The warm glow of the setting sun colours the Dubrovnik skies dark magenta. It is another calm but chilly April day coming to an end. Typically, this part of the year is marked by anticipation of another tourism season starting in Dubrovnik. But the feeling is quite different this year, 2020 started off as anything but typical.
Croatia is frequently found on various lists of hottest travel destinations in the past several years. This beautiful country of south-eastern Europe is viewed by many as a new travel brand. Some parts of it indeed are recent additions to the tourist scene, but destinations like Dubrovnik are anything but new. Dubrovnik is the seat of Croatia’s southernmost county and has been a popular travel destination for decades.
It was the Croatian War for Independence, during which Dubrovnik was heavily damaged, that stopped foreign travellers from visiting during the early 1990’s. Recollection of those times still lies heavy on the chest of many Dubrovnik locals as they get accustomed to the new quarantine lifestyle.
With the country under serious coronavirus lockdown, tourism and travel has been reduced to nothing. The Easter Holidays usually mark the beginning of the tourism season in the city. With the last tourists of the year at the beginning of November. During winter, very few people travel to Dubrovnik known mainly as a warm weather destination.
COVID-19 means an uncertian future for the travel industry
This long winter break from working and earning money makes early spring a very exciting time for many local business owners. These days, anticipation has turned to dread. With the most optimistic prognoses talking about at least third of the summer season effectively lost for business, the following winter will most probably be very long and tough on Dubrovnik. This is true for many other cities and towns of Croatia. Country’s manufacturing and food industries never properly recovered after the war of 1990s. Tourism was there to save the day and now it holds a high percentage in the overall GDP. As the days roll by and number of COVID-19 infections rise globally, so do financial worries of many Croatians tied to the travel industry.
There is a reason Croatia is a hit destination - Photo Shutterstock
A fragile economy and problems with the current virus pandemic aside, there is a reason Croatia is a hit destination. In fact, there are multiple reasons. Country sits on the crossroads of regions, between the Balkans to the south and east, and Central Europe to the north. Its coastline is across the Adriatic Sea from the “Italian Boot”, while its capital city is a short drive from Slovenia, Austria and Hungary. Because of its location and turbulent history various parts of Croatia differ in climate, architecture and traditions. With low population density and very little heavy industry, so much of Croatia is untouched nature. This makes it perfect for those wanting to explore on their own doing multiday tours or simply hiring a car and creating their own adventure. Hiking, kayaking or cycling tours are very popular and there is a rise in yoga retreats and similar wellness-oriented packages. Local food in all the corners of the country is delicious and an old world winemaking legacy makes local wines well worth discovering. Foodies will enjoy the diversity and visits to the countryside in search of truffles, olive oil, cured meats, honey, cheese, oysters, and so much more. Historical cities and towns are well preserved and dotted all over the coast and the continental area. Many of them are living communities, vibrant and coloured in all the shades of local culture. During the summer there are music festivals and concerts, especially around the coast. Cruise ships frequent ports like Dubrovnik, Split and Zadar. In fact, taking a paragraph to list all the things that make Croatia a great destination feels like doing it a great injustice.
Dubrovnik a great choice for individual holiday makers
Being popular leads to money coming in, which in turn leads to advancements in infrastructure and service. It also leads to an increasing numbers of guests and this is where we come to the other side of the story for Croatia. The main challenges facing the country lately have been overcrowding and rising prices of everything from local museum tickets and parking to accommodation and food. With the rise in crowds came a rise in pollution and a degraded experience for visiting guests. One of the places with the biggest problem tied to overcrowding is Dubrovnik. The city has become very popular with younger guests in the past 8 years as it was heavily promoted as one of the main filming locations for the hit TV show Game of Thrones. Combined with being a popular cruise ship port and its reputation for being a great choice for individual holiday makers, the number of people pouring into the city made historical centre quite crowded at times.
The diverse nature of Croatia - the stunning Plitvice Lakes - Photo Shutterstock
Today, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, those crowds seem a distant memory. There is plenty of guesswork around as to when will it be safe to travel again. The most positive voices speak of virus subsiding as the temperatures go up which would make it decline during May. This would mean the return of some of the tourists during June or more realistically, during the first half of July. With the majority of important outgoing markets also experiencing hard times during the virus outbreak, it would be safe to say not many people will decide to travel immediately after the airports re-open. There is a matter of economic slump that normally follows situations like this to consider as well.
A summer of discount travel
Travelling post coronavirus is still quite a mystery. One thing is pretty certain. Those people who are the first to arrive to Croatia after coronavirus has subsided will probably get an amazing deal. With all the emphasis on incoming tourism in Croatian economy and the lack of security that most small businesses tied to it are feeling at the moment, you can be certain many will get creative and decisive once they get a chance to get some traffic again. A large number of businesses will most likely compete for guests by, among other things, lowering prices. An initial low number of incoming tourists will also mean you will have your pick of accommodation and with a bit of shopping around you will be able to upgrade your accommodation preferences or get away with really low prices (or both).
Amazing summer in Croatia - Photo Shutterstock
Summers in Croatia are amazing which is exactly why most of the incoming guests will aim to visit during the period of June through August. With the things as they are now, we might be looking forward to a very specific situation where we are expecting a summer season in Croatia with no crowds, no traffic jams, and no waiting times in restaurants. Amazing. Peak summer with plenty of space on the beach or seats in restaurants? I’ll take it and so should you.
2020 a unique chance to visit Croatia
Speaking of summer, one of the concerns raised last year was how to keep the sea clean during the peak season. The Croatian side of the Adriatic Sea is one of the cleanest seas in the world. It’s getting to be more and more difficult to keep it that way as the strain of travellers keeps rising. 2020 should see Croatian waters, air and countryside even cleaner and vibrant than usual. Already the positive changes in the environment are visible. As the off-season period is passing and locals are currently using only a fraction of resources they usually do, the natural world seems to be happier than ever. If the world finds a way of inoculating against COVID-19, this might already change for next year when the situation will hopefully normalise and the numbers of people visiting starts rising again.
With all being said and done, the year 2020 might offer a unique chance for an amazing summer trip regardless of how bleak things seem at the moment. With a bit of luck, we might be heading towards a beautiful summer on the Croatian coast with locals being even more hospitable than usual. The meeting between the first guests arriving after the lockdown and eager hosts finally getting to see their community up and running again will be quite special.
Along with all the good things about post-pandemic travelling, one can also count on more hassle at the airports and potential screenings and body temperature checks, but that seems like a small price to pay for all the benefits. It goes without saying, even without the immediate threat of coronavirus infection, all travellers in 2020 and beyond will probably be much more careful than before. Ultimately, that might not be such a bad lesson to take away from it.
Bozidar Jukic is a Dubrovnik born wine lover, writer, tourguide and WSET Level 3 wine appreciation certificate holder. He is dedicated to promoting Croatian wine through his writing and wine tours organised through his passion project company Insider Holidays.