Croatia is touting boating and camping on its azure 1,800km Adriatic coastline to woo back visitors and revive its coronavirus-battered tourism sector. After travel restrictions across the EU were relaxed earlier this month, foreigners are now slowly returning as tourism operators try to salvage the season.
Boats and tents might be the cure, offering travelers built-in social distancing as they relax on the idyllic picture postcard coast.
“Alone in a bay on your boat, there is no better distancing,” said Zeljko Cvetkovic, who owns a boat charter company on the northern island of Krk.
“Camping is similar,” he adds.
The two sectors have traditionally accounted for an important, but smaller slice of the tourism pie, which accounts for about one-fifth of Croatia’s GDP.
Its tourism industry is expected to contract by 70 percent due to the pandemic.
The economic pain would be the first challenge of the new government to be elected in on Sunday next week.
As the polls approach, Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic is hoping to capitalize on his government’s relative success in combating the virus so far. With 107 deaths and 2,539 known infections in a population of 4.2 million, a fragile sense of normality is returning as borders reopen to the main markets, including Austria, Germany and Slovenia.
On the island of Krk, tourism operators, such as Cvetkovic, are finally seeing bookings replace cancelations, sparking hope that he can achieve up to half of last year’s figures.
After months, the Marina Punat was coming back to life, with sailors cleaning their boats and sunbathing on the decks.
Home to about 1,000 islands and islets, Croatia is a dream destination for those looking to island-hop, seek out secluded bays or sail from one restaurant to another to taste fresh seafood.
“Peace and silence,” is how Manfred Schwarz, 59, summed up his week on the sea with four other Austrian friends.
“At most places we were alone or there were only a few other boats,” his friend Johann Wagner, 61, added.
Some of their initial fears from catching COVID-19 have vanished after seeing the lack of crowds. The men were also only a six-hour drive from home.
Croatia hopes this proximity of its main markets, accessible by car in a few hours, will be another draw for tourists weary of airline travel.
“Despite initial pessimism ... our expectations are slowly growing,” said Renata Marevic, who oversees Marina Punat.
Guests were also gradually filling the nearby five-star Krk Premium Camping Resort, which opened late last month.
It is one of the 800 campsites in the country, most of which claim prime real estate on Croatia’s beaches. Many offer visitors various options for their stay, from spaces for tents and camper vans to camping huts or “glamping” tents for a more high-end experience.
In the Krk resort, reminders of the pandemic were visible, but subtle, with signs warning to “Please keep a distance” at the reception, while tables and sun chairs were arranged to ensure the required 1.5m distance.
“We got a recommendation from friends of ours, we looked on the Internet, we tried it and we like it,” said Florian Marchl, 30-year-old who came to Krk with his family from Salzburg, Austria.
“It’s not a problem to keep a distance,” he said, as his wife put their two-month-old son to sleep on the terrace of their luxury bungalow.
Before making a decision, the couple researched how Croatia was dealing with the pandemic.
Guests at the campground are offered online check-in, food delivery, and a round-the-clock health and safety manager ensuring adequate medical services.
The camp, run by leading tourist group Valamar, also limits capacity at 80 percent for safety reasons.
“The advantage is that we are in nature, guests have their private space,” camp manager Bruno Bogdanic said.
Yet experts said that keeping the virus under control is key.
After registering only a few or no cases of the disease daily since the middle of last month, numbers have started to creep up again.
Authorities this week reimposed 14-day quarantines for visitors from neighboring Balkan states, which have logged rising infections rates.
Any new outbreak of COVID-19 “would be a terrible setback that would throw us back to the beginning,” Cvetkovic said.
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