Omiš is not a typical Dalmatian town.
A stone gate through which the clear karst river discharges into the sea, invincible fortresses withstanding the ravages of time for hundreds of years, an impressive canyon leading to the peaceful islands of love and happiness...
This is how Ivan Katušić, a local writer, summed up - simply and clearly – the unique combination of geographical, geological and historical features that make the town what it is. And it is precisely this uniqueness that placed Omiš on the pages of many early travelogues and graphics, and later in tourist guides and itineraries.
If we had to find a starting point for the relatively new terms of "tourism" and "tourist" in the turbulent history of Omiš, then we should definitely not fail to mention Alberto Fortis and his travelogue "Travels Into Dalmatia". In it, Fortis describes feasting on delicious fish from the Cetina River mouth and on superb moscato wine. The hospitality of Omiš inhabitants found its place in his records as well. Back in 1772 Fortis also visited other Dalmatian towns and villages, but left a record precisely about Omiš, confirming without a doubt that two most important criteria of tourism were met – a kind host and a satisfied guest.
With his writings, Fortis inspired others to experience the beauty of the rugged cliffs, the frightening canyon and the thunderous roar of the Gubavica waterfall. Numerous natural diversities and wonders attracted the idle European aristocracy, infatuated with romanticism, to visit the unknown and exotic Dalmatia. And it was precisely due to its "atypicality” that the town of Omiš became a “must-stop” for some of them.
Thus, in 1838, on his botanical journey through Dalmatia, king Friedrich August II of Saxony visited Omiš and experienced a truly royal welcome organized by its inhabitants. Back in 1844, when the Villa Angiolina was built in Opatija – the event considered the initial year of Croatian tourism, the famous British explorer and scientist Sir John Gardner Wilkinson paid a visit to Omiš while travelling through the forgotten paths of Dalmatia. In his famous travelogue "Dalmatia and Montenegro" (1848) he paid significant attention to Omiš and Poljica.
Undoubtedly inspired by Wilkinson’s records, Emily Anne Beaufort, Viscountess of Strangford, visited Omiš in 1863. She would later capture her memories from the journey in the book “The Eastern Shores of the Adriatic in 1863: With a Visit to Montenegro”. In her records, Omiš took a prominent place. Beautifully hosted by the town’s fathers, the Viscountess was not reluctant to call Omiš “the prettiest of little towns” she had visited. That this was indeed the case is testified by a lithograph of Omiš based on an image she drew herself! It was published in her book as the only lithograph of Dalmatia –and one of four in total!
Later on, many other famous travel writers, scientists and crowned heads would visit Omiš. However, mass visits and the development of tourism in Omiš in today's sense of word would have to wait until the development of modern wonders of the Industrial Revolution. The invention and development of the steam engine contributed to the construction of railway networks and the introduction of regular ship lines. Thanks to these circumstances, the travel trend would begin to spread to wider circles of society. And while Dalmatia would wait for railway connections with the world for nearly a century, steamship lines developed quickly. As a result, Omiš soon found itself on the route of civil passenger and postal ship lines.
The introduction of traffic connections with other Dalmatian centres created a need for opening the first hotels. The oldest hotel in Omiš was Balkan, situated on today’s Poljica Square. Soon afterwards, the Dinara hotel was opened in Vangrad, providing the same level of comfort as hotels in major cities. Quick steamship lines made Omiš a favourite destination for the gentlefolk of Split, who – with the first days of spring – gladly visited the Cetina River canyon seeking refreshment.
At that point, modern tourism was just beginning to develop in Omiš, with the town recording only modest numbers of real tourist visits, and the town’s tourist offer more directed towards officials involved in the construction of the hydroelectric power plant at Gubavica than towards guests looking for entertainment. However, this would not keep visionaries back in 1913 from establishing “Vojan”, a society aimed at improving the town’s appearance, and a kind of forerunner of today’s tourist boards. The almost perfect central position on the Adriatic coast, the close vicinity of all the mid-Dalmatian islands and Split as the very centre, made Omiš a top potential tourist destination. The pristine and already glorified natural diversity imposed itself as the town’s main asset and the benefits of climate with mild winters and warm summers opened up the possibility of year-round tourism for visitors coming from countries of the cold European inland.
