very happily there for many years. They were both devout Catholics, and they took the trouble to learn Croatian, as they were determined to be part of the community, attending Mass, and taking part in the Maundy Thursday all-night Procession as well. They witnessed the birth of Croatia in 1990 and the changes the transition from then-Yugoslavia to the independent Republic of Croatia brought to their community. During the Homeland War (1991-1995) my mother volunteered to help in the defence activities, as she had been in the Land Army and one of the Air Raid Precautions (ARP) organizations in London during the Second World War. Then in 1996, during a visit to Međugorje, my father had a heart attack and became the first Irishman to be buried there, not far from Apparition Hill.

While the war was still going on, in 1994 I was assisting a friend with Bond Tours in London, trying to get tourism to Croatia going again. We even had a weekly flight with a new Croatian Airlines Airbus out of Gatwick, but it struggled to achieve selling a lot of seats for Međugorje. We were slowly building up the holiday side, but the decree that forbade Bishops from organizing official group pilgrimages to Međugorje knocked the stuffing out of the operation and it collapsed. (The Bishops were officially allowed to organize group visits again in 2017 - link in Croatian). Luckily I had another job at the time as a cinema manager so I was ok.

Martin celebrated his birthday in Jelsa, July 2018.

In recent years I have been working in London and Cornwall with elderly people, mainly looking after diabetic patients in the community, helping them with their insulin, wound care and dietary needs, a job which I thoroughly enjoy. I still have wholehearted and rewarding contacts with Croatia, especially Jelsa. During a spell of ill-health, my treatment was certainly helped along by the special prayers for my recovery generously offered by Jelsa's Parish Priest don Stanko and my Jelsan friends. I always look forward to returning to Hvar on my regular visits, relaxing myself on this unique and very special island which lifts me with joy and happiness when I arrive and smell the herbs and lavender and pine, taste the wine, see my friends and relax with a wonderful coffee among old and new friends.

© Martin Gannon 2019.

We at Eco Hvar are deeply grateful to Martin for sharing his enlightening and moving story - thank you!

In 2023 Martin recorded a lovely podcast with David Pejčinović-Bailey MBE for David's fascinating series 'An Englishman in  the Balkans': https://www.anenglishmaninthebalkans.info/p/jugoslavija-in-the-twentieth-century?utm_source=post-email-title&publication_id=336586&post_id=138964849&utm_campaign=email-post-title&isFreemail=true&r=kn2op&utm_medium=email

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