Hope v Reality: Will There Be a 2020 Tourist Season in Croatia?
March 25, 2020 – With so many people dependent on tourism as COVID-19 continues to spread, will there even be a tourist season in Croatia and elsewhere this year? Some things to consider.
One of the more surreal aspects of this current madness is the level of understanding and acceptance of the new reality among people. Some had alarm bells ringing in early January when news broke about COVID-19, while others at the other end of the spectrum expect things to return to normal by Easter when all this nonsense will blow over – including, it seems, the esteemed President of the United States.
I am genuinely astounded at the number of angry emails I am getting at the moment, from people demanding to know if their holiday plans are going to be ok. Or complaining that their flight has been cancelled in April, as though I should do something about it. Just 11 days ago, I received this, for example, albeit very polite:
I am writing from Virginia in the United States. We were supposed to visit Split in late April and then embark on a cruise to Dubrovnik. It now appears that our trip may be in jeopardy. We are getting ambiguous reports about whether or not American citizens must undergo a 14-day quarantine upon entering Croatia. Can you enlighten us?
This was the same day I arrived on Hvar with my family to self-isolate for what I knew was going to be a least a couple of months, and someone was worried about a cruise in Dalmatia next month. It is not his fault, it is just not real in Virginia. Yet. In the same way that Italians cannot believe that the rest of Europe did not immediately learn from their tragic experience.
Wait a couple of months? Yes, that is how long I plan to be in Jelsa, at least I thought so 11 days ago.
As the owner of a small travel agency who specialises in holidays to Croatia, I’m an avid reader of Total Croatia News for up to date information on all things Croatia. I’ve just read your article about self-isolating in Jelsa. I notice you’ve said you’re doing this for 2 months? Why that long? Is that your decision or a length of time from what the Croatian government has said?
Timeline March 18 – 7 days ago. I replied quickly that although schools were closed for 14 days initially, I thought this would take a couple of months.
OK, thanks. What are your views on the 14 day self-isolation for incoming visitors? Do you think this will still apply at the start of May? That of course means pretty much zero tourists and would be disastrous for the local economy.
Yes. Yes it would. And sadly, it will be. Again, I can understand the second correspondent. He has a business to run, bookings made and this thing needs to be over. It is still very remote to him in the UK. Or it was 7 days ago, for a LOT has changed in the UK in the last seven days.
I think most people would agree that their understanding of the reality of what we are facing is different today than it was yesterday, a week ago, a month ago, two months ago. Every day brings a new realisation. And we are all at different stages on that path of understanding. The Virginia cruise tourist and the travel agency owner will catch up quickly, if they haven’t already.
One of the things that corona is bringing is clarity and the need to deal with the brutal truth. A bit like Trump hopes this will all be gone by Easter because he likes Easter, so too with the tourist season in Croatia. We all want it to start asap, and we all need it to – for it is over 20% of our GDP.
But is it better to want it to happen, like the Trump Easter Bunny, or face the (potentially quite frightening) reality of what the tourist season in Croatia will look like this year?
I decided to write this article because I think we need to deal in realities to get through this. I am not a tourism expert, but I do speak to a lot of people in the industry, and I have been writing about Croatian tourism for many years. I have many, many friends in Croatian tourism here, all of whom have some tough choices to make. Our own apartment rental is seeing its booking calendar empty by the week. Those tough choices have to be made with the best possible information available. A little like the cruise tourist from Virginia, who is possibly not dreaming of that cruise now 11 days later, here are some thoughts on things to consider on when or even if the tourist season might start, written with the best of intentions by someone who is perhaps further down the road of understanding what we are looking at.
So what does Ryanair think about the resumption of flights to Croatia and elsewhere?
This is the Ryanair homepage, with the first advertising banner on March 25, 2020. The market Europe’s biggest low-cost airline is targeting right now is late season breaks in September, six months from now.
Ryanair Group CEO Michael O’Leary issued a press release update about the latest from the Irish airline yesterday. You can read it in full here. This paragraph gives us some clues:
At this time, no one knows how long this Covid shutdown will last. The experience in China suggests a 3-month period for the spread of the virus to be contained and reduced. We do not expect to operate flights during the months of April and May at this time, but this will clearly depend upon Government advice, and we will in all cases comply with these instructions.
So currently, Ryanair does not anticipate returning to its normal schedule until June 1, based on the Chinese experience of 3 months. Which is one benchmark, but then perhaps one should factor in that Europe has not exactly imposed the discipline of the Chinese in dealing with COVID-19.
