The challenge of wooing tourists back to the Adriatic

The challenge of wooing tourists back to the Adriatic
Maritim opened its second hotel in Albania’s Vlora in April.
By Clare Nuttall in Glasgow May 27, 2021

The tourism-dependent economies of Albania, Croatia and Montenegro are hoping summer 2021 will bring large numbers of visitors back to the sunny shores of the Adriatic. Their challenge will be to convince holidaymakers that a trip won’t put them at risk of catching coronavirus (COVID-19). 

Despite the pandemic, construction of new hotels and resorts has been underway in the region, with several opening their doors for the first time as tourists returned to the region ahead of the Orthodox Easter weekend at the end of April. Other hotel operators used the periods of enforced closure to revamp their facilities. There are also grand plans, in Albania in particular, to invest heavily into airports and other tourist infrastructure. Yet this won’t ensure a strong summer 2021 season unless the region is also safe for travel. 

That’s why the campaigns launched by several national tourist offices in the region have focused on presenting countries as safe destinations. 

In mid May, the Croatian National Tourist Board (CNTB) announced the launch of its campaign "Trust me I’ve been there" to encourage visits during the summer season. The campaign is targeted at 12 key markets mainly from Central Europe, plus France, the UK, the Netherlands and Russia. While it presents targeted content to each market — for example sun, sea and eno-gastronomy to Germans, culture to the French and Dalmatia and the Makarska Riviera to Poles — the overall message is that Croatia is a safe destination. 

The Croatian National Tourist Board's Trust me I’ve been there campaign. Source: CNTB.

"This is a new campaign that is different from all previous ones, i.e. that is personalised and adjusted to the preferences of each individual market. It is with this goal that we decided to create unique messaging, and the main faces of the campaign are satisfied guests who invite their fellow citizens to come to Croatia and shared first-hand information that our country is an ideal and safe destination for summer vacation" said CNTB director Kristjan Stanicic, presenting the campaign. 

Meanwhile, Tourism and Sports Minister Nikolina Brnjac outlined some of the steps taken to allow Croatia to open up for the summer season, including vaccination of workers in the tourism sector and COVID-19 testing points in tourist centres. "We are ready for the season, and additional optimism is provided by the improvement of the epidemiological situation, which we know is crucial for the interest of the guests,” said Brnjac on May 12.

Last year, Croatia was one of the first countries to open up to large-scale tourism, and the sector did much better than originally expected. However, the tourist season came to a sudden end in late summer when there was a sudden hike in cases, many of them linked to social distancing being ignored at tourist destinations.

The situation in Montenegro was even worse, as after declaring itself COVID-free in June, the tiny country experienced a new wave of the virus over the summer. Montenegro suffered the deepest drop in GDP across the emerging Europe region in 2020, with Croatia in second place. 

This year, Podgorica is so keen to entice tourists back that Minister of Health Jelena Borovinic Bojovic and Minister of Economic Development Jakov Milatovic announced on May 19 that all tourists who come down with coronavirus in Montenegro will be provided with free treatment in the local health system, and all tourists will be provided with a free PCR test to take back to their home country. Bojovic urged tourism workers to get vaccinated ahead of the summer season. 

Montenegro launched mass vaccination at the beginning of May, after securing much-expected jabs. The authorities are attempting to reach protective immunity prior to the summer season, hoping to attract more foreign tourists that would push up the economy.

Albania, which mainly received visits from its landlocked neighbours Kosovo and North Macedonia last year, is aiming to attract tourists from further afield in 2021, but its efforts received a setback from negative comments by German Health Minister Jens Spahn prompting a sharp response from Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama. 

Spahn said in an interview with German newspaper BILD that half of the cases in Germany last summer were caused by visits to relatives in Turkey and the Balkans. Speaking to BILD two days later, Rama riposted that he “will not allow Albania to be portrayed as a risky country for vacation travel, there are no figures to prove this”. 

Slovenia, which has 47 km of sea coast, has also announced it is ready to welcome tourists, and the Slovenian Tourist Board (STB) and its partners have stepped up promotional activities to invite foreign visitors to holiday in Slovenia. The crisis allows Slovenia to play to its strengths as a green destination with a focus on healthy outdoor experiences. 

"We will have enough vaccine for everyone by summer. Let's be responsible to ourselves and others, get vaccinated and hold out for a few more weeks. It is time for a normal summer," Prime Minister Janez Jansa tweeted earlier in May. 

Tourists start to return 

As the latest wave of the pandemic eases, restrictions are being lifted. After months of almost no tourist traffic, the first international tourists returned to the region in April. 

Year-on-year change in the number of foreign tourist arrivals, January 2020 - March 2021. Source: national statistics offices.

