July 6, 2020 — Tourists in the Zadar region are exploring the city’s archipelago — at least those who own their own vessels. Meanwhile, the area’s once-bustling excursion business languishes.
The coronavirus pandemic seems a perfect fit for the nautical tourism business: social distancing, isolation and rare contact with other humans are often the biggest draw.
But Zadar’s experience tells a different story: a mixed bag, where the mass-appeal of freely sailing along the coast has remains the domain of the privileged few, while big group tricks are virtually ignored.
Those lucky enough to own their own boats or charter one have taken to exploring the neighboring islands — but never traveling too far south, according to local agencies. Reservations are higher than expected, they add, helped along by discounts of up to 45 percent.
Those who’d otherwise hop aboard a packed excursion boat for a day trip, however, are sticking to land.
Zadar’s five large marinas show a peculiar pattern, according to Selma Čmelik, of Zona Plus: tourists are sticking to Zadar’s island-dense archipelago, rather than take their usual adventure further down south so hotspots like Hvar, Vis and Brač.
Zadar’s five large marinas house 880 vessels owned by about 50 charter firms. The further south you go, the weaker the bookings, Čmelik told Zadarski List.
“Guests arrive by car, and not as usual by plane, and this region of ours is closer to them,” she said.
Most of the charter reservations stayed on companies’ books, rescheduled to either early autumn or next summer, Čmelik added. New inquiries are also coming from Croatian, Slovenian and Austrian guests.
“Although charter companies are not even close to last year’s figures, my prediction is that, if the epidemiological situation does not worsen, August will be at a high percentage of last year’s occupancy,” the charter marketing veteran said. “But the real challenge for these companies will be in the fall, when the next season is traditionally being prepared, plans and price lists are being made, and it will really not be easy to make business decisions.”
The same goes for the excursion business, familiar to nearly all Dalmatian citizens. Booths lining the busy ports in cities like Split and Zadar have gone quiet, with lonely representatives trying to trap the few guests strolling by. It’s not going well.
The sheer drop in foot traffic alone makes the odds of filling a boat — some of which can hold up to 200 passengers — almost impossible.
“The situation is very bad,” Ivan Babić told Zadarski List while cutting a lonely figure at his booth near the town’s bridge. “There are no tourists and I don’t remember it ever being like this. We have sold two tickets in three days.”
“I can’t even make 30 kunas in a day,” he added.
The eight-year excursion tourism veteran is considering quitting.
“We work every day as always from morning to evening and earn nothing. And because of the pandemic, we started working much later than usual, only on June 16. There are days when we don’t earn a single kuna,” said Marija Špralja, adding that when the situation is “normal”, they can earn a decent and even above-average salary.
She has been at the stand by the bridge for years and reveals that she doesn’t know what will happen. She too is thinking of quitting her job.
Foreign owners of vessels docked in Croatia year round have, for the most part, made the trip from their home countries to Croatia, accepting the logistical cost and potential risk of traveling, according to Meri Matešić Sičić from D-Marin, one of the Zadar region’s largest marinas.
“An important change, in terms of falling traffic, applies to charter guests,” she said, noting that the marina itself only offers year-round berths, putting it in a position to monitor how many are actually raising anchor and headed out to sea. “It is also certain that there will be fewer vessels in transit this year.”
The same goes for the excursion boats. Sandro Pristovšek usually gets by distributing flyers and sweet talking passersby into excursions to Kornati or Dugi Otok’s Saharun Beach.
This year, she’s not doing much talking — and the flyers aren’t disappearing as quickly as they used to.
“I haven’t distributed a single flyer in days, let alone sold a ticket,” she said, as the excursion boats remained tucked into a corner of the port instead of gallivanting across the archipelago. “After the tennis tournament and that negative commercial, everything stopped. I don’t know how we will get through the season.”