I don’t think I have been more wrong about a destination in Croatia than I have been about Dubrovnik. Pre-pandemic, with the VERY notable exception fo the Feast of St Blaise (simply the best time to visit the city in normal years in my opinion – read why here), it was a city I avoided due to the stereotyypes of overtourism, overcruising, and expensive Dubrovnik. All three labels were not without foundation, but I took little time to explore them to find out the reality.
Then came the pandemic, and a Dubrovnik transformed. Overtourism became undertourism, the cruise ships and day trip buses vanished, and one was left with a magnificent city to enjoy without the crowds. As painful as it was for the local economy and its tourism businesses which account for up to 90% of the local economy, could the devastation of COVID-19 be a longer term blessing in disguise?
July, 2020 in Dubrovnik was a joy. Having the entire city almost to myself at the height of summer, it made me wonder if it was possible to reset a destination’s tourism strategy entirely. The Pearl of the Adriatic had certainly gone a little too far with its cruise ship love, and it was accepted before coronavirus that something had to be done. The empty old town might have been devastating to the local economy in the short term, but could it allow the city to breathe and think about a fresh approach?
When I met Dubrovnik Mayor Mato Frankovic for the first time last July to pitch the idea of digital nomad tourism and Dubrovnik as the remote work lifestyle capital of Europe, I was impressed not only at his readiness to embrace new ideas, but also to repivot his city on a path of sustatinable and higher-quality tourism than had been in evidence in the last few years. We got to work on the digital nomad project the next day, and my involvement and interest in the city has been a lot more involved over the last 12 months as a result. It gave me an opportunity to observe the city and its strategies to prepare for tourism in the post-overtourism age. And there was one market where Dubrovnik has been putting some serious effort.
The United States.
It is no secret that American tourists are the highest spenders, the highest tippers, and generally very appreciative of all they experience. Dubrovnik has been a magnet for them for many years, althouth the crowds have been an issue in recent times. What if, rather than chasing every tourist to boast numbers, numbers, numbers, a strategy of attracting high quality guests might yield a much better result for the city and its tourism providers?
The pandemic was kind to Dubrovnik’s desire to engage with the US market, but there was also plenty going on behind the scenes. When ABC News contacted our Total Croatia Travel INFO Viber community about featuring a Mediterranean destination welcoming American tourists, Dubrovnik opened every door it could, and more to the ABC crew. The result? Six prime time reports on how Dubrovnik was welcoming American tourists as the rest of the EU closed its borders, including one on Good Morning America which was watched by 12.5 million people.
(Photo credit Dubrovnik Tourist Board)
ABC was certainly not the only positive media in the important US market. Only last week, Richard Quest embraced Dubrovnik culture ahead of a big feature on Dubrovnik Tourism for CNN’s Quest Means Business show. The relationship with CNN and Mayor Frankovic dates back a few years, and it has been carefully cultivated, leading to the latest broadcast.
Mayor Frankovic managed to get his messages of Americans welcome, sustainable tourism, and no return to the days of overtourism across well.
In March, 2021, a 3-month campaign across 73 US airports showcased a 30-second promotional video of Dubrovnik, reaching an estimated 35 million people. And, at a time when many airlines were downsizing their schedules, Dubrovnik managed to do post-pandemic which it struggled to do since the Homeland War – direct flights from the United States.
The good news just kept on coming. Firstly, United announced that it would be flying directly from Newark to Dubrovnik, starting in July. So strong were early bookings that more rotations have been added, even before the first plane has landed. Soon after, Delta Air Lines announced that they too would put on four flights a week from New York JFK directly into Dubrovnik, from next month.
There is also the possibility of a third carrier to bring addtional American passengers, with Pragusa.One announcing direct Dubrovnik from both JFK and Los Angeles. My latest infromation is that slots in all three airports have been secured, and final approval from the American Department of Transport is pending.
Ana Hrnic, who took up the position of Dubrovnik Tourist Board Director in February 2020, just as the pandemic was about to hit, is clearly pleased with the results of the Dubrovnik strategy:
“Throughout the pandemic, we have made great efforts to promote the city, to maintain the visibility of the destination, with special emphasis on the U.S. market. Our efforts have paid off, 8 direct flights a week with the US are a huge success for Dubrovnik tourism. The American market is the second most represented market in Dubrovnik, right after the UK. This year we expect excellent results from this extremely important market for us, and we hope to see continuous growth in the years ahead.”
There were similarly impressive steps taken locally as well as efforts to bring flights. Last week Dubrovnik hosted ASTA Destination Expo 2021, a conference of U.S. tourism experts over 4 days. This was an excellent opportunity for the Pearl of the Adriatic to showcase its considerable offer to those whose job it is to sell to American tourists.
And spare a thought for that digital nomad concept last July, which is where my reevaluation of Dubrovnik began after my meeting with the mayor. Mayor Frankovic quickly grasped the opportunity, Interest in the Croatian digital nomad permit has been global, with the story being featured on CNN, Forbes, the Washington Post and many others. the strongest interest so far has been from the United States. Dubrovnik was the quickest to react to the opportunity, hosting the first digital nomad conference in Croatia back in October, followed by the world’s first-ever Digtial Nomads-in-Residence program from April 23 to May 23 this year.
The program, which included four American nomads-in-residence, co-created a new strategy for the city’s approach to the digital nomad opportunity, which TCN (a co-organiser of the event) will be exploring in more detail over the summer. If implemented correctly, will bring a new wave of American tourists. Ones who will find that four weeks in the city is just not enough, as our resident nomads concluded when they discovered Dubrovnik Beyond the Walls.
Croatian tourism is often described as tourism which just happens, or accidental tourism. When those planes with the first tourists from New York touch down at Dubrovnik Airport, the process that brought them here was anything but accidental.
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