The Croatian National Tourism Board reported that over 110,000 foreign tourists visited Croatia in April, and a further 23,000 on the first weekend of May, as shown by data from the eVisitor system. 

The tourist board reported that while the largest number of overnight stays were by domestic guests, there were also guests from Slovenia, Poland and Germany. Among the first arrivals in Croatia once it reopened to tourists were a plane load of Russian tourists who arrived on April 26, on the first international flight to touch down at Pula Airport this year. 

The Roman ampitheatre in Pula, Croatia. 

The government announced a further easing of restrictions on May 24 that will allow restaurants to serve clients indoors, while gatherings of up to 100 people are permitted. Croatia reported 323 new coronavirus cases on May 25. As of May 24, more than 1.18mn people had already received at least one dose of vaccine, while 401,566 had received two doses.

Tourists have also returned to Albania, with an estimated 32,000 people arriving from Kosovo on the first weekend in May, the Albanian ambassador to Kosovo Qemal Minxhozi told daily Koha. Albania recently closed its regional COVID-19 hospitals as the number of new cases fell, and there are plans to review restrictions on May 27. 

On May 11, Montenegro’s government decided to lift the curfew and allow intercity travel, which had been banned for weeks due to the high number of new coronavirus cases.

The Slovenian government eased restrictions for the hospitality sector, allowing hotels to reopen on April 26, as the number of new coronavirus cases started to decrease. A further easing allowed large hotels to offer half their rooms to guests starting from May 10. 

Investments continue

Meanwhile, investments into new tourism facilities, and revamps of existing facilities, continued during the pandemic. 

Albania’s Rama, who is about to embark on a third term after winning the April general election, has outlined plans to turn Albania into tourism “champion”. He aims to boost tourism numbers above the 6mn recorded in 2019 with the addition of new international airpots and other infastructure. 

There are plans for a revamp of Tirana International Airport, and a second international airport at Kukes, serving low cost airlines, opened earlier this year. There are plans for additional airports at Vlora, Saranda and possibly other cities, as well as to build a marina at the port of Durres. 

As Albania’s tourism offering develops, several new hotels have been announced. German Maritim opened its second hotel in Albania’s Vlora in April. Maritim noted that the franchise was signed in 2020 but only opened in May 2021 due to the travel restrictions imposed during the pandemic.

Peter Wennel, chief operating officer of HMS Hotel Management Services International GmbH, responsible for the international expansion of the Maritim Hotels group, said he sees “huge potential in the emerging region on the west coast of southern Albania”, noting in particular the plans for an airport to serve the city of Vlora. 

The beach at Maritim's new hotel in Vlora, southern Albania. 

Among Radisson Hotel Group’s 16 additions to its portfolio in Q1 were the opening of a new hotel in Albania and the addition of Albania’s first Radisson Collection property in Tirana. 

Hilton announced the signing of a management agreement to open the 174-room Hilton Tirana in February, together with local Kastrati Residences Ltd. This will be the first hotel under the Hilton brand to open in Albania, after the Hilton Garden Inn Tirana opened in 2018. “Tirana is undergoing a transformation into a thriving metropolis, and we see great potential in this rapidly developing city. Albania saw visitor numbers increase by more than 70% between 2014 and 2019,” commented Patrick Fitzgibbon, senior vice-president, development, EMEA, Hilton. 

In Croatia, Zagreb Stock Exchange-listed Valamar Riviera announced in April the reconstruction and renovation of Valamar Meteor Hotel 4* in Makarska with a HRK85mn (€11.3mn) investment that included the construction of a new outdoor pool, and the revamp of the existing pools and wellness centre. The opening of a hotel on Hvar under the new Valamar lifestyle brand [PLACES], aimed at younger travellers, is also anticipated this spring. 

Valamar reported in February that it maintained employment and business stability in 2020, during which it hosted almost 300,000 guests and no cases of coronavirus transmission were recorded in Valamar properties. 

PPHE Hotel Group said in April that it is continuing on schedule with the repositioning programme of Hotel Brioni in Pula but the group is “closely monitoring the market conditions before it commits to an appropriate launch and opening date”. 

Bluesun opened its first hotel on the Makarska Riviera at Brela last month, while five-star golf resort Kempinski Hotel Adriatic added new luxury private villas before its reopening in late April. 

The Kerzner International Group opened its first resort under the One&Only luxury brand at Portonovi, Montenegro on May 1. The resort is at the entrance of the Boka Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Shortly afterwards, luxury lifestyle and hospitality brand Nikki Beach announced the opening of Nikki Beach Montenegro, its fifth resort location and thirteenth beach club property, close to the Porto Montenegro resort. 

The One&Only luxury resort at Portonovi, Montenegro.