Never has the north-south divide in tourism in Croatia been so highlighted than during these Covid-19 times. Whilst many destinations in Istria and the north of Dalmatia are reporting almost the same figures, in terms of tourist arrivals, as last year, the same can’t be said for Dubrovnik. Numbers have been banded around, will Dubrovnik reach 20 or 30 percent of last year’s totals, but one thing is clear 50 percent is only wishful thinking.
So why is it that Dubrovnik is seriously lagging behind the rest of the country? How can it be that in a city that earns around 70 percent of its GDP the hotels are empty? There is no magic answer. There are however a number of cold, hard facts that go some way to offering a solution.
Clearly the first is a simple one – geography. Dubrovnik is the southernmost city in Croatia. Now this would be a positive thing if the majority of tourists were coming from the south, but they aren’t, quite the opposite. Driving to Dubrovnik from Zagreb is hard enough, but driving from Austria, Germany, France or the UK, well that’s not for the faint-hearted. The much publicised motorway, A1, that was supposed to connect Dubrovnik to the rest of Croatia, and indeed the rest of Europe, is still only lines on a piece of paper. Here is one reason why the north of Croatia is doing a roaring trade, a big percentage of their tourists arrive by car.
Hostage to airlines
This leads onto the second, and probably more vital point, air transport. Dubrovnik is almost exclusively an “air destination” with 2.9 million passengers passing through Dubrovnik Airport last year. With such a heavy reliance on international flights to fill the hotels, the restaurants and rent-a-cars any disruption of this link has catastrophic consequences. Of course, Dubrovnik isn’t unique, it is like any other island in the Mediterranean, expect it isn’t actually island. Or is it? With the spit of land at Neum separating Dubrovnik from the rest of the country then it seems more and more like an island.
Dubrovnik Airport on July 20 2020 - Photo Mark Thomas
In this sense Dubrovnik is very much a hostage to the airlines. Now, this was true before the Covid-19 pandemic, it is just that the pandemic has shone a spotlight on this relationship. No flight, no tourists. In June 2019 (and cover your eyes if you work in the tourism industry) a grand total of 416,000 passengers were handled by Dubrovnik Airport, in June this year that number was a less than grand 10,600. The maths is easy to see. In July, one of the busiest months in the city, there were 515,000 passengers in 2019 and 59,000 in 2020. In the three months of May, June and July 2019 a total of 1.24 million passengers passed through the southernmost airport in Croatia, in 2020 a mere 74,000. That is some shortfall to make up.
Demographic of guests to Dubrovnik a telling factor
The third factor making the north-south divide as wide as the Grand Canyon, is the demographics of guests to Dubrovnik. This factor is of course linked to the two above points. For the past decade the most numerous tourists in Dubrovnik have been from the UK. According to data from the Dubrovnik-Neretva County Tourist Board there were 53,000 UK tourists holidaying in the county through July 2019. This July that number has plummeted to 5,700, or almost 90 percent less. The second most numerous guests over the past few years, thanks mainly to the HBO serial Game of Thrones, has been Americans. And here’s where the numbers fall off the chart, throughout July 2019 33,400, a year and a global pandemic later and July 2020 saw only 1,600 US guests, or 4.7 percent. Just the loss of these two major travel markets is enough to cripple the city’s tourism industry. Then throw into the mix that Dubrovnik was also popular with South Koreans, Australians, Chinese and Swedish and the true reality of life in the south is revealed. And that’s before you factor in the massive loss due to the 800,000 cruise ship passengers that will not by docking in the port this year.
Starting from zero, and that’s pretty much where the city’s tourism started as there were zero passengers through Dubrovnik Airport in April as it was closed all month, is a long climb to get back to some normality. British Airways have actually stated that they don’t see a normalisation of passenger number s and flights before 2023. And whilst that has undoubtedly been an increase in flights, especially from the UK, it is only the very beginning of a very, very, long road to recovery.