The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has had a big influence on tourism. To give perspective and shed some light on the situation, the Renew Europe Group in the European Committee of the Regions (Renew Europe CoR) interviewed its member Ivan Gulam, Mayor of Pirovac (Croatia).
What is the health situation and vaccination campaign currently like in Croatia?
Croatia right now is slowly entering its second vaccination phase. The Health Minister recently said that we are almost at the end of covering older people with chronic conditions. While the current situation is relatively satisfactory, the COVID-19 infections are increasing in Croatia, with 1,369 new infections reported on average each day. We are all afraid now that the plan to vaccinate over 50% of the adult population by the summer will not be achieved.
What decisions have you taken as mayor throughout the pandemic and now as part of the vaccination campaign?
My Municipality of Pirovac has taken a lot of measures since the beginning of the pandemic. Actually, we were one of the first municipalities in Croatia that closed all the cafes and restaurants last spring and we did it a week before the whole country entered the same regime because we noticed that the situation in the neighboring municipality was getting out of hand. At that time, it was a decision that really saved lives of our citizens and prevented possible local hysteria.
After that in the following months we made a lot of decisions where we have cut the local taxes for those who were economically hit by the pandemic. Some of those measures are still in place. Right now, the situation in my municipality is very good and we didn’t have a citizen COVID-19 positive for the last three weeks.
What does the vaccination rate mean for Pirovac? What does the everyday life of your citizens look like today?
Just this morning I had a talk with our local doctor who began vaccinating his patients some month ago and I got the information that in my municipality some 110 people have been vaccinated out of the 650 which have already applied for the vaccination. That is some 5% of the total number of residents. Out of the 110 vaccinated people there have only been two with some minor side effects (both Astra Zeneca) and our local doctor also noticed that in the last two weeks the population above 65 is more and more refusing to take Astra Zeneca’s vaccine. In the long run this could create a problem since Croatia ordered the most vaccines from Astra Zeneca.
People are more and more ready to be vaccinated (more than 70% of my local doctor’s patients) but the problem right now is getting the number of doses; there is currently a huge shortage of vaccine doses – especially the preferred ones like Pfizer.
Economically speaking, the future of a lot of my citizens’ businesses depends on the outcome of this touristic season. Last year we took a hit of some 30%. That outcome was better than expected but the uncertainty for this season remains very high. A possible bad season could also have a huge social and economic impact on the families living here but we hope it won’t come to that.
Can you provide your personal perspective on why it is important to increase the vaccination rate and do it as soon as possible?
First of all, I think that the approach of the state distribution of doses should be changed in a way that the coastal municipalities and cities, which are dependent on tourism, should get more doses due to the fact that in probably a month from now we will also receive a few hundred seasonal workers (mostly from inland) and in that situation the risk of some new corona virus spreading will increase even more before tourists come.
A bad tourism year would not only be a problem for the local economy, but for the state itself because some 18% of the GDP comes from tourism. Croatia needs the VAT that comes from tourism just to avoid big future loans and increase of the public debt since currently the state has no plans to cut the costs elsewhere.
My municipality of Pirovac’s economy is almost fully dedicated to tourism, meaning that during the summer months we grow by six or seven times in terms of total population. So, we grow from some 2000 inhabitants to 12,000-15,000. Before the pandemic in 2019, we had some half a million overnight stays which was a record at that time. The local budget is very dependent on the tourism season and possible bad figures would mean that we would have to cut some investments and social programmes. I believe it won’t come to that.
Would you have personal impressions, as a mayor or real-life stories from Pirovac, that could help readers picture the impact on the ground?
For me it was interesting to experience how some unprecedented crises like this change the way we function as a society, with wearing masks and social distancing but it didn’t change who we really are.
A couple of weeks ago when the restaurants and cafes opened again in Croatia after some four months, it was great to see how people were so happy with those “little things” in life like just a simple coffee or a meal on the terrace with friends and relatives. People talking and laughing like there was never a time of the pandemic…
With the vaccination process on the way I hope that this is the last year before we come back fully to our Mediterranean and European way of life.