Croatia touts dazzling coastline to rescue virus-hit tourism sector
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Croatia is touting boating and camping on its azure 1,800-km Adriatic coastline to woo back visitors and revive its coronavirus-battered tourism sector.
After travel restrictions across the European Union were relaxed earlier this month, foreigners are now slowly returning as tourism operators try to salvage the season.
Boats and tents might be the cure, offering travellers built-in social distancing as they relax on the idyllic picture postcard coast.
"Alone in a bay on your boat, there is no better distancing," said Zeljko Cvetkovic, who owns a boat charter company on the northern island of Krk.
"Camping is similar," he adds.
The two sectors have traditionally accounted for an important but smaller slice of the tourism pie, which accounts for around a fifth of Croatia's GDP.
Its tourism industry is expected to contract by 70 percent due to the pandemic.
This economic pain will be the first challenge of the new government to be elected in on July 5.
As the polls approach, conservative PM Andrej Plenkovic is hoping to capitalise on his government's relative success in combating the virus so far.
With some 107 deaths and nearly 2,500 known infections in a population of 4.2 million, a fragile sense of normality is returning as borders reopen to the main markets, including Austria, Germany and Slovenia.
- Peace and silence -
On the island of Krk, tourism operators like Cvetkovic are finally seeing bookings replace cancellations, sparking hope he can achieve up to half of last year's figures.
After months, the Marina Punat is coming back to life with sailors cleaning their boats and sunbathing on the decks.
Home to some 1,000 islands and islets, Croatia is a dream destination for those looking to island-hop, seek out secluded bays or sail from one restaurant to another to taste fresh seafood.
"Peace and silence," is how Manfred Schwarz, 59, summed up his week on the sea with four other Austrian friends.
"At most places we were alone or there were only a few other boats", his friend Johann Wagner, 61, added.
Some of their initial fears from catching COVID-19 have vanished after seeing the lack of crowds.
The men were also only a six-hour drive from home.
Croatia hopes this proximity of its main markets, accessible by car in a few hours, will be another draw for tourists weary of airline travel.
"Despite initial pessimism ... our expectations are slowly growing," said Renata Marevic, who oversees Marina Punat.
- Back to nature -
Guests are also gradually filling the nearby five-star Krk Premium Camping Resort, which opened in late May.
It is one of the 800 campsites in the country, most of which claim prime real estate on Croatia's beaches.
Many offer visitors various options for their stay, from spaces for tents and camper vans to camping huts or 'glamping' tents for a more high-end experience.
In the Krk resort, reminders of the pandemic are visible but subtle, with signs warning to 'Please keep a distance' at the reception, while tables and sun chairs are arranged to ensure the required 1.5-metre (5 foot) distance.
"We got a recommendation from friends of ours, we looked on the Internet, we tried it and we like it," said Florian Marchl, 30-year-old who came to Krk with his family from Salzburg.
"It's not a problem to keep a distance," he said, as his wife put their two-month baby boy to sleep on the terrace of their luxury bungalow.
Before making a decision the couple researched how Croatia was dealing with the pandemic.
Guests at the campground are offered online check-in, food delivery and a 24/7 health and safety manager ensuring adequate medical services.
The camp, run by leading tourist group Valamar, will also cap capacity at 80 percent for safety reasons.
"The advantage is that we are in nature, guests have their private space," explained camp manager Bruno Bogdanic.
Yet experts warn that keeping the virus under control is key.
After registering only a few or no cases of the disease daily since mid-May, numbers have now started to creep up again.
This week authorities re-imposed 14-day quarantines for visitors from neighbouring Balkan states which have logged rising infections rates.
Any new outbreak of COVID-19 "would be a terrible setback that would throw us back to the beginning" warned Cvetkovic.