With the vast majority of Europe restricting the arrival of American tourists this summer due to the Covid-19 pandemic, one of the exceptions to the rule has been Croatia. We caught up with the Director at Croatian National Tourist Office in New York, Ina Rodin to discover how she is managing to promote Croatia in these challenging times. You could quite easily describe Ina as part director and part ambassador, although an unofficial one, as the passion that she has for her home country shines from the Hudson River to the shores of the Adriatic.
I actually had the pleasure to meet Ina many years ago on a trip to New York and it was clear after a few minutes that Croatia was lucky to have someone with her qualities representing the country in one of the most important travel markets for the country. So how is she working in these lockdown times? How is she managing to spread the word about Croatia? And when can we expect US travellers landing at our airports again? We spoke to Ina to find out, and what she fills her suitcases with when she comes home.
How has your work and focus changed this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic?
The pandemic has brought a challenging twist to the Travel & Tourism industry and uncertainty towards our next steps. The travel restrictions and lockdowns forced us to work remotely, find ways to cut costs, reduce salaries and suspend service providers. The lack of the tourist income in the second quarter of 2020 affected our budget, therefore forcing us to postpone our marketing spend. Like other businesses, we have transitioned our internal and partner meetings online, using the video and meetings capabilities of Zoom, Teams, and other similar digital platforms. We had to show a good will and creativity in reshaping the workplace for sustainability and recovery, while focusing on staying connected with tour operators, travel agents and meeting planners. Creating a sense of community and maintaining relationships has been a particular challenge for us, due to the nature of our work that is built on relationships and face-to-face contacts.
We were forced to learn how to deal with the new normal, communicate with the media, and rethink the way to keep Croatia on the US travelers’ radar. We have managed to remain connected with prospective travelers through social media and informational emails. Online destination trainings/webinars have been a key tool to keep tour operators and travel agents engaged and informed as well as a continuous support from the USTOA, ASTA, NTA, and the travel consortia such as Virtuoso and Signature Travel Network. Tireless media pitching and strong relationship with various media outlets helped us maintain visibility of Croatia, and communicate important news regarding the country’s reopening.
Ina Rodin at the 2020 NY Times Travel Show with Stella Djurovic from the Dubrovnik-Neretva County Tourist Board
Our industry has finally begun showing signs of recovery, and there is a growing sense of optimism, especially as we look at the outstanding tourist turnover in Croatia in the past summer months. The safety and health of our citizens and guests continues to be our top priority, as it is crucial that we maintain an image of the safe country and rebuild the confidence in the global community. Lesson learned - The COVID-19 pandemic has elevated the importance of crisis management and having a pandemic emergency plan in place.
Croatia is one of the few European destinations that has kept its doors open to American tourists this summer. Has this been communicated to US tourists?
Fortunately, Croatia is one of very few European destinations that has kept its doors open to American tourists this summer, and it has been communicated through various trade and national media channels. We pitched the information to several leading media outlets and secured a NY Times article “I'm a U.S. Citizen, Where in the World Can I Go?,” which one of the first outlets to cover this news and caused a chain reaction and we were inundated with media requests. Forbes, Newsweek, CNN.com, Robb’s Report, Travel Pulse, Insider Magazine, Travel Agent, etc. followed suit. Afar, the world’s leading travel media brand did a special Croatia coverage - “It’s True—Americans Can Travel to This Beautiful European Country Right Now.”
Do you believe that the majority of US tourists have simply postponed their vacation until 2021?
Domestic travel has already begun to return in the US and majority of the states reopened. In my opinion and based on the inputs of our business partners, there is a pent-up demand for an international travel. Due to travel bans, mandatory quarantine in some destinations, unclear requirements and regulations on quarantine upon return to the US, employment insecurity, and uncertainty in regard to the upcoming presidential elections, majority of Americans choose to postpone their travels to 2021.
Most recent surveys conducted by various marketing companies found that US travelers demonstrated an increase in likelihood that they’ll take an international vacation in 2021 assuming that travel bans are lifted. As per the USTOA survey results, almost 80% of Active Members (tour operators) are reporting travel bookings for the third quarter of 2021, while 76% report passenger bookings for second quarter of 2021. 52% report new bookings being made for Q4 2021 travel and 33% say they have received bookings for Q1 2021 travel. Over 70% of Active Member traveler bookings are to international destinations with around 37% of respondents who anticipate resuming operations in Europe in the first quarter of 2021.
