The sun has shone strongly across the Dubrovnik city walls for well over six weeks now. The month of May should have seen Dubrovnik's tourist season in full swing. But, the streets have been almost empty. One of the most popular city destinations on the Mediterranean, Dubrovnik's unique architecture, history and well-established hospitality has been drawing the travelling elite for over 100 years. In the last two decades, they've been joined by thousands disembarking each day from huge cruise ships. But the city port now lies relatively silent. You can walk the alleyways alone.
Croatia's successful handling of the pandemic has now allowed travel restrictions to be lifted. Over the last two weeks, visitors have started to return. The Croatia that greets them – quiet, calm, unhurried, relaxed and peaceful – is unlike any most past visitors will have known.
In Dubrovnik, like elsewhere, people have spent their time refurbishing premises and at home with family. But now, with the smell of fresh paint still in the air, the restaurant tables are being arranged and the sound of unfamiliar languages can once again be heard on the streets.
As Dubrovnik wakes from its enforced slumber, we interview three of the city's leading industry insiders, each operating in very different aspects of the city's tourist-reliant business sector. They reflect on life under lockdown - a bittersweet gift that's offered pause for thought – and look forward to the return of guests, no matter how many there will be.
Offering several walking tours of the city, Dubrovnik Walks guide visitors to the essential history and hotspots. Want to know every corner of the old town that was used in Game of Thrones? These are the people who will show you. In peak season, they run as many as 15 English language tours a day, several in Spanish and also kayaking tours so you can see the city from a different perspective. A Dubrovnik native, Maris Cosmai Pavičević has run the company since 2006.
How am I? I'm great! Kindergarten is back. Our children are aged 3 and 5. My husband said kindergarten opened at the very last moment, we were on the edge, ha! But, really, it hasn't been that bad at all. Yes, life changed and of course, the city looks very different to normal. You see local children playing football, riding bicycles and congregating on Stradun, in front of the church of St Blaise. You can hear them laughing. It really is quite lovely. The last time I saw that I was myself a child. Usually, they would be inside, avoiding the crowds, playing on the computer or their phones.
We'd been kind of afraid that we were losing the city to tourism. Now we got the city back for ourselves. But it's a bittersweet feeling. Although I'm originally from here, I chose to live in Dubrovnik. I could have chosen somewhere else, like Zagreb, where I lived for six years. But I chose to live here because I love this place so much. I love the job I do. Even when I travel myself, I have to take a walking tour to really get to know a new city. I love giving genuine local recommendations, from the heart.
We're all in tourism, either directly or indirectly. There's always someone in the family who is renting apartments, driving a taxi or boat. It has affected every family. Economically, we are not in a good situation. My son kept asking 'Mummy, buy me this, buy me that' and I had to tell him 'We won't be buying anything until Christmas'. Now he only asks 'When is Christmas?'
The best thing for us, as a family, is that we spent so much time together. We've had to put so much energy into it, get creative, invent new games, use our imagination in order to make it quality time. My older son was actually devastated to hear that kindergarten is reopening. I was really surprised. I thought he would be happy. But he said no, that's he's had the best time ever during the lockdown.
The other day, we all went for a picnic together in the middle of the afternoon. To have done that in the middle of May in any other year would have been impossible. We would have been too busy. I can't even remember the last time I went for a little walk, by myself, on a warm afternoon. We live and breathe tourism from April to October – we don't see our friends, we only work. Winter is when we travel and have our little fun.
I think that if anyone ever complained about tourism here, those complaints will now be silent. This was a real slap in the face to everyone, a wake-up call. It's given us perspective. Nothing good in life comes easy. You have to make sacrifices.
When I parked the car yesterday, I saw a car next to mine with German number plates and I was so surprised. My husband commented he had seen four Germans in the street and I too saw a Czech couple. This is so different. Usually, we wouldn't notice these things. We're very glad of anyone who comes. Usually, it's the flights and cruise ships that connect us. But, these guests probably drove. It took determination for them to choose Dubrovnik in this way. I mean, we're even six hours drive just from Zagreb. Thank you!
