ROVINJ – Sun loungers are out, beach bars are open and rave music is pumping. Hotels and restaurants are greeting visitors hoping to get a head start on summer after more than a year of coronavirus lockdowns and travel restrictions.
Croatia has widely reopened its stunning Adriatic coastline for foreign tourists, becoming one of the first European countries to drop most of its pandemic measures. Now, the ability of people to go there depends on each country's travel rules.
The mood is relaxed in the Istria region, the northernmost part of the Croatian coast famous for its pebble beaches, thick pine forests, wine and delicacies such as truffles, olive oil, goat cheese and prosciutto.
Hardy anyone wears masks on the streets or in restaurants in the picturesque town of Rovinj. Still-standing limits on indoor dining and rules requiring a set amount of distance between tables are rarely observed.
“People are fed up with lockdowns,” said Nikola Sandic, a waiter at a seafood restaurant located in a small boat harbor. “They have a glass of wine, watch the sea, and that's all they need.”
Virus cases are dropping in Croatia, and after a slow start to the country's vaccine rollout, inoculations are picking up. Officials predict that some 50% of the population of 4 million will be fully vaccinated by mid-summer.
Croatia, a European Union member and a popular vacation destination on the continent, is letting in tourists from the United States, most of Europe and beyond who hold a vaccination certificate, or proof of a negative test or having recovered from COVID-19. Health officials set those measures weeks before the EU moved Wednesday to soon allow fully vaccinated foreign travelers from countries deemed safe into the 27-nation bloc.
Croatian tourism officials expect a swell of American visitors, who will be spared the hassle of airport transfers when direct New York-Dubrovnik flights start up, expected in July.
Tourism Minister Nikolina Brnjac said her country is applying strict health measures to avoid a repeat of what happened last year, when visitors ignored social distancing on the beaches and in bars, and the tourist season abruptly ended with Croatia facing a surge in coronavirus cases.
The country's some 80,000 tourism workers have priority for getting COVID-19 vaccines, and several PCR testing stations will be installed to make it easier for travelers to obtain results they might need to provide when they return home.
"It is our duty to provide all the prerequisites for a safe and comfortable trip, as well as predictable vacation planning,” she said during a recent webinar on travel safety, “In that sense, Croatia is among the first, if not the first, European destination that already applies broader criteria for tourist visits, the same ones that should soon be applied at the EU.”
Croatia heavily depends on tourism; some 20% of its revenue comes from foreign visitors during the summer. Adriatic resorts like the medieval walled city of Dubrovnik and Rovinj, with its narrow cobble streets and small squares, almost completely depend on tourists.
Goran Pavlovic, manager at the tourist board in the seaside resort of Opatija, said that Croatia is ready but the success of its summer season will largely depend on the regulations in other countries, especially if travelers must quarantine once they go home.
“It will definitively be a challenging year in front of us because of the pandemic situation,” Pavlovic said.
Croatia’s tourism workers are optimistic.
“We finally want to see the smile of the guests without their masks,” said Maja Segon, a receptionist at the Hotel Savoy in Opatija.
Darko Bandic contributed from Pula, Croatia.