Thursday, 23 April 2020

Ahoy! Croatia's Nautical Tourism Biz Seeks Gov. Help for Coronavirus Effect

April 23, 2020 — Days spent in isolation. Socially-distancing through limited, lazy movement. Plenty of staring at the same handful of faces. A mere wave from a safe distance serving as friendly interaction. It sounds a lot like a holiday at sea.

At least that’s what Croatia’s nautical tourism industry hopes as it plots a course towards a “new normal” in the coronavirus era. Several reports show the marina and charter sector of the economy ready for a little shove via government incentives to help it set sail, and a little luck to help it pass stormy seas.

Tourism Minister Gari Cappelli and other officials suggest any restart of the summer season will prioritize activities light on interaction, predisposed to social-distancing, and big on wide-open spaces. Campsites and vacation homes first, with charters and nautical offerings near the top of the list.

Plans are already in the works. Prime Minister Andrej Plenković’s government reportedly will introduce measures targeting catering and tourism: establishing free movement within Croatia; reaching deals with neighbors whose citizens often who drive to the Adriatic coast (provided the epidemic is under control in their countries); then opening restaurants and cafes with terraces; reintroducing camps and private apartments and then various shops and crafts.

The Croatian National Tourist Board Council concluded that, regardless of the current situation, it’ll prepare advertising campaigns for both foreign and local markets. Everything will restart the moment epidemiologists give the green light, it said.

A plan for cash and bureaucratic redefinition

Members of the marine and charter industry advocate several measures which they argue could help nautical tourism survive the pandemic while setting the foundations for long-term growth. First, they want exemption from some portion of concession fees for this year and next, freeing funds for what promises to be a dismal season.

The government will discuss a new set of measures targeting concession prices.

Croatia’s charter fleet of 4,500 vessels is the largest in the world, taking up 26 percent of all marina space in the country.

“The whole fleet is now useless,” Sean Lisjak, president of the Croatian Chamber of Commerce’s Marine Association, reportedly said. “We are justifiably waiting to receive direct incentives from the government and ministries.”

Advocates’ second proposal would let marinas take part in subsidized minimum wages for workers. The industry’s inherent seasonality means it cannot show a decline in revenue, a requirement for such assistance. Most of the staff of about two thousand who work in the marina system are now sitting at home.

The final suggestion would classify marinas as a branch of tourism, ditching the current designation of sports and recreation. Advocates point to a growing trend called “boat & breakfast,” with visitors using boats in place of luxury furnished cottages by the sea, as evidence of marinas’ disassociation from sports.

In the pantheon of Croatian bureaucratic gibberish, the distinction between tourism and sports matters, according to Lisjak. Mainly, one has a dedicated ministry, and the other doesn’t. It leaves the charter and marinas industries homeless, floating between the Ministry of Tourism and Ministry of the Sea and the Ministry of Finance.

Swapping designations would also lower marinas Value Added Tax levies and clear up some administrative headaches.

An Epidemic of Nixed Reservations and Rock-Bottom Prices

The coronavirus pandemic caused cancelations and requests for refunds, Paško Klisović, president of the Association of Providers of Accommodation on Board Vessels, reportedly said. Others are re-scheduling their trips, moving May and June outings to August and September, getting peak summer appointments at off-season prices. Sometimes, it means a 50 percent discount from the usual rate, according to Klisović.

Rock-bottom pricing will dig into revenues, while disinfection protocols may add to costs. The government hasn’t yet added new sanitary regulations, but it may, according to the president of the Association of Croatian Skippers and Yacht Crew Members Vicko Ozretić. Charter companies and skippers can use squeaky-clean boats in their marketing materials, he said. But it’ll also add costs.

Marinas will reopen and function within days of a go-ahead, according to Kristijan Pavić, CEO of ACI, a chain of 22 marinas, the largest in Croatia.

“ACI's marinas are not working, but are not actually closed,” he reportedly said. “It may be a better term to say that they are ’preserved.’”

The chain’s locations are quiet, save for security. The lack of receptionists means boat owners cannot board their vessels, for now. But they can come and view them.

“We are ready to activate the marinas at full capacity,” Pavić added. “A good deal of the work has already been done in the preparation phase of the season. We only need a few days to prepare the marinas for operation in special conditions, in accordance with all the preventive and health measures prescribed.”

Croatia’s oldest Marina, Punat, has pulled back operations but is ready to restart. Workers, mechanics, and electricians still mind the vessels while following all the required procedures, according to Director Renata Marević.

“Despite everything, Marina Punat works,” she said. “As expected, after the measures were announced, we had intense communication with our boat owners. Of course, the most common question is when they will be able to come again and enjoy the boat, navigation, and sea.”

Marević said the government can only do so much, as neighboring countries also have to control the pandemic enough to open their borders.  The marina’s prospects for a salvageable season rest with the epidemiological fates of others. Most of Punat’s guests come from Germany, Austria, Slovenia, and Italy, and until their situations stabilize, none of their citizens will arrive.

She added she hopes the government recognizes the nautical industry as a tourist activity and free up much-needed help.

“Because help will surely be needed,” she said. “The losses will only start to add up.”

Stay at home may not apply

Many nations now encourage citizens to enjoy local vacations within their own countries. The “vacation here, don’t leave” incentives will bite into Croatia’s tourism take this year, as otherwise-generous guests keep their Euros close to home.

The marinas think boaters are a special tourist. Austrians, Germans, Slovenes, and others have been keeping their private vessels docked in Croatian for years. The temptation to widen the definition of “stay at home” to the Adriatic sea may be too strong to resist. 

Or at least Croatia’s marinas hope so. Otherwise, they might sink.

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