PUNAT, Croatia: Croatia is touting boating and camping on its azure 1,800-km 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 around a fifth of Croatia’s GDP.
Its tourism industry is expected to contract by 70 percent due to the pandemic. This economic pain will be the first challenge of the new government to be elected in on July 5.
As the polls approach, conservative PM Andrej Plenkovic is hoping to capitalize on his government’s relative success in combating the virus. With some 107 deaths and nearly 2,500 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 is coming back to life with sailors cleaning their boats and sunbathing on the decks.
Home to some 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, said.
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 are also gradually filling the nearby five-star Krk Premium Camping Resort, which opened in late May. 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 are visible but subtle, with signs warning to “Please keep a distance” at the reception, while tables and sun chairs are arranged for the required 1.5-meter distance.
Yet experts warn that keeping the virus under control is key. After registering only a few or no cases daily since mid-May, numbers have now started to creep up again.
This week authorities re-imposed 14-day quarantines for visitors from neighboring Balkan states, which have logged rising infection rates.