After the end of World War I, Omiš would find itself at a turning point, transforming in the next couple of years from a sleepy picturesque town into a true tourist destination for domestic and foreign guests. That this was indeed so is indicated by the need for the first tourist guide which was to be written, illustrated and published by the Omiš writer Jakov Tomasović in 1929.
In the upcoming years, a series of hotels and boarding houses were built in Omiš and the surrounding area, with some of them, such as the hotels “Bellevue” and “Adria”, at the level of European hotels. On the peninsula of Punta, a bathing area with dressing cabins standing on wooden poles above the water was constructed. Within just a few kilometres from the town centre, tourists could enjoy swimming in salt or fresh water and sunbathing on sandy or pebble beaches. We could almost envy the former visitors for the opportunity to enjoy, beside the pristine beauty of the Cetina River canyon, also the peace and tranquillity of the town’s numerous beaches. The pleasant early evenings in Omiš were reserved for strolls down the Fošal street and for enjoying the sunset on the terrace of one of the mentioned hotels.
There were several orchestras in the town that entertained the tourists by performing popular songs on the terraces of hotels and restaurants. Visitors seeking a true Mediterranean atmosphere would treat themselves to a glass of Omiš moscato wine and dried figs in one of the local taverns (“konoba”), accompanied by the sounds of at that time completely spontaneous and intimate “klapa” singing (multipart a cappella singing).
Despite the newly built Split-Omiš-Makarska highway and several bus companies and taxi drivers in Omiš, the steamship remained not only the most attractive but also the most reliable means of transport. The construction of the Lika railway line in 1925 and the introduction of short haul-flights between Split and Prague would soon turn Omiš into a mecca for tourists from Central Europe - primarily from Czechoslovakia and then from Germany. It was at that time that Max Schwarzmanoff sang his catchy tune "Let's go to Omiš, that beautiful town, when you are there, you can’t be down”. The existence of a song and its musical notation in German clearly shows whose ears it was supposed to catch.
In addition to the reprint of Tomasović’s guide in 1932, the tourist association "Slavinj" – in cooperation with private caterers - published several brochures in German and Czech. The publications were so stylish and well equipped, that the daily press also reported about them! However, this idyllic and rapid growth of the tourist offer would soon be interrupted by the onset of World War II.
At the end of the war, Omiš was left with only two hotels. However, the trend of tourism growth would soon continue and in the upcoming decades several modern and spacious hotels with accompanying facilities would be built in the town and its surroundings. The construction of Adriatic highway in the 60’s stimulated the rapid growth of private family-owned boarding houses along the coast, thereby increasing the number of beds offered.
Major melioration works at the mouth of the Cetina River soon created a suitable area for opening a large motor camp. On the territory of the municipality of Omiš several workers’ resorts were also constructed. Beside domestic tourists from the territory of the former Yugoslavia, the most numerous foreign tourists were still those from Germany and Czechoslovakia. The growth of tourist capacities was followed by the growth of entertainment and cultural offer. In 1967, the Festival of Dalmatian Klapa (multipart a cappella groups) was established, taking place for three weeks in summer during which foreign tourists had the opportunity to experience first-hand the beauty of authentic Dalmatian folk songs. The river Cetina canyon would again be used to its full capacity as the ancient mills and summer residence of the noble Radman family were transformed into an excursion site. Apart from that, new stylish resorts were built, such as the “fishermen’s village” in the Vrulja bay, which blended perfectly into the surroundings. The tourists of that period would spend their days on numerous sandy and pebble beaches, while the sultry summer evenings would be reserved for dancing on the terraces of the Omiš hotels such as “Brzet”, “Plaža” or “Ruskamen”.
Unfortunately, history would soon repeat itself in its harshest form. Such an established series of tourism successes would in 1991 be interrupted by the Homeland War. Although the Omiš Riviera was not directly affected by war, the main tourist capacities were occupied by displaced persons from the occupied regions of Croatia and by refugees from Bosnia and Herzegovina. In those for Croatia very difficult times, a fair number of visitors from European countries such as Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic ignored the imminent threat and continued visiting Croatia during the summer months. In the difficult circumstances of war situation, this was a great moral support to the local people....
After the end of the Homeland War and the mass return of tourists, Omiš continued to follow its tourist path, hopefully towards even greater success and affirmation on the tourism map, because Omiš is by no means a typical Dalmatian town…
Author: Čedomir Vojnović