Europe’s tourism and travel industry is waiting patiently for the 15th of June when the EU travel ban is lifted and once again borders many borders will be reopened. It will also give a green light for the skies of Europe to open to air transport. But what does all this mean for Dubrovnik’s tourism industry? Will the reopening of EU borders mean a wave of tourists to the pearl of the Adriatic or will the city still feel like it is in lock-down?
Easter is traditionally the start of the tourist season in Dubrovnik. Although the main summer season has spread into the autumn and winter months, meaning that the city usually has roughly a six to seven-month long season, the winter months have always been a time of hibernation. For the past few years Dubrovnik has been breaking records in numbers of tourism and revenue from the tourist industry. Roughly 2 million tourists visit every year and that number can pretty much be cut in half, 1 million tourists and 1 million cruise ship passengers. The city has found itself as an example of “over tourism” often grouped in with Venice and Barcelona as prime examples of what too much tourism can do to a historic destination. And it is absolutely true. Dubrovnik simply doesn’t have the infrastructure to handle such a large number of people, especially as they tend to come in squeezed time periods. The City of Dubrovnik spent time, money and effort to devise a plan to better organise the flow of tourists and their behaviour, entitled Respect the City. And then came Covid-19 and Respect the City was null and void. It could have quite easily been renamed to Protect the City.
And now that the Covid-19 pandemic is under control in Dubrovnik, and indeed Croatia, with no new cases for more than 3 weeks, there is some hope that some kind of tourism season will emerge. The forecasts and the indicators don’t make for promising reading though. Even though Dubrovnik is the pearl of Croatia’s tourism industry and without doubt one of the iconic brands it has a tourism Achilles heel, well in terms of Covid-19 it has a few heels. Firstly, and quite possibly most importantly, around 90 percent of its tourists’ land at Dubrovnik Airport, it is almost exclusively an air destination. Whereas tourists from Austria, Slovenia and Germany have already returned to Istria and to a certain extent northern Dalmatia, Dubrovnik is around is a good day’s drive (at least) from these countries. And as tourists are clearly looking for a destination within easy reach, in case they need to get back home quickly, Dubrovnik isn’t on their radar. With Dubrovnik Airport already stating that they expect a drop in plane traffic of up to 70 percent, and the director stating that “In June we could see ten percent of last year’s number and in July maybe 20 percent,” the outlook is bleak. Which leads into the second Achilles heel, the make-up of tourists in Dubrovnik.
Tourism across Croatia, in terms of which nationality is the most numerous, is very different to the breakdown of nationalities that visit Dubrovnik. By far the most numerous tourists in Croatia in 2019 were Germans, followed by Austrians, Slovenians, Italians and Polish. This isn’t the case in Dubrovnik. For the past decade British tourists have been the most numerous, with American tourists the second most numerous. Now clearly these two countries are still right in the middle of the fights against Covid-19. Add into the mix that American Airlines have cancelled their planned daily flights to Dubrovnik from Philadelphia this year and the fact that from the 8th of June British tourists who come travel outside the UK will need to spend 14-days in quarantine and the potential hit to the city’s tourism industry gets larger. This is a fact that is clearly not lost on Frano Luetic, the director of Dubrovnik Airport, who in a recent interview for Dubrovacki Vjesnik stated that “In some countries, such as Great Britain, citizens have to go into a two-week quarantine after returning home from abroad. Who is going to want to go on holiday and then go into quarantine when coming home?” He even added that he believes that there will be more tourists in Dubrovnik this year who have arrived with their own car than through the airport, and I have already made it clear that Dubrovnik has never been an auto destination. And to make matters even more challenging the breakdown of tourists to Dubrovnik by nationality also includes South Korea and Australia. Will any tourists from these countries be willing to spend a full day on a plane to get to Dubrovnik? And these are just two of the more distant countries that Dubrovnik attracts guests from.
And the third Achilles heel is the cruise ship industry. Now it could be argued that this particular branch of tourism in Dubrovnik has always been an Achilles heel. However, and putting that to one side, with all its problems the cruise ship industry certainly helped to bolster the coffers of the city, and indeed the country. Seeing the shock when an American cruise company announced it would restart cruises in August it is probably safe to say that we are unlikely to see many cruise ships at all this year in the Gruz harbour. This trilogy of Achilles’ heels doesn’t make for pleasant reading for the city’s tourism businesses. And when, as icing on the cake, you throw into the mix that the vast majority of countries are pleading with their citizens to vacation at home, or staycation, then the tourist season looks even more depressing.
2020 looks like being a year to forget for the tourism industry in Dubrovnik, or in a more positive vein, a year to plan, create and contemplate a brighter and different future. Rather like a boxer taking an 8-count to catch his breath Dubrovnik can use this time to not only move away from mass and commercial tourism but even start moving in a greener more sustainable future. There will no doubt be losses, not every business will survive, especially when the long winter arrives and the funds dry up like rain drops in the Sahara. Revenues across the whole sector will drop by as much as 70 percent. And how long could you survive with a 70 percent cut in your salary? Would you be able to pay your mortgage? Unprecedented times can often bring unprecedented solutions. And tourism in Dubrovnik needs to think long-term. Covid-19 might just have given the city the wake-up call it so badly needed.