KOTOR, MONTENEGRO (AFP) – Less than two months after detecting its first infection, Montenegro is the first country in Europe to declare itself coronavirus-free, a success story the tiny country hopes will lure tourists to its dazzling Adriatic coast this summer.
For weeks hotel staff have been raking empty beaches as the pandemic kept away visitors who would normally be arriving by plane, cruise ship and car this time of year.
But finally, there is a sliver of hope after Montenegro announced it no longer has any active cases of COVID-19.
Tourism operators have already seized the opportunity to brand Montenegro as “Europe’s First COVID-19 Free Country” in videos promoting its stunning natural beauty, with beaches snaking along the south and rugged mountains in the north.
In picturesque Kotor, a medieval walled city nestled in a mountain-ringed bay, locals have been spared the virus entirely, with no known cases reported.
While tour agencies are still expecting a tough season, there is hope this sterling health record will soften the blow on an industry that accounts for more than a fifth of GDP and 19 per cent of the workforce.
“Safety is something people are looking at the most,” said Director of the Local Tourism Organisation in Kotor Ana Nives Radovic.
“They now are looking for a destination where people feel safe, respect some rules and where they can be assured that (the host) will not allow anything bad to happen to them,” she added.
Montenegro’s size has certainly been of aid in its fight against the virus: the country is one of the smallest in the world with only about 630,000 people.
Over the past 10 weeks it has recorded around 300 infections and nine deaths from COVID-19.
Since May 5, there have been no new domestic cases.
“Let me take off my mask,” Prime Minister Dusko Markovic said triumphantly on Monday after health authorities announced that all active cases had been cleared.
Borders will now open in early June, officially kicking off the holiday season.
But arrivals will nevertheless fall far below the 2.6 million recorded last year, with forecasts of up to a 70 per cent drop in tourism turnover as well.
To prevent any backsliding on the health front, Montenegro will only allow visitors from countries that have kept coronavirus cases low at under 25 patients per 100,000 people.
That means travellers from top markets such as the hard-hit United Kingdom (UK) and Russia are unlikely to make it this summer, a blow to luxury destinations like Porto Montenegro.
While tourists from the region made up a third of visitors last year, this summer they are expected to be the core clientele.
“It will look very different this summer than it would have looked last year,” said Kai Dieckmann, general manager of Regent Porto Montenegro hotel, whose pristine pools, lawns and beach front have stood eerily empty for weeks.
He noted new hygiene measures would also be in place, such as ‘QR menus’ at restaurants that allow patrons to read the menu on smartphones instead of touching a physical copy.
We will “have to provide additional services to meet the ‘new normal’, whatever that is going to be,” he said.
Up the coast, tourism powerhouse Croatia is also hoping to capitalise on its relatively low virus numbers to salvage the 2020 season.
The Adriatic nation of 4.2 million has capped deaths at around 100 and infections at slightly over 2,000.
With southern European competitors like Spain and Italy struck off many travel lists because of their battles with the virus, Croatia is in a position to pick up some of the share.
“The number of people who will travel will be reduced, but so will be the number of destinations where Europeans visit compared to a ‘normal’ year,” said Krunoslav Kapetanovic, a hotelier from Opatija, a northern coastal resort.
Others hope socially-distanced options like boating holidays, camping, private accommodation and road travel will be a draw to travellers from nearby central
Some 150,000 foreigners, mainly neighbouring Slovenians who own apartments on the coast, have already descended on Croatia since it relaxed restrictions in early May.
Any visitors at all will be welcome in a country where officials predict a 70 per cent drop in tourism revenues.
The walled city of Dubrovnik, a coastal jewel made even more famous by its use as a location for the television series Game of Thrones, is expected to suffer especially hard with curbs on plane and cruise travel.
Locals said the town’s cobbled streets have not been so empty since the 1990s war when its buildings were badly damaged.
All but one reservation for Nikolina Lovric’s two-bedroom apartment have been cancelled.
“We have no expectations. If anything happens it will be a gift,” the 34-year-old told AFP.