“We have just cancelled our holiday to Croatia, we were going to stay for two weeks in Kavtat but have decided not to take the risk,” said the elderly English couple. Firstly, yes they had said Kavtat and secondly they had cancelled their summer vacation in Croatia due to coronavirus. “We have been following the news and have seen cases in Croatia and Italy, we are too old to take chances, it’s a shame but I don’t suppose we will be the only people cancelling holidays this year,” added the man with an apologetic smile.
I don’t suppose he will the only one cancelling holidays this year. I have the feeling that Croatia and Dubrovnik are sleepwalking into a bad tourist season.
I have just come back from two weeks in the UK, Dubrovnik’s biggest travel market, and I can say for sure that there is concern about the virus and travelling. The airport was awash with white masks, there were queues for the sinks (yes, even in the men’s toilets) and hand sanitiser is the biggest seller. The media is absolutely full of COVID-19 articles, and when the first case occurred in Croatia it got a special mention on BBC news. The fact that the normal flu kills more people than this latest version of the Asian flu is unfortunately irrelevant. It is all about perception.
Tourism is an extremely fragile business. Just ask the Turks, Greeks and countries of North Africa. One minute you are riding the wave of success, the darling of the world’s travel media, the location of films and magnet for cruise ships. And the next minute you have an unknown virus that started in a market in a Chinese city 8,200 kilometres away and you have a problem. And as our whole economy is so reliant on one income source then of course we have reason to be worried. When Airbnb bookings drop, when restaurants have empty table and hotels empty rooms, well then it’s already too late. And what takes decades to build can evaporate in a couple of weeks. Its perception.
Now we have a perception of being a safe, sunny and historic destination (if somewhat overcrowded) but that can change overnight.
One lady on our flight, wearing a mask, was taking no risks. She literally disinfected the whole chair, table and the chair next to her with a gel and tissues, it took her a good ten minutes to wipe down everything. She refused any drinks or food on the flight and wore her mask the whole journey.
Of course these epidemics are nothing new. Almost exactly 100 years ago the Spanish flu spread, then in the late 1950’s it was the turn of the Asian flu to causes havoc. Fifty years have passed so it was probably expected that another flu strain would rear its ugly head. Flus come, a cure is found, and flus go. The difference is that compared to 1917 and 1957 the ease at which people can travel has drastically changed. There were no cheap Ryanair flights, no Airbnb and no TripAdvisor back then. Today a new virus can simply hop on a plane and within hours be in a new continent. “It has hit our tourism industry pretty bad, especially in Venice,” explained one Italian businessman to me just the other day. “I actually had the Asian flu as a young boy so I remember at first hand the effects of such a virus,” he added.
So do we in Dubrovnik, which so far is immune to coronavirus have reason to panic. Probably not yet. But we certainly need to be prepared to tighten our belts a little. Of course a cure could be found tomorrow, but that won’t help with the people, including my elderly UK friends, who have already cancelled their summer holidays.
So am I panicking, not yet. But am I concerned, well I wasn’t until I started to speak more with potential British tourists, and now the doubts have set in. I am normally the most optimistic person in the room, but my rose tinted glasses are fading. “Worry is a cycle of thoughts whirling around a centre of fear,” once said a Dutch author, I hope we aren’t at the centre of any fear this summer.