ZADAR - Croatian tourism officials are anticipating a record year for the sector after the country joined Europe's free-movement Schengen zone in January, which has boosted the number of visitors to its picturesque Adriatic coast.

Tourism accounts for 20% of Croatia's economy and following a slump during the COVID-19 pandemic, the sector recovered in 2022 and based on results in the pre-summer season, officials expect the positive trend to continue this year.

"So far, we have recorded nearly 5 million arrivals and over 17.5 million overnight stays, which is a 20% rise from the last year," said Kristijan Stanicic, the director of the Croatian Tourist Association, adding that overnight stays were up 11% compared with 2019, which was a record year for visitors.

"Based on these results, we can expect a positive continuation of the main tourist season and ... even of the whole year," Stanicic told Reuters in an interview.

The sector raked in record revenue of over 13 billion euros ($14 billion)in 2022, and Stanicic said he expected even higher revenue this year.

EU member Croatia joined the Schengen area as well as the euro zone on Jan. 1, enabling visitors from the bloc to travel faster and make payments easier.

Officials see a new trend of more weekend tourists from neighbouring countries as a direct effect of Croatia joining the Schengen zone.

"We have never been closer to our main markets such as Slovenia, Italy, Hungary, Austria and Bavaria, from where the largest number of visitors have arrived in the pre-season period," Stanicic said.

However, in the Adriatic historical town of Zadar, which is surrounded by national parks and whose old town's remains are a United Nations-protected heritage, locals who rent out their properties to tourists complain of poor government investment strategy, citing lack of hotels and a bigger airport.

"(Tourism) unfortunately mostly depends on nice weather - the weather forecast is key because there is nearly nothing else offered except for national parks and beautiful nature," said Daniel Radeta, the president of the Zadar renters' association.

"We need to better brand the destination."

($1 = 0.9237 euros)

(Writing by Daria Sito-Sucic; Editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise)