On board a small ship cruising south from Bol to the Croatian coastal island of Brač, the sailor standing near us did not look happy. It was a stunningly beautiful day on this picturesque section of coastline, where thousands come to soak up the sun on one of Croatia’s most famous beaches, the Golden Horn.
But this year? “Slow,” he answered tersely. At midday in the first week of August, you could easily find nice places to spread out. Even as the numbers increased the second week, the beaches felt luxuriously empty, and the pandemic very far away. In theory, family groups or couples were expected to stay two meters apart amid fears of COVID-19, but much was quietly ignored, amid the genial practicalities of economic life.
In Bol, many shopkeepers had not opened until the end of July, and some hotels remained completely closed. According to the daily Slobodna Dalmacija, there were so far about half the tourists as last year, a figure confirmed by the Tourism Minister for the country as a whole. When resorts on islands like Brač or neighboring Hvar reported 75% of last year’s traffic, there were celebratory headlines in the Dalmatian media.
From the terrace of the Borak Beach Restaurant, there is a beautiful view of the Golden Horn and another smaller beach, where people were trying to keep a safe distance between the groups of beach chairs and parasols.
“I think we are now at 70% of the tourists who were here last year,” a waiter droned on in good Czech over his face mask. The masks were required for all employees in hospitality, services and shops. For tourists, it was voluntary. In some facilities, locals were wearing them at “half-mast” under their noses, in others, managers were more consistent. In our hotel, it looked a bit like a Muslim country, because from the staff, who usually had mask and hats as well, the eyes alone were clearly visible. Besides them, there was only one Italian family who wore masks all over the time.
Barely Making Means End
As a family in recent years, we have become accustomed to traveling to several European countries during the summer holidays. This is practically impossible due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so for the first time in our family history we chose Croatia, the traditional destination of hundreds of thousands of Czech tourists, a little to the displeasure of children (“Dad, everyone goes there!”). And I hadn’t been there since the war.
Today, Croatia needs tourism, that accounts for about a quarter of gross domestic product. The dry numbers speak for themselves. According to an analysis by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published in early August, Croatia had begun the year well: After two years of stagnation and weak growth in 2019, it had made a decent leap ahead of the COVID crisis. Unemployment was 6.9 percent, and at the end of 2019, the government even ran a surplus of 0.9 percent of GDP.
That can all be forgotten now. According to the OECD, the country is facing a recession and a decline of up to nine percent of GDP this year.
But let’s go back to the beach. Croatians do what they can to keep tourists, get the most out of them and at the same time not upset them. This mixes the effort to comply with government regulations with practicalities of doing business, producing some perplexing compromises. For example, in Bol and its surroundings, including the Goldern Horn beach, you can’t pay “contactless” with a card except at large hotels and expensive restaurants. Instead, ATMs are everywhere, with people from dozens of countries hovering around the machines waiting their turns. The beach staff consistently wear masks, but not the guests, as money changes hands. From a layman’s point of view, it resembles an epidemiological time-bomb.
By the way, the equipment rental fees confirm the generally shared view that the Croats have gone price crazy. The rental of one parasol or one deck chair per day is 70 kunas at the Golden Horn, which is about €9.3, which has to be understood against an average monthly wage of € 889, significantly lower than the Czechs €1304, or the Poles at €1130.
“Are these the prices for the week?” a Polish tourist wondered. His friend reassured him. “No, an hour,” he deadpanned, and they both laughed and went off with their families to look for a place outside the parasol and deckchair rental sector. A delicious irony, that people come here for the sun and then spend meaningless sums for protection from it.
Of course, the Croatian government, as elsewhere in Europe didn’t just leave the people to their fate. At the end of May, 37% of all employees were supported with Kurzarbeiter food vouchers, transport and housing supplements. The country also seems to have an able trio of junior ministers in Finance, Economics and Regional Development, who reportedly hope to use the EU recovery funds to transition away from the heavy reliance on tourism. The most fundamental step is to introduce the euro, by 2024. Croatia joined the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM-II), a preliminary to joining the Eurozone, a month ago.
At the same time, 2020 marks the 25th anniversary of Operation Storm, when in 1995, Croatia regained the territory of Krajina, which had been occupied by the Serbian majority since 1991. But the Croats surprised me this year: The national rhetoric was not as strong as I remembered it.
The biggest news associated with the celebrations was that deputy prime minister Boris Milošević, the leader of the Serbian minority party in Croatia, arrived in Knin, the capital of Krajina. It was the first time that a Serb representative had taken part in a Croatian national event – and against the will of Belgrade, which still sees itself as the spokesman for all Serbs in the former Yugoslavia. “It’s not easy for me, but after twenty-five years, we need to stop the hatred,” Milosevic said.
On the beaches of Brač, this anniversary was witnessed by only a few Croatian flags. I was far more nervous about the big party organized by the beach club on the Golden Horn, which brought several hundred people together into what scientists would probably call an “epidemiologically serious situation”.
A Bumpy Ride
Holidays abroad during a pandemic are a slightly different discipline. It requires more detailed planning and constant monitoring of the situation both at home and in the country where you are staying. In tourism-dependent countries like Croatia, vulnerability and uncertainty are much more visible – as well as the unwillingness of some locals and guests to take the situation seriously.
A cursory glance at the Croatian press and several beaches suggests that while Croatians are constantly emphasizing luxury tourism and at least rhetorically targeting the most expensive tourists, the season is being saved by the European middle class, by ordinary Austrians, Slovenes, Germans, Poles and Czechs. Most are satisfied with poorer service (i.e., that smokers have priority over non-smokers everywhere) as long as they have a chance to get to the warm sea.
For this group, there is actually only one place they get top quality service, and that’s on the highways the Croats have built all the way to the south. Yes, they are, as in Hungary, associated with scandals and are subject to high tolls. But they are there, and as in Hungary, they work. This is striking when one drives back across the Czech border from the south, and into a 20-year time warp.
So the end of the holiday is a bumpy ride. And COVID-19 doesn’t do anything to change that.