New Deal Europe Weekly Update on Tourism to the Balkan Region, Week 54

News from the destinations: Croatia

As we announce our 2022 Marketplace and Forum we thought we should take a look at one of the hotspot destinations of our region: Dubrovnik. We explore it over time through the eyes of Ivica Batinić, Operations Manager at Dubrovnik Sati, DMC, to learn how it has changed through tourism and to see what the future holds. Ivica also gives us his views on New Deal Europe, and outlines how attending the marketplace helped his business in these challenging times.

NDE: Ivica, it is our great pleasure and honour to have you as our Blog guest just as we announce the date for NDE 2022, especially as you were with us in all the previous events. You know the travel industry very well, working on all aspects of it in one of the biggest destinations in the region: Dubrovnik. Let’s start by finding out more about you, your company, and your role in the Croatian tourism sector?

IB: The pleasure and honour is on my side, and thank you for the invitation! I usually don’t like to talk about myself, but here you go: I am the co-founder and Managing Director of Dubrovnik Sati DMC but you could say that I have been in the tourism industry since I was born. After all, I was born and grew up in Dubrovnik, with parents who both worked at the biggest hotels in Ex-Yugoslavia. I can remember more days when I was playing in the lobby of Hotel Croatia in Cavtat than days in nursery… and of course, I am not complaining given that it was the most luxurious hotel back then. I started gaining work experience when I was 20, in the largest Croatian agency Atlas, and in 2004 my mother and I founded Dubrovnik Sati DMC & travel. From the very beginning the idea was to create an agency with a personal approach to all projects and with a special focus on group travel. Today, thanks to our hard work, I think we have succeeded.

NDE:. Can you give us your overview of how the last two seasons have been for you, your business and in fact for tourism in Dubrovnik and in Croatia?

IB: I would say that all of us want to forget the last two years, and that goes for us in the south of Croatia too. After a record-breaking 2019, we were preparing for the 2020 season: bookings were up by 20% against 2019, with confirmed groups already in January. News of a new virus and the pandemic were coming in and soon after, at the end of February 2020 we got the first cancellation. Before we knew it, we were at zero reservations. This was when the most difficult period began, both privately and for business, because when you have a family business it is impossible to separate the two. However, we remained active and quickly reoriented ourselves and set to work with individuals. Croatia did ok in 2020 and even gained tourism arrivals, especially thanks to its geographical location. But this was mostly the case from Istria down to Split in central Dalmatia. Everything further south was not as attractive for western guests on self-drive holidays. Dubrovnik and the region are ‘flight-in’ destinations and while tourism was happening in the rest of Croatia, in the far south the hotels remained empty and closed. It may sound odd, coming from somebody depending on tourism, but maybe the streets of the most beautiful city in the Mediterranean deserved to rest. For us, the travel and tourism professionals this was a good time to rethink our next steps.

It may sound odd, coming from somebody depending on tourism, but maybe the streets of the most beautiful city in the Mediterranean deserved to rest.

NDE: That’s interesting Ivica as some of our partners in Croatia have reported even better results in 2021 than in the pre-Covid 2019 season. It appears that Croatia has been comparatively liberal in terms of Covid restrictions, both in 2020 and again in 2021 which I’m sure helped the travel sector a lot. However, this has also brought with it increased numbers of Covid patients and also, sadly, fatalities. How would you assess the way Croatia has dealt with this situation?

IB: Yes I agree, Croatia really had a liberal approach to the pandemic, although we had a lockdown on several occasions, for instance cafes were closed and for the Croats it can’t get worse than that! But if we compare with the other EU countries, we had shorter and easier restrictions. Of course, the fact that tourism makes up more than 20% of the Croatian GDP contributed to the removal of restrictions from the first days of summer 2021 which enabled some kind of tourism activities. As an entrepreneur, I believe that Croatia acted well, provided a short break from the pandemic and gave people the opportunity to work and earn. This is especially important due to the large number of employees in tourism. I would like to emphasise that it was the tourism workers who did everything to coordinate the work for the measures against the pandemic, which was not at all simple. In 2021 the overall situation was completely different: it started late but very quickly tourism was back full scale, and the numbers were really fantastic. On the other hand, I am not an expert on measuring how that decision affected the development of the pandemic, so I really can’t comment on that.

NDE: What has the government done for the travel industry, to help it survive the tough environment we found ourselves in during the last 18 months and what is planned to help you in the future?

