Down on Split’s Bacvice Beach, dubbed the Croatian port city’s “Copacabana”, on a sunny afternoon in mid-October, the grey sand is crowded with locals and tourists. 20-somethings from Germany, the UK and other European countries are soaking up the sun and chatting over beers or cocktails from the beach bar alongside young families building sandcastles and chasing fish in the shallow water (the older kids are back at school). When the sun starts to go down and mums drag their toddlers out of the waves, groups of men take their place for games of ‘picigin’, a traditional game that originated in Split, where players have to bat the ball to each other, and ensure it doesn’t fall into the sea — a challenge that sees players plunging full length into the water every few minutes as they loose their footing.
Despite the pandemic, data compiled by both the Croatian Bureau of Statistics and the Croatian National Tourist Board (CNTB) show Croatia had a strong summer season with almost as many visitors as in the last pre-pandemic year of 2019, which was a record in terms of tourist numbers. This continued into the post-season as figures for September from the eVisitor system, published by the CNTB, show almost 2mn people visited during the month, spending 10.8mn nights in the country. This was 81% of the arrivals recorded in September 2019 and 94% of the overnight stays.
Even with coronavirus cases increasing sharply in October, the visitors continued to come. On the beach, one German-Croatian mum says she has brought her five-year-old to visit family in the area. “It’s the first time we’ve been back since COVID started,” she says. She has a bad cold but says she’s been tested and it isn’t coronavirus.
Nadine from west London was in Split earlier in the year, and is back again with friends as England has further eased restrictions on international travel for people who are double vaccinated. “There were parties with more than 100 people in the summer. It was a really international crowd,” she says. “Now it’s mostly students in the clubs.”
“Croatia had a great September and at the moment we have a decent number of visitors to-date in October,” Luci Jerkovic, manager of the CNTB's global PR department, tells bne IntelliNews. Between October 1 and October 12, almost 320,000 foreign arrivals were recorded.
Unavoidably, the pandemic has taken a toll on the tourism sector. Numbers in 2020 were well down on previous years — though Croatia managed to outperform many rival tourist destinations — and given the importance of tourism to the economy, this contributed to the steep contraction in GDP in 2021. As well as the loss of income for companies directly involved in tourism, the lack of visitors had a knock on effect on other sectors; retail sales, for example, dropped in summer 2020 but rebounded this summer.
Several factors have helped Croatia through the pandemic, however. Coronavirus cases coming into the summer were relatively low. Only in late October did a sudden rise in new cases prompt Germany to place Croatia on its list of high-risk countries. The UK, meanwhile, put Croatia on its ‘green list’ while fellow Eastern Mediterranean destination Turkey was on the ‘red list’ and Spain was on the now scrapped ‘amber list’.
Secondly, Croatia is easily accessible overland from Germany — the single biggest source country for tourists — and other Central European countries, and tourists wary of air travel were able to get there by car, bus or train. “Croatia continues to draw most of its tourists from its traditional European feeder markets, such as Germany and Austria, as well as neighbouring Slovenia and other CEE countries such as the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, as well as other West European markets such as Italy, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, as well as others,” comments Jerkovic.
This year, there were also more arrivals by air than in 2020, which restored the city of Dubrovnik, only accessible by road through a small stretch of Bosnian territory, to its pre-pandemic status as one of the country’s top destinations. “Despite various restrictions placed on UK travellers, Croatia also saw visitors from the UK return once restrictions were eased. One market that stands out slightly in terms of the above is the US, as in 2020 Croatia enabled visitors from the US to visit, which in turn saw an upswing in interest from the US market in 2021 and the introduction of eight weekly flights from New York to Dubrovnik from July through the start of October,” according to Jerkovic.
On top of this, the Croatian authorities, mindful of the importance of the tourism industry, took steps to make the rules clear and provide, for example, cheap and easily accessible coronavirus testing. “The CNTB, together with the Ministry of Tourism and Sport, placed significant efforts in establishing additional health and safety standard adherence, while introducing a national safety label and accompanying campaign,” she adds. This included the Safe stay in Croatia campaign which, according to the CNTB, helped raise “travel confidence for those hesitant to book, as well as increased partner confidence with respect to tour operators, airlines and other transportation providers, agencies and others in preparing offers for the high-season”.
Restrictions in the country as of mid-autumn 2021 are clear and not too onerous. Double vaccinated tourists from most countries can visit without the need for a test. Virtually all shops, cafes and other venues are open, though there is a cap on the size of gatherings. The main change from pre-COVID times is a requirement for masks to be worn in shops, on public transport and other indoor venues — though enforcement is patchy.
Victorija, owner of several holiday apartments, says she had a good summer, and apart from the requirement to wear masks in indoor public places, tourists can enjoy their holidays without too many restrictions. “We just want things to be back to normal,” she stresses.
In terms of the impact of the pandemic on the industry, Jerkovic notes, “Most closures or cancellations at the moment seem to be temporary in nature, however, most impacted are large-scale events and indoor nightclub venues. We have seen the postponement of large festivals such as Ultra 2 years in a row, but are confident 2022 will see the return of these events.”
Croatia’s Museum Documentation Centre says the favourable epidemiological situation and strong tourist arrivals in July and August caused the number of museum visits to shoot up by 84.9% compared to the same months of 2020. However, the centre warns, "This summer temporarily stopped the dramatic drop in visitor numbers and revenues, but new pandemic waves dragged the worst crisis that hit museums into 2021.The data will be much gloomier at the end of the year. The season is over, but, unfortunately, the pandemic is not.” It also notes that aside from the coronavirus, many museums in Zagreb and central Croatia were affected by the earthquakes in 2020.
Beyond sea, sun and sand
In Split, just few minutes walk from the beach, a sign declaring ‘no swimwear’ marks the beginning of the Riva, the broad pedestrianised promenade between the walls of Diocletian’s Palace and the harbour. Parts of the fourth century palace are still standing among the Venetian buildings of later years. In the palace’s old hall, now open to the skies, small groups of tourists, older couples and single women travellers prepare to explore the old city.
These are some of the tourists the Croatian authorities want to attract as part of the efforts to turn the country into more of an all round destination. Visitor numbers still have a strong spike in July and August, even though visits outside the peak summer season are increasing. The CNTB has designated October Croatian Tourism Month, and announced discounts for local and international travellers.
“Pre-COVID, Croatia had invested significant efforts to move away from being a summer (sun & sea) destination,” says Jerkovic. “The season had significantly extended past June-August, with seasonal flights starting as early as April and lasting through October. This in turn saw hotels and hospitality facilities extending their opening periods as well. The focus on year-round tourism included promoting cultural attractions, city breaks, national and nature parks, a focus on continental and rural tourism, but also a focus on specialised tourism products such as health tourism, as well as congress tourism.” There are even hopes of attracting more digital nomads to the country, as the pandemic prompted a shift towards remote working. Croatia has introduced Digital Nomad Residence Permits that enable long stays of up to 12 months.
Croatia has weathered the pandemic better than many countries with tourism-heavy economies. Expanding the range of offerings will also be a way of keeping people coming to the country even after other destinations that were worse affected by the pandemic, such as Turkey or Egypt, fully open for tourists again.