I don't even know what to expect from this season if anything. We've received more cancellations than bookings. It's our lowest point in 14 years. But, the flights are returning in June, so we hope things will pick up from August. It's so difficult to predict. Some think the season may last longer in response. I don't know what to think about that. I don't know if people will travel at all or if they will choose Dubrovnik. But, they should. We have had no new cases in Croatia for many days and in Dubrovnik no new cases in many weeks. It is safe here. Prices have dropped too. The best hotels cost less, the city walls have dropped their entrance fee from 200 kuna to 50 kuna. Everyone who does come can expect a uniquely uncongested experience and one of the warmest possible welcomes. Everyone will be so happy to see anyone who visits.
Located at the Ploče Gate, Dubrovnik's Maria Store is a shopping experience that actually matches the 'wow' of experiencing the city. It has catered high-end fashion to Dubrovnik's most-refined guests for 14 years, its Zagreb store joining the portfolio ten years ago. It's one of the few places in Croatia where you can find major international names such as Bottega Veneta, Celine, Valentino and Gucci, all of which are hand-selected by owner, Mrs Marija Obrvan and then laid out in a light, relaxing space designed by Italian architect Marco Bonelli.
There are not so many people here in Dubrovnik right now so it's rather calm and nice. I've been enjoying it very much. Usually, at this time it would be so crowded. This is certainly a different kind of living in Dubrovnik.
I opened Maria Store a year before the global economic crash. That was the best year. The tourists who were coming to Dubrovnik back then were completely different. Fewer people, but the people who came were wealthy enough to not care what they spent. Also, fashion back then was different. There was much less of everything. Shopping internationally was an experience, with exclusive things to buy. If you didn't travel, you just didn't get to see some things. Now, everything is online. Every year since the financial crash, things have slowed down. Last year things had just started to improve, especially in our Zagreb store.
In Dubrovnik, it had been the same. The streets are full, but nobody has time to spend shopping. Some of them have such a short time here. We have huge cruisers which arrive at 7 in the morning and by noon it's time for everyone to get back on the boat. Such visitors get nothing from this kind of experience and Dubrovnik also gets nothing. There wasn't a relaxed atmosphere in the city anymore. Some of the more affluent people still come, but they now prefer to stay away from the city, on the yacht or in the 5-star hotel, just so they can escape all the crowds.
Luckily, we've been hit less hard by this crisis than by the financial crisis. Although Dubrovnik has been on lockdown and the streets have been virtually empty, we've still managed to sell online. As soon as Croatia joined the EU, the people from the Farfetch website came to see me and we made a deal. We've been selling through their online marketplace for 6 or 7 years now and this kept us working over the last months. Our doors were closed to the public, but the staff were working every day, preparing packages for mail order around the world. When this crisis started in Europe, it hadn't yet reached the USA. When Europe began to shut down, the Chinese and Singapore markets were opening up to us, because the crisis there was already ending. I'm thankful we had this online presence. When we first started doing it, I didn't fully understand it all myself, but I recognised that this was the future, especially for young people. So, we put a lot of energy into it. That's paid off now.
Our store in Zagreb was a little damaged in the earthquake. Such a terrible thing to happen to a city already undergoing a crisis. It made people very nervous. I'm thankful that both stores are open again now and the atmosphere is much more optimistic.
I've spent the entire lockdown in Dubrovnik, with my family. I've been really lucky. Usually, I travel a lot. Almost every week I would be on a plane, travelling to buy collections. Staying at home was really good for me, I could relax and I had the opportunity to have quality time with the family. I have a husband and three sons. My eldest son studies in London but he just came back home. The weather has been nice in Dubrovnik so we went walking in the mountains. I cooked for them – I don't always have time to do that. My youngest sons adjusted to the situation very easily. They were constantly online, with friends or at school. I was thinking it would be tough to have to stay at home when you're 14, but they really surprised me. Really calm, really cool.