When it comes to travel to Europe and internationally, perception of safety will be key. Also, flight capacity will play a crucial role in travel recovery and rebound.
DHT, Hvar, Oct 2019, Al Merschen, CEO Myriad, and Philip DeBevoise, CEO Citizene with Ina Rodin
American Airlines unfortunately cancelled their direct flights from Philadelphia to Dubrovnik this year. Can you see another airline filling this gap in 2021? Is there interest in direct flights from the US to Croatia?
We were very disappointed to find out that American Airlines had cancelled their seasonal direct flights from Philadelphia to Dubrovnik this year and for 2021. Airline companies were hit hard by the Covid-19 crisis, and in spite of government aid, their recovery will be long and difficult. As per my knowledge, at the moment there is no interest from the US carriers in direct flights from the US to Croatia. In my opinion, the initiative and government support and subsidy should come from us once things go back to normal. In the meantime, we should build and maintain good air accessibility with major European hubs where Americans can fly and get a connecting flight to Croatia.
American travellers were the second most numerous in Dubrovnik last year, how much do you think that the Game of Thrones influenced this, and how long will this fan tourism last?
Game of Thrones has brought global recognition and substantial fame to Dubrovnik and Croatia, and undoubtfully played an important role in luring the show fans to visit Croatia. It’s hard to estimate the overall influence because it hasn’t been one and only reason for a visit. In my experience, Dubrovnik has been popular among American travelers long before the show, and as of today one of the most visited places in Croatia.
Eventually filming locations turn into popular tourist spots, and let’s hope that we can continue to show the country’s beauty by hosting new shows in Dubrovnik and Croatia.
What feedback do you receive from US tourists who have vacationed in Dubrovnik?
US tourists are impressed with the old town architecture and history, beautiful vistas, restaurant offering, and friendliness of the locals. Summer crowds can be off-putting but otherwise only positive feedback.
Promoting Dubrovnik to the US market - Photo Pixabay
How knowledgeable are US tourists on Croatia? What destinations are they already aware of?
In the past few years Croatia has been on the US traveller’s radar as on of top 5 emerging destinations, and often described as the best of Italy and Greece.
According to the USTOA annual survey results, Croatia was one of the top destinations for 2020—the second year in a row that the USTOA has listed Croatia to its list of top destinations. In other accolades for 2020, 2019 Virtuoso Luxe Report named Croatia as the number one, top emerging destination in the world, in front of countries such as Japan, Iceland, and Portugal. Croatia not only topped the list of the hottest emerging destinations in the Luxe Report, but also made the top five in the categories of Top Global Destinations overall and Top Millennial Destinations.
Croatia was heralded by Virtuoso for its rich history, its location near many European hubs, and its beauty, which has attracted film and television crews for filming, such as HBO’s hits “Game of Thrones” and “Succession,” as well as big screen hits such as “Mamma Mia,” and “Star Wars: Episode VIII—the Last Jedi,” among many others. And even in this challenging year, according to Virtuoso Wanderlist, Croatia came in the top 20 most dreamed-about destinations in the world.
Americans has become more knowledgeable about Croatia, and along the southern Dalmatian coast (Dubrovnik, Split, Hvar, Korcula, etc.), Plitvice, Opatija and Zagreb, they also started extending their interests to Zadar and Sibenik region, and Rovinj and Istria.
What concerns, or frequent questions, do US tourists have before visiting Croatia for this first time?
The most frequent questions of US tourists before visiting Croatia for the first time have been related to accessibility in terms of available flights from the US, self-driving in Croatia, and general safety and security. This year’s Covid-19 crisis will put more emphasis on safety and health concerns for traveling in general.
On a personal note how often do you get to visit Croatia? What do you miss from home?
Working with the CNTB gives me an opportunity to visit Croatia few times a year so I get to see my family and friends quite often. What I miss the most from home is our food. Every time I return to New York from Croatia my suitcases are packed with home-made goodies, olive oils, honey, dried figs, and locally made organic skin care products.