IB: If we compare measures and assistance in other EU countries, Croatia has not done much to help the tourism sector. In addition to the minimum job preservation assistance, which was intended for the workers, the companies received minimal assistance, and in some cases, there was actually no support, which is the case with the DMCs and travel agencies. Personally, this part disappointed me a lot, having in mind that DMCs & agencies bring tourists in the pre- and post-season and were the driver of the most profitable part of the entire tourism sector. Honestly, I am not familiar with the measures for the future. I focus on my work, and I want to sustain my business with my own hard work and knowledge, just as I have been doing so far.

NDE: Can we talk about Dubrovnik SATI DMC, your company. You told us already that you are specialised in group travel. Can you tell us how it was back then when you started and what has changed though the years as Croatia has grown in popularity?

IB: Dubrovnik Sati DMC is specialised in group travel to Croatia and the rest of the Balkans. It has changed significantly since our start in 2004, especially in terms of quality of accommodation and the services we have, and also the profile of the guests and their interests have changed throughout the years. Back in 2004 the demand was significantly lower than in our record year 2019, when you could not find accommodation anywhere in Croatia on certain dates. It is interesting to say that now, in times of post-pandemic recovery, we are again witnessing some new trends, and I have to admit, I like these new trends, much more than that madness of 2019. Guests are staying longer, so the destination is enjoyed as a whole, and not just as a rushed stopover. I think I will keep trying to promote this way of holidaying as much as possible.

NDE: So, looking at promotion and current marketing what are your main markets and main products?

IB: As I mentioned earlier, group travel and special interest tours are our core business, but we have been investing a lot of efforts into FIT programmes lately, so we aim to coordinate both these segments. I am happy to say that we are witnessing a trend of group business slowly returning, which fills us with joy. We are aware, that it will not be easy to provide quality services with both the FIT as well as with the group travel, but with some internal reorganisation and flexibility, I am sure that we will be able to successfully cover both products. For the market orientation, Europe has always been, and still remains, our main area, with France and Scandinavia our strongest markets. Now here I have to emphasise, that thanks to New Deal Europe, we have successfully entered the British and American markets, which are also the markets from where we are recording an extremely high interest in Croatia and the Balkans. Over the years we have specialised in the MICE sector as well. We are especially proud of organizing some important programs for music groups all over Croatia. So, as you can see, at Dubrovnik Sati we are a very diverse and multitasking company.

Thanks to New Deal Europe, we have successfully entered the British and American markets, which are also the markets from where we are recording an extremely high interest in Croatia and the Balkans.

NDE: It’s great to hear that we have made a positive difference to you and your company. As you know, New Deal Europe is more than a travel fair. We are also very committed to the promotion and implementation of sustainable and responsible tourism. What is your view on the direction of responsible tourism in your country?

IB: Indeed, NDE is more than a fair. I am personally convinced of that! The promotion of sustainable tourism has become more important than ever, and we are way beyond just a sticker on the company’s website. I see these unfortunate pandemic times as an opportunity for a turnaround and the beginning of a different way of thinking and acting. As a local DMC we want to promote bus travel, because the CO2 levels are significantly lower in comparison to some other popular forms of travel transport. By that I mean, that the best way of traveling is often by guided coach tours, which have the added benefit of local knowledge, and ease of mind. We highlight the importance of local products, especially food and wine. Long before the pandemic, Dubrovnik Sati launched the agriculture tour project, which was conceived as a professional trip for foreign farmers to get to know the work and conditions on Croatian farms. This project has turned into a trip where we increasingly have classic guests who want to experience new destinations and taste the indigenous organic food that Croatia has in abundance. As a destination, Croatia is working very hard on the implementation of sustainable tourism, which is, for now, especially obvious in Istria and continental destinations.

NDE: Dubrovnik is often cited as one of the hotspots of over tourism, especially in the years before Covid. Do you think things will change now?

IB: As a DMC specialised in group travel as well as in cultural tours, we were always directly affected by this trend. Imagine that you have a group that stays four or more days in Dubrovnik to explore and get to know all the beauties of the city, and due to the endless crowd of daily and cruise tourists, they cannot even enter the old town? There were days when the situation was really alarming. Fortunately, even before the pandemic, the ‘Respect the City‘ project was born, which limited the number of arrivals of large cruises and daily guests. I believe that this project is on the right track, but the question remains whether it will continue after the pandemic when we know that demand will be stronger. I believe that the local authorities will be determined to continue with the ‘Respect the City’ project and thereby provide a true experience for the guest and the local population.

Before the pandemic, the ‘Respect the City’ project was born, which limited the number of arrivals of large cruises and daily guests

NDE: What are you views on limiting the number of visitors to the old city and the number of cruise ships.

