The pandemic has made 2020 economically a brutal year for most countries. However, it was especially tough for Croatia, where tourism accounts for 20% of the gross domestic product of a country that has rebuilt after a devastating civil war.
Croatia saw its best tourism year to date in 2019, crowning a decade-long boom in which it joined the European Union only to see a slump in sales during the pandemic. Now the West is beginning to find some normality again, and the tourist summer season cannot come a moment too early for Croatia.
Why we wrote that
With people feeling safe enough to travel abroad again, Croatia could be a big beneficiary of the change in sentiment. And it won’t be a moment too soon for its tourism-dependent economy.
Roberto Popowicz is also ready for tourists in his Italian restaurant in Split. Hours of operation were cut by 80% to 90% during the pandemic and he was forced to lay off some employees even after borrowing money to keep Trattoria Tinel open.
“It was very, very stressful,” says Popowicz, looking at the indoor and shaded outdoor terraces, which are usually used to serve grilled squid and fish. But he’s confident for 2021.
“Croatia is primarily a tourist country, and many other industries are directly and indirectly linked to Croatian tourism,” says Kristjan Staničić from the Croatian National Tourist Board. “I think we can do even better in the future. I think the comeback child could be in 2023. “
Dusko Glumac’s personal story traces Croatia’s route in the global tourism scene.
When the Yugoslav civil war broke out in 1991 as a teenager, Mr. Glumac was sent from this northern Croatian village to Belgrade in Serbia to finish school. His father – who had worked as a waiter in the nearby lake villa of former Yugoslav leader Tito – and his mother stayed behind to take care of the family’s bed and breakfast.
His parents soon left the country too, and at the height of the war regiments of the Croatian army sought protection in their property. Years later, the Glumac family trickled home to find a landmine in their dining room and their belongings looted.
Why we wrote that
With people feeling safe enough to travel abroad again, Croatia could be a big beneficiary of the change in sentiment. And it won’t be a moment too early for its tourism-dependent economy.
“We had to make everything bigger and better,” says Mr. Glumac of the boutique hotel business that his grandfather founded in the 1960s at this crossroads to Eastern Europe. The Glumac family carried out the reconstruction, restored walls and windows and over time added playgrounds and a pavilion to the three-story main house. For the past two decades, travelers from all over the world have visited her small estate in the Plitvice Lakes region, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. KAL launched direct flights from Seoul, South Korea, to the nearby capital, Zagreb. Mr. Glumac met a Taiwanese woman and married her.
Then the pandemic struck, demanding not only the family business but also Croatia’s newly discovered identity in the tourism world. Croatia, the European country most dependent on tourism, had its best year ever in 2019 and crowned a decade-long boom in which it joined the European Union. In the past year, income from tourism has plummeted by 90%.
Dusko Glumac (left) is on May 12, 2021 with his parents Kata and Jovica in his family-run boutique hotel in the Plitvice Lakes region of Croatia. Mr Glumac is hoping for another summer season after a year of pandemic shutdowns.
Now that the US and Europe have returned to some normalcy, the new tourist season for Croatia cannot come a moment too early. With United and Delta opening direct connections from New York and Newark, New Jersey, to Croatia in July and with Europeans on the move again, summer could bring back the tourists the country is counting on for a much-needed upswing.
“Croatia is primarily a tourist country, and many other industries are directly and indirectly linked to Croatian tourism,” says Kristjan Staničić, director of the Croatian National Tourist Board. “Right now the most important thing is to focus on that [pandemic] Situation in Croatia ”so that more people will come, he adds. “I think we can do even better in the future. I think the comeback child could be in 2023. “
The geographical advantages of Croatia are evident at a glance on a map.
The country occupies almost the entire coastline of the Adriatic opposite Italy. Between the medieval city walls of Dubrovnik in the south and the capital Zagreb in the north stretch world-class landscapes, vast mountain ranges, lake regions full of hiking trails, vineyards and olive groves, local cuisine and historical depth that rivals the rest of Europe.
“For a country that was part of a devastating Balkan War, becoming a real hotspot for international travelers is a feat,” said Lloyd Figgins, a UK-based travel risk advisor. “Croatia benefited from a real willingness to shake off the shackles of a terrible European war, a willingness of the people to really tell the world what they have.”
And the world came. Known as the location of “Westeros” in the hit HBO series “Game of Thrones”, Dubrovnik began docking hundreds of cruise ships annually and releasing tens of thousands of passengers into the tiny city of 40,000 people every day. Croatia recorded more than 400 million overnight stays nationwide in 2019; a handful of restaurants received Michelin stars.
Then 2020 brought only a tenth of the previous year’s business, a brutal blow for a country where tourism accounts for almost 20% of gross domestic product. While hotel chains and tour operators waited, some took the time to regroup.
“Before the crisis, we complained about mass tourism,” says Ružica Herceg, managing partner of Zagreb’s Hotel & Destination Consulting. “And maybe we should increase it to higher quality deliveries. We need more investments and infrastructure and higher quality projects. “
Some organizers have taken the time to develop areas that have lagged behind the Croatian competition, such as “experience packages” that focus on aspects of local culture or include activities such as kayaking and cycling. Sustainability is also a growing focus for a country that seeks to minimize the environmental impact of so many tourists, and the government is particularly keen to lure tourists to inland lakes and mountain areas away from the high-traffic beach destinations.
If tourists can get away from the beach, they can have “a great opportunity to see a beautiful country, perhaps without the crowds,” says Mr. Figgins.
The waiting game
Marko Franulic is a ferry ride from the beach town of Split on the island of Brac. He’s waiting for tourists.
In 2019, almost 3,000 guests adorned his stone terrace and tasted his family’s olive oil and wines. He used to sell 90% of the family’s annual production bottle by bottle to visitors. That year it had only hosted two groups of tourists until mid-May.
Mr. Franulic has barrels of olives and boxes of wine that have nowhere to go. But he’s optimistic. This year he’s seeing plenty of grapes on the vine and hopes the pandemic restrictions will be lifted in time to invite friends from the mainland to help with the annual harvest.
“When we have more friends, we’ll be ready by 4pm. If not so many friends, we’ll be ready by 7pm, ”says Mr. Franulic. “Then we eat.”
Back on the mainland, in his Italian restaurant in Split, Roberto Popowicz is also available for tourists. During the pandemic, he cut opening hours by 80 to 90 percent and had to let some staff go, even after borrowing money to keep Trattoria Tinel open. “It was very, very stressful,” says Popowicz, looking at the shaded outdoor patio tables where he usually serves grilled squid and fish. But he’s confident for 2021.
And Mr. Glumac is also waiting in Jezerce. As a boy, before the civil war, his world was limited to a small village school. Today his life is full of cultures brought together from all over the world. He and his Taiwanese wife are expecting their first child together. Tourists book again.
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Mr. Glumac has put his plans to expand the property on hold, but hopes to build a house for his young family at some point. Meanwhile, he enjoys the natural beauty of the surrounding lakes without the tourists.
“I spend time in silence for a pleasant time,” says Mr. Glumac. “I hear the birds; I walk along streams looking for river prawns; I’m looking for mushrooms. I only listen to the silence. “