(As an aside, because I have had a LOT of emails about Ryanair and cancelled flights, it appears that they have cancelled most of their flights from UK and Ireland to Zadar – but not other European destinations – with the exception of the Hideout Festival in June. You can see more on this in our recent article, Ryanair in Croatia: Almost Total Zadar 2020 Cancellations, But Split, Dubroovnik OK?)
But let’s be positive and hope that we can get this sort in time for the resumption of flights by June 1, as Ryanair seems to be aiming for. There are some other things to consider.
How many people will want or be able to afford to go on holiday to Croatia or elsewhere?
If we could all go back to normal on June 1, most of the season would be saved. But it is sadly not that simple.
The economic fallout from COVID-19 is only just beginning, and people are already losing their jobs, businesses going bankrupt. This trend will sadly only get worse in the coming weeks. And so when this madness is finally over, the good news is that EVERYONE will want to escape their self-isolation reality, and there is no better way to do that than on an idyllic Croatia beach. BUT how many people will have the disposable income to do so?
We did a quick survey on TCN about people’s intentions about visiting Croatia. We got 748 responses, which is not a huge number, but there are perhaps things to think about.
Two things I take away from this.
A significant number of tourists will not travel this year.
A very significant number of tourists will wait until all this is over and then decide (more on this in a minute)
Competition for tourists after coronavirus is going to be INSANE
Greece, Italy, Spain, Egypt, France, Turkey, Tunisia, Montenegro and many other countries have very large tourism industries, all of which are in a similar situation as Croatia. They will all be trying extra hard to grab whatever they can from the smaller pot of potential tourists. And one of the key weapons they will fight with is one where Croatian tourism is not particularly competitive.
Expect savage discounts to get at least some tourists to come. Imagine how cheap Italy is going to be, for example, as they need to rebuild their tourism industry. But Turkey, Egypt, Greece – they are better on price than Croatia traditionally, so if there is going to be a tourist season in Croatia this year, there is going to have to be a lot of thought on price.
Expect tourism countries to appeal to tourists to do their patriotic duty and holiday at home
(Dutch entrepreneur Jan de Jong from Split is already thinking ahead)
Expect Spanish tourists to be encouraged to holiday in Spain, Italians in Italy, the French in France. Croatia is sadly not the only country that needs to recover from this, and supporting local tourism will be a key priority of governments looking to rebuild after corona.
How many flights to Croatia will there be in 2020 if the season does start?
It is still very questionable how the airline industry will survive this huge hit on their industry. Grounding entire airlines for weeks comes at a huge cost, and without major government intervention, some airlines will go bust. And even it they don’t, the schedules will be reduced.
This is going to be worse news for the likes of Greece, Turkey and Egypt, because the majority of Croatia’s tourists arrive by car (about 75% from memory).
What should Croatia do to attract tourists for the 2020 season after COVID-19?
The Ministry of Tourism and Croatian National Tourist Board have put all promotion on hold for the moment, which is very sensible. But where should they be focusing the efforts when things pick up again?
With the uncertainty of flights, I think it makes sense to focus on the markets which have been the backbone of Croatian tourism for decades, and which can be reached by car. The Germans, Austria, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks and Hungarians all adore the Adriatic, which is still just a short drive away. Some intelligent campaigns (AND pricing). Croatia remains the best and most attractive sea option for all these countries. There will be strong competition from other tourism countries for this business, but Croatia currently holds a competitive advantage with customer loyalty and that unbeatable Adriatic.
And I would add Serbia to that list. Of course I understand the issues with Serbs due to the past, but the official approach to Serbia is really rather odd. They are among the best spenders, live next door, and if you get a Serb for one summer on the Adriatic, there is a chance you get them for life.
(You can learn more about how Serbia ranks in Croatian tourism spend in this article)
Back in 2011, some 16 years after the war, Croatia was the main sponsor of the Belgrade Tourism Fair. No issues with the past nine years ago. And yet two years ago, when I visited the Belgrade fair, there was no official Croatian tourism board presence at all. When I enquired why, I was informed by the Croatian National Tourist Board that Serbia as no longer a strategic market.
Perhaps now it should be.
So will there be a tourist season in Croatia in 2020?
Yes, I think so. But I think it is important to bear in mind that it will be different. A lot different.
Paradox Hospitality CEO Zoran Pejovic has a lot more experience in tourism than I do. And, always a positive force, he has written a couple of great articles on preparing for the uncertain future.
Travel Industry: Keep Communicating and Visibility
Build Scenarios! Be Present! Take Time to Think!
There are some very difficult days ahead for Croatian tourism and its workers. I hope this article has given a little clarity on the scenarios of the road ahead, in order to help with some decision making.
Let’s hope for the best tourism season in Croatia that we can manage in the circumstances.