IB: Me and my company fully support and agree with that decision. I am aware of the importance of cruise travel in global and national tourism, and certainly that Croatia and its coastal cities must be on the map of major cruise liners. I used to have the feeling that only numbers matter, that landing numbers measure success in tourism, but these numbers can also multiply bad impressions if we cannot dedicate ourselves to guest satisfaction. But we are talking of two sides of the same coin here: Cruising has given us a bad image of an overburdened destination but we must also strive to provide a quality image and a nice memory of the destination. I believe that rational destination management can achieve the balance and harmony that has characterised Dubrovnik for centuries and the very reason it is has always been one of the most beautiful destinations in the Mediterranean.

NDE: Has the word Dubrovnik in your name helped you a lot though the years, or has over tourism made it more of a curse?

IB: in the very beginning it certainly helped us in marketing terms. I am proud to be a resident of this beautiful city and I wanted to highlight this in the name of the agency. Of course, as the company grew and as we profiled ourselves against other destinations, sometimes the name Dubrovnik marginalised us. But with our work we established ourselves as a DMC that provides services far beyond the city borders. So, in short, I am glad to promote Dubrovnik with every mail or post I send out.

NDE: Ivica tell us, given that you provide services beyond the borders of Dubrovnik, what is your favourite tourism product or place to visit. Is there any special area which you promote which you are particularly passionate about?

IB: I’ve never asked myself that question, but now that I think about it, agriculture tours are actually my favourite, and that has turned into my hobby in a way. Eight years ago, a new partner Marcela Laukova, who specialises in agricultural travel, contacted me and asked if I was interested in being the organiser of such programmes in Croatia. I did not know much about agriculture and, to be honest, I wasn’t even interested in that field back then. At one point I even wanted to thank her for the offer and move on with my work. But Marcela was very persistent, and eventually she convinced me. I started researching agricultural producers in Croatia, visited dozens of farms per year and met many new people. Today we bring a lot of groups to local farms, and farms in the least developed tourist areas. I am always pleased to see how the guest is treated in these destinations: this is what I call true hospitality, which in some other parts of Croatia doesn’t come naturally, and staff need to be trained to deliver it.

NDE: You have already mentioned how the NDE events helped you find new partners, and I know that you even came to the UK in October to co-exhibit with one of them, our good friends, ‘Simply Groups’, at a travel trade fair. Can you tell us more about how this came about and the results you achieved together?

IB: Indeed, NDE has helped us enter the UK market among others, but the UK was particularly interesting to me, and I had an appointment with Simply Groups. The virtual meeting was great from the start. Shauna, the owner of Simply Groups, and I understood each other very well and had similar views on the job. It was so interesting that we arranged a follow up call, and so the business cooperation started… Shauna mentioned to me that face-to-face fairs were happening again and that she will be exhibiting at a specialised fair only for group travel in Milton Keynes. I had tried to visit that fair before, but it was never opened to foreign exhibitors. Once Shauna realised I was interested, she invited me to be part of her booth to promote Croatia and the Balkans. The whole experience was great, as we managed to enter the UK market in the best possible way. And all of that wouldn’t be possible without New Deal Europe. Thank you for this opportunity.

NDE: I’m delighted that we were able to help as this is what we are all about — generating new business to the region. Can we say that you are one of New Deal Europe’s loyal partners, having been with us from the very beginning — in March 2020 when we had to postpone our 2020 ‘live’ event in London? You stayed with us and joined our first virtual event in October 2020, and came to our 2021 global marketplace too. What are your views on New Deal Europe and what are your expectations for the future events?

IB: I’ve been a big New Deal Europe fan since the first event. From the first e-mail where I talked about the conditions and details, I had the impression that this is not one of those organisations that are only aimed at selling as many places as possible, but that NDE is aimed at promoting this part of Europe in particular. The fact that the focus is on specific destinations is also an important factor for participation. At both events I had the opportunity to meet executives in extremely renowned travel companies. This is something I never had in other fairs and believe me I was at a lot of virtual events. I have high expectations for you to continue in that direction, because it is not the quantity of meetings that matters, but the quality, and that is where you stand out.

NDE: Maybe we should finish with what is your message Ivica to the suppliers from Croatia and the broader Balkans planning to attend NDE22, and do you have a message for our international buyers too?

IB: I would say to suppliers that I would most definitely recommend participating at New Deal Europe Marketplace and Forum in 2022, as they will have a unique opportunity to present their products to decision makers in eminent travel companies. From a marketing point of view, this was one of the better investments for me. I would like to thank the buyers for their willingness and effort in promoting Croatia and the Balkan region.

New Deal Europe is the only travel market platform dedicated to generating business to the Balkan region of Europe, www.newdealeurope.com. Next events: 4 April 2022 in London and 11 April 2022 virtual.

(Questions by Tine Murn, cofounder of New Deal Europe.)

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