TPG inside report: What it was like to visit Croatia during the COVID-19 pandemic
On July 3, it was like Christmas for many of us who were hoping to get away. It was the day that the U.K. government announced that we'd be able to travel internationally again, and along with it, a list of countries that we could visit without having to quarantine on return.
I immediately started looking at destinations where I could mix a bit of working remotely and a vacation. Conscious that I might not get to travel again for a while if there were to be a second wave of COVID-19, I wanted to go somewhere that I'd never been before. Croatia jumped out of the list at me -- so I started planning the trip.
As economy flights were pretty expensive, my travel companion and I decided to fly British Airways from Heathrow to Split in Club Europe and use Avios to pay. For accommodation, we opted for Airbnbs.
Here's how my experience was.
Arrival and immigration
Landing in Split (SPU), an airport that serves mainly beach and vacation destinations, in the middle of July and seeing only one other aircraft, was quite a sobering sight. It was both a stark reminder that travel is still very far from normal, but also a bit of a relief that I had come to a destination that was yet to be reinvaded by mass tourism like many parts of Spain.
Ours was the only flight to arrive within the last hour or so, and as I was one of the first people off the plane, there was no line for immigration.
Depending on the country, or even just the particular border control agent who you deal with on a particular day, you never really know what kind of welcome you're going to get. My experience at the Croatian border was one of the better. We were asked for our contact details for track and trace purposes (so we presumed) and instantly received this text from the Croatian government, in Croatian of course.
There were no other questions asked regarding countries previously visited, and no form to fill out. I judged the good-natured, friendly vibe of the staff member and tried my luck with requesting a stamp in my passport. She winked, and went ahead and stamped me.
After just a couple of minutes more, we were politely handed our passports and nodded through into baggage reclaim.
Tourists are definitely back in Croatia, but not at the levels that they once were. Looking back, the winner for the best place to socially distance (other than in our private accommodation) is likely to have been the airport. Have you ever seen such a quiet airport in the middle of summer?
We visited friends at the Elisabeth Palace Hotel in Hvar on a couple of evenings and the outside terrace area, that you might expect to be filled with guests relaxing with a pre- or post-dinner drink, was completely empty each time.
So, if you do want to get away this summer, spending a little more on a higher-end hotel might provide you with a more exclusive, socially distanced break.
Outside in the street, it was a completely different story. The narrow lanes of Hvar were rammed full of bars and restaurants with diners and shot-takers alike spilling out onto the stone-paved walkways, seemingly without a COVID care in the world.
Carpe Diem Beach in Hvar reopened the weekend we arrived. It's a club on a tiny island, reached by a free water taxi shuttle from the main port in Hvar. Thankfully, the entire space is open-air, which likely was part of the reason it was allowed to open. There were also hand sanitizing stations, which seemed a bit pointless given that you could be dancing in very close proximity to fellow partiers from an unknown number of countries.
In terms of day time activities, boat tours of the islands and the Blue and Green Caves are a very popular tourist attraction. It might be worth avoiding for the time being as, judging by this trip that had just returned, COVID-19 safety measures appear to be non-existent.
I was intrigued to see how seriously Croatia was implementing mask-wearing. First impressions were good. Both airport staff and staff onboard the Krilo catamaran from Split to Hvar were all wearing masks, and passengers in the airport and on the boat are required to wear masks at all times. However, many of the staff weren't wearing theirs properly, missing the nose cover.
Related: Will a face mask protect you from viruses while traveling?
That was about as safe as it got.
I found that about 70% of restaurant and bar staff who we came in contact with were wearing masks incorrectly. Some just had their nose peeking out, which is almost understandable given the hot and sweaty environments they're working in, but it's not forgivable in my eyes as this defeats the object of wearing them in the first place.
The worst offenders, and most common sight, was the wait staff who wore their masks around their arms
Masks were also required to be worn in all supermarkets, pharmacies and shops.
Atmosphere in general
During my visit to Hvar and Split, the happy, vacation, almost-entirely carefree atmosphere had me a little too relaxed at times. The lack of real mask-wearing outdoors or at restaurants and bars made for scenes reminiscent of travel in a pre-COVID era.
That said, I always carried my mask and hand sanitizer with me and made sure to be as socially distanced as possible, whenever it was feasible to do so.
Croatia has officially made it into my top five favorite countries -- I had an amazing time and can't wait to go back already. However, is it safe to visit Croatia right now? Without looking into the data about cases, it's not easy to say yes or no. Traveling to Croatia is likely to be just as risky as traveling anywhere abroad right now.
Despite the seemingly relaxed approach that locals and tourists alike were taking to the pandemic, I didn't particularly feel more at risk while I was there than if I was at a pub or a bar here in the U.K. That said, it could only be a matter of time before the country gets hit with a wave of the virus due to an influx of tourists arriving from across the world. And for that reason, you may want to hold off on booking a vacation to the destination.