When the Covid-19 pandemic first hit Europe last year, no country was truly ready.
Amid lockdowns, curfews, businesses shutting down, the economic damage was felt across the continent. The tourism sector, reliant on the freedom of movement and on the hospitality sector being able to operate, was hit especially hard.
In Croatia, a country where tourism contributes significantly to GDP (18.9 per cent according to a 2018 estimate by the OECD), foreign tourist arrivals fell by 68 per cent in 2020. Montenegro, another popular tourist destination (and a country where the tourist sector accounts for nearly a quarter of GDP) in South East Europe fared even worse with an estimated 83 per cent reduction in foreign arrivals.
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This year, countries in the region are trying to ensure that they are better prepared for the upcoming tourist season. Being seen as a safe destination is a priority, and in doing so they hope to attract more visitors than in 2020.
Meanwhile, the European Commission has unveiled plans for a Digital Green Certificate, a proof of vaccination or negative test result or Covid-19 recovery, that would allow for free movement within the EU and the European Economic Area. EU officials are planning to roll-out the certificate before the summer tourist season begins, which might be good news for Croatia and Bulgaria who are EU members.
In Croatia, State Secretary for Europe Andreja Metelko-Zgombić hs expressed hope that the Digital Green Certificate could be in operation by June.
‘Stay Safe in Croatia’
The country’s Ministry of Tourism and Sport meanwhile has launched a “Stay Safe in Croatia” initiative as part of the World Travel and Tourism Council’s “Safe Travel” label.
Tourism stakeholders such as air carriers, airports, stations, nautical ports and marinas can register with the system as proof that they are following all necessary epidemiological safety measures recommended by the Croatian Institute of Public Health.
According to data available by March 26, around 6,500 travel stakeholders have already requested to be registered in the system, with many already being confirmed with the “Stay Safe” label.
Inspectors from the ministry will conduct random and unannounced checks for compliance.
Veljko Ostojić, a former tourism minister and director of the Croatian Tourism Association told the press at the beginning of March that the epidemiological situation will be the key for a successful year.
“The only situation where nobody can hurt us [tourism in Croatia] is we’re epidemiologically in the green. This must be the main goal, and all the other promotional activities need to be forgotten and put on the back burner,” he said.
When it comes to travel restrictions, the Croatian Ministry of Tourism and Sports has said that people entering Croatia will have to supply a negative PCR test result no older than 48 hours, confirmation that they’ve recovered from Covid-19 within the last three months, or confirmation that a minimum of 14 days have passed since they received the second dose of a vaccine.
The ministry has also asked for priority jabs to be given to tourism sector workers in May, when the new doses are expected to arrive.
In the region of Istria, which is traditionally visited by tourists from Germany and Central Europe, Denis Ivošević, the director of the Istrian Tourism Board, hopes that the region will maintain its current good epidemiological situation.
“In May we have the Pentecost and other holidays in Austria and Germany that are very important for us. That’s why the primary goal is to stay epidemiologically positive so we can communicate that we’re a ‘safe and sound’ destination,” he says.
In Montenegro, there is currently a curfew from 9pm to 5am, although certain measures differ from city to city based on the local epidemiological conditions.
Just like Croatia, Montenegro hopes to be communicate that they’re a safe travel destination ahead of the summer tourist season. In both countries, tourism is highly seasonal, which means that the summer months see the lion’s share of overnight stays and therefore profits.
In February, the country’s new foreign minister Đorđe Radulović criticised the previous year’s coronavirus measures as being too restrictive. Back in March 2020, Montenegro shut down its borders. By May the country had zero Covid-19 cases, but saw a strong surge in November, becoming – at the time – the second-worst hit country in Europe.
The country continued to ask for a negative PCR test until January 2021, when the new government lifted those requirements, becoming one of the rare countries to allow unrestricted travel during the pandemic.
In March 2021, Montenegro again started asking for PCR tests. Meanwhile, the government has begun with measures aimed at helping the struggling tourism sector. They include travel vouchers for doctors and teachers valued at a total of 5.5 million euros. Under the aid package, those in the tourism sector can apply for a subsidy on the reprogramming of credit, a measure aimed at increasing liquidity in the sector.
However, on the ground, those in tourist trade seem unsatisfied. The liquidation of Montenegro Airlines, and the new government cutting the Tourism Ministry didn’t seem to help.
Owners of rental properties have cited a lack of information and ambiguity around the current pandemic containment measures as issues they are facing.
“They [potential tourists] say they are not finding in our websites enough information on the strategy of immunisation and the ways the tourists can enter the country,” said Zorka Raičević, the director of the East West Voyage tourism agency.
The president of the parliamentary group for tourism Dragan Krapović said at the beginning of March that the health situation is the priority and therefore there hasn’t been adequate preparation of the tourist season.
“The Ministry of Economic Development and the Ministry of Health should closely collaborate to get the epidemic in order by June, and that’s priority number one,” he said. “I am cautiously optimistic we’ll see the light at the end of the tunnel this year.”
For the 2021 tourism season, which in Bulgaria officially kicks off on May 1, the country’s Ministry of Tourism has decided to issue a list of measures that will apply to the tourism sector during the entire season. The fourteen-page document was released on March 15, and includes such measures as distancing rules for beaches and a mask mandate to be observed in all indoor areas.
“The goal is for all tourist places to introduce the same practices to ensure the health and safety of tourists and for Bulgaria to defend its status as a healthy and safe destination,” the ministry said.
Like Montenegro, Albania seems to be relying on vaccination as a means to ensure a safe tourism season. Vaccination started in the country in January, but was slow until mid-March when doses of the Chinese-developed Sinopharm vaccine finally arrived from Turkey. So far, around 65,000 people have been jabbed in Albania — the elderly, healthcare staff and schoolteachers.
A further 500,000 doses of the Chinese Sinovac vaccine are slated to be delivered within the next two months. Whether or not the doses will be enough to ensure a healthy tourist season – in every sense of the word – remains to be seen.
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