The potential of Croatia to be one of the elite destinations in Europe, but look a little closer, and some details are missing, one of the most glaring being the ease of luxury transportation around the country, and particularly to the islands.
In 2013, shortly after Croatia's entry into the EU, a Swiss R-44 helicopter arrived at the airfield of Stari Grad on Hvar, with plans to offer luxury transfers to passengers willing to pay. Stari Grad to Dubrovnik Airport and waiting private plan in 50 minutes was one of the transfers we handled in the brief time that the Swiss operation was on Hvar. The business model was good, the pricing reasonable, but they had reckoned without one thing:
Our old friend Croatian bureaucracy.
Promises from the Ministry of Transport for the appropriate licences to land outside of regular airports failed to materialise, and the final straw seemed to be when Split Airport refused to let the helicopter land on a Saturday - the key transfer day - as it claimed it was too busy to handle the arrival of a four-seater helicopter.
And so the helicopter options remained scarce. There was a local company, perhaps still is, although I never heard of it flying after its lone helicopter was involved in a crash a few years ago.
Seaplanes came in 2014, finally connecting some islands with the mainland. Jelsa to Split Airport and downtown Split was a dream. And although European Coastal Airlines has announced it will resume operations shortly after suspending them in October, an ongoing lawsuit against the Croatian Civil Aviation Authority is but one obstacle muddying those waters.
Enter Airways Charter, part of a international company successfully running helicopter and private plane operations in Australia, UK, Spain and Montenegro.
And - from May 1, 2017, if not sooner - from sunny Croatia as well, when the company will have an R-66 helicopter based on Brac.
Ah Brac Airport, the rising star of island tourism. Almost close a few years ago, this year Brac will see direct flights from Brussels, and now with an awaiting helicopter for onward travel. Connected to the world and with the rest of Dalmatia open for speedy transfer.
I spoke to CEO Laura Protat by phone earlier today to get some more concrete information about the company's plans. Here is what I found out.
One Robinson R-66, with payload of 600kg, will be stationed on Brac. It will be able to transport four passengers with luggage. Operations are planned to begin from May 1 until August 31, although they could start sooner, and will obviously continue later if the business is successful.
The company already does transfers from Montenegro to Dubrovnik Airport, which is convenient for guests wanting to transfer to Porto Montenegro. The price of a one-way flight, which takes 15 minutes, is 900 euro. They are working on options to have a helipad option close to the city.
A flight from Tivat to the company base on Brac would take about an hour and cost 1400 euro. International transfers to places like the Stari Grad airfield on Hvar are also possible, although a brief stop on Brac would be necessary to clear customs, but flights such as Dubronik Airport to Stari Grad would be possible.
The company is also planning to offer panorama flights, with a popular one bound to be Bol, Stari Grad, Hvar Town and the Pakleni Islands. A variation from Stari Grad is also planned. These scenic tours will be priced at 450 euro per flights, so a little over 100 euro per person.
It all sounds rather exciting for the luxury end of Croatian tourism for 2017, and it is a story that we will follow closely at TCN. More news shortly.