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Banned almost everywhere else in Europe, U.S. tourists are finding their way to Croatia

A group of tourists walk with a local guide on a tour at the Pile area in Dubrovnik, Croatia, on Aug. 15.

DUBRAVKO LENERT/THE WASHINGTON POST

By JELENA SIMAC | Special To The Washington Post | Published: December 10, 2020

The "Pearl of the Adriatic" had waited 28 years for a direct line to America, and when it arrived, it was historic.

Last year, American Airlines began operating three weekly trips between Dubrovnik, Croatia's seaside vacation hub, and Philadelphia, serving travelers from June until September - at which point it added a fourth trip. According to data from the Croatian National Tourist Board, Americans were the second-most numerous guests in Dubrovnik in 2019, with nearly 160,000 arrivals and more than 442,000 overnight stays. It was yet another record-setting year of overall visitors to the city. Plans for this year were even bigger.

"Americans are one of the most desirable guests in Dubrovnik," said Slavica Grkeš, the owner of Dubrovnik-based Dominium Travel, an agency that does frequent business with Americans. "When on vacation, they are always in a good mood: very interested in getting to know the people and culture they are visiting, and willing to pay for a good experience."

The pandemic, and harsh disappointment, materialized in 2020 instead. As American Airlines grounded its Philadelphia-to-Dubrovnik line indefinitely, tourism in the city cratered to a point not seen since the war of the early 1990s. And in a country like Croatia, which draws one-fifth of its gross domestic profit from tourism, such a drop-off is a hard blow.

But Americans, even without a direct flight, have softened it.

"This summer I guided around 20 tours - not a lot, really - but the majority of my guests were Americans," said Tomislav Matana, a longtime Dubrovnik tour guide. "They all had a big will and desire to come to Croatia. And although it was [anything] but simple for them to come to Croatia and Dubrovnik, they all say that it was worth it."

Croatia, which closed itself off early in the spring to keep coronavirus infections low, hit zero reported cases within its borders in May and reopened to visitors from all countries in July, with testing requirements in place. The move made Croatia the only nation in the European Union to accept travelers from the United States.

That continental distinction has not changed, even as Croatia's cases have risen and as it implemented a partial national shutdown last week that included closing bars and restaurants and banning weddings through Christmas.

A largely seasonal location, Dubrovnik expects fewer visitors this time of year anyhow. But the closures have made Americans' warmer-weather spending all the more vital.

According to Matana, most of his American guests in 2020 have been people who had covid-19 and recovered, remote workers or people who couldn't stand to give up traveling. Nikša Klečak, CEO of Croatia's Kompas Rent a Car, has noticed similar trends, plus one more of note: "This time," he said, "the Americans, when they found an alternative way to come to Europe, were not here to spend just a couple of weeks, but rather several months."

Sarah Morlock, a 31-year-old freelance writer and social media manager from Indiana, is one such case. A roaming remote worker, she spent October and November working from Croatia with her partner.

"Dubrovnik has always been on our list of places to visit," Morlock said. "It's a beautiful city, and it has better weather this time of year than many other places in Europe. Personally, when choosing a place to stay and work, I often look for historical cities with decent infrastructure (such as good WiFi), a foodie culture and access to nature. Dubrovnik checks all those boxes ... Plus, we're not a fan of crowds, so the reports of a nearly 'empty' Dubrovnik were quite appealing to us."

Dubrovnik is making a direct effort, in fact, to appeal to "digital nomads" like Morlock.

In February, Dubrovnik Mayor Mato Frankovic greenlit a project to bring ultra-fast broadband Internet to the region. In October, the city held a "Dubrovnik for Digital Nomads" virtual conference, to pitch workers on its initiatives and the virtues of making it their next remote office. And at the beginning of 2021, Croatia is set to introduce a hotly anticipated digital-nomad visa, which will make it the second country in Europe and the fifth in the world to do so.

"Having the support of the local government and local businesses is a huge deal for digital nomads, as it means that the city is accommodating to the needs of long-term visitors," Morlock said. "And that slight shift in attitude made me feel a lot more comfortable choosing this city as a place to stay."

As such, she said she felt safe and relaxed in Dubrovnik - although the pandemic still required unique considerations.

"As digital nomads, I believe it's our duty to act responsibly when choosing destinations during the pandemic," she said. "That means not staying somewhere in crisis and preventing the spread of the virus as much as possible."

Because the rest of the European Union remains closed to American travelers, Croatia has also become an attractive meet-up location for binational couples.
Justin Leung and Katja Lau are among those who have taken advantage. Leung, an American, and Lau, a German national, had met in San Francisco. But after Lau returned to Germany for school, the pandemic complicated plans for a reunion.

"Originally we had planned to meet up in San Francisco again in March and then again in May in Germany, but due to the coronavirus both countries locked down and we canceled our trip," Lau said. "We wanted to wait for things to get under control, but as the lockdown persisted, with no end in sight, and our time apart approached eight months, we decided to find a place that had the coronavirus in check and was welcoming to both Americans and Germans."

Since Leung could work remotely, and Lau was on summer break, they decided to spend a month in Croatia.

"We booked a week in Zagreb, where we flew in, not knowing if Justin would need to quarantine. We then rented a car and toured the country, visiting the national parks, island-hopping and enjoying our time together in relative ease," Lau recalled.

"We wore masks where it was required and were careful in general. Since the rules are not different to the ones in Germany, it was not a big hurdle to stick to the same rules. Overall, visiting Croatia gave us the opportunity to meet up again as a binational couple, which is great."

Even now, as Croatia's shutdown begins and global cases rise, Dubrovnik officials and business owners remain optimistic.

Already preparing for the next tourist season, they are putting their hope in the success of the announced U.S. vaccine candidates - and the enduring appeal of their city.

"Dubrovnik is one of the most interesting destinations in Europe for the American market," said Frankovic, the mayor. "And we can send to our American guests only one message: Dubrovnik is not going anywhere. It is waiting for you."

Three new direct flights from the United States, Frankovic added, are in the works.