I think this year is going to be really tough for Dubrovnik because so many people's work is connected to tourism. I really don't know what will happen. Maybe in July and August we will have some guests, but much fewer than usual. But already the old town is now coming back to life. People are once again moving around. There are people in restaurants, everything is being cleaned and prepared. Everyone seems to be positive. It's a totally different atmosphere to March, you could feel the anxiety back then. Now, all that has disappeared.
Proto Fish Restaurant
Sitting in one of Dubrovnik's charming old town alleyways, just off the main thoroughfare of Stradun, Proto Fish Restaurant attracts thousands of visitors each year with their succulent seafood, beautiful setting and faultless reputation. Kosta Vukota is their director.
I'm originally from island Brač. I've been living in Dubrovnik for 11 years. I moved here the year before I got married. I'd actually studied in Dubrovnik 10 years earlier. My wife and I decided to live here and start our family here because Dubrovnik has the best potential for working within the tourism and hospitality industries. She is originally from Dubrovnik. We have two children now. As an islander, my own feelings are that island life really has the best of what Croatia has to offer. But, Dubrovnik is the place for both my wife and me to work on our careers. At the time I came here, Dubrovnik was the pearl of the Adriatic. The tourism season was much longer than anywhere else in Croatia and the development was ambitious in the right way.
Usually, in Proto, we open at the end of February and we close in the middle of December. Two months break. This year we opened as usual, but on March 15 we had to close. At first we thought we would be closed for two weeks, maybe a month. Then we realised just how serious things were. Our plans for the season had to change. The whole restaurant had to be reorganised in order for us to open at all. We are optimistic that we can edge back to normal in 2021. If not, then in 2022.
Our new plan is to open on June 15 and by then we will have all new restrictions in place for how we must operate this year, the number of tables we will permit, the distance between the tables, the new guidelines for staff. The health and safety of our customers is of paramount importance to us.
Pretty much everyone who booked for June and July already cancelled. But, our reservations are still live and we have new bookings for August and September. Some of the earliest bookings of the year – people who were due to visit in May – they delayed their visit until September or October.
New bookings come from a mixture of territories, some domestic, but we have bookings from people who plan to come from the United States. We hope that some of the British tourists will come this year too. A lot of our guests come from Asian countries too. We are optimistic. We are hoping for the best.
Going into lockdown with the family was a jolt at first. But, Croatia has not suffered during this outbreak as bad as some other countries have. Dubrovnik has been relatively unaffected and so has my family. So, we never really felt our own health was threatened.
For the first 20 days or one month, we were almost completely at home. After that, we started going out a little, as a family, but being very careful. We spent a lot of time together. Every lunch and every dinner we sat around the table and ate together. That was a shock for the kids – they know that daddy is usually always working every lunch and every dinner. Mommy is usually in the office each day, as she also works in tourism.
Everybody loved that we could have so much time together. Of course, we are worried, because so much of our income is tied to tourism, but you have to be able to put those worries aside and appreciate what you do have. Having the opportunity to do so many things that we never had time for before, it was a little piece of good luck inside the bad luck. I taught my son how to ride a bicycle without stabilisers.
The start of the lockdown was a little shocking. Everything was so empty. We never see the streets like that here. It was a worrying time. We knew that the virus probably would not affect many of us, but here in Croatia, it is very common to have older generations of your family living in the same house as you – grandparents and so on. So, there was the extra worry of bringing something into the house which might impact the older generations. We were very disciplined with the two-metre distance rule. We recognised that by following the instructions, this was the quickest route back to our usual way of living.
Now that things have started opening up again, nobody is depressed. We are fighters, we know how to survive difficult times. Everyone is happy, optimistic. How can we be depressed? Dubrovnik is the safest place to be right now. It is also beautiful – those who live here and anyone who does come this year will have the time of their lives. We're going to have so much more of the city to enjoy, more space at the beach, more space on the islands, no queues at the museums or to buy ice cream, seats available at the best restaurant in town. You'll finally be able to walk around Dubrovnik at your own pace. It's a once in a lifetime opportunity to be able to experience Dubrovnik in this way.