March 21, 2020 – After a long break, TCN is delighted to welcome back one of our most popular writers from the early days – Ivica Profaca, with a new series called Diary of a Split Tour Guide in the Age of Corona.
It was supposed to be a season to remember. the first bookings for 2020 arrived as early as July 2019, and by the end of January, there were some fifty dates marked in my calendar.
And then, it happened. At first it was nothing really serious looking from our part of the world. News about the coronavirus broke in Asia, but most of my fellow guides – including me – were still going like “Oh, there might be some problems, but fortunately I don’t have that many Asian groups”. As news spread, especially with the virus coming much closer to our European neighbourhood, bookings just stopped. It wasn’t like they faded out gradually, but at one point I (and others) realized that it had been some time since we had taken the last reservation. In February, there were still no cancellations, I even had two or three jobs, but e-mails and phones went completely silent. As time went on, silence was broken in a way nobody wanted, but we all expected. Usually, the message would start with “Unfortunately, due to the coronavirus situation, our guests decided to…”, and then there were two possible sentence endings. The first one is relatively better, saying that they decided to postpone their trip, usually to September or October. The second one was “cancel”.
Well, it will still be a season to remember, for different reasons. If it can be called a “season” at all.
By now, it’s clear that tourism as an industry has been put on hold in the whole world, leaving many people – especially those working on their own, as freelancers – without almost any income. Compared to getting sick and even dying, it is a lesser evil. However, the question remains – when the virus finally leaves us alone, what will happen? Will we ever travel on a scale we got used to? There is no answer, just waiting. There is no comfort in that, but it is a global issue. There is nobody to blame, it just happened. You want an example of just how global it is? This year I planned to do something on my travel bucket list, walk the Hadrian’s Wall Path in northern England. I booked it through a small family agency Book My Trail, they did an excellent job sorting the whole itinerary out. Now, in the strange version of a domino effect, if I don’t have my usual quantity this summer, I won’t be able to go there, damaging someone else’s business. I really don’t remember that we were all in the same shoes.
While it still looked like there might be a season, I was preparing for it, like any other guide I know in Split and Dalmatia. Recently, I got a guiding license for Šibenik-Knin county, broadening my market. I have agencies I work with, but I also approached some others, too. With a little help from dear colleagues mediating, contacts and some nice deals were made. Furthermore, I turned even more to online platforms, after AirBnB Experience proved to be a success. In addition to my web site, now I also have tours on Trip Advisor and Viator. I applied to different guiding services, created new products, etc. My whole winter was dedicated to making this year as good as possible.
Everything is now on hold, in some cases literally, and the city looks like a ghost town with everything but food stores closed. For example, AirBnB Experience has stopped all booking until April 3, or until further notice. All flights are cancelled, and the low-cost season is postponed. easyJet, as the biggest operator flying to Split, has grounded their planes even before they even started coming, on March 24. Most cruise companies, like Costa, cancelled their trips, too. Knowing that most of ships come to Split from Venice, it makes sense, and it’s questionable when they will resume their operations, with the current disaster still ongoing in Italy. It’s not connected with the guiding job, but for tourism in Split, especially accommodations, another blow might come with possible cancellation of Ultra Europe. To be honest, knowing how many people arrive for that event – many of them caring about nothing but the party – maybe it would be best if Ultra is cancelled.
So, that’s the current situation. While I’m writing this on March 21, the national crisis headquarters has announced that in the last 24 hours there were more about 80 new cases of COVID-19 in Croatia, and nobody knows where it will stop. This is the moment is to save lives, and to obey orders to contain the virus as much as possible. If it’s possible.
However, the future without coronavirus is coming. How soon? Optimistic versions say sometime from July or August, but it’s impossible to predict. Many guests – especially those coming on small, private tours – have postponed their trips to September or October. Fortunately, that means that my calendar for that part of the year is filling up. There is still a chance that the situation won’t get better until then, but we hope it will. Talking with other guides – it always helps to be in touch with those in the same situation – the usual prediction is that resumption will come at some point, but hardly before August.
Actually, when I think about this situation, there is one thing I can’t imagine what it will look like. What has to happen that someone in charge will be able to say “OK, we’re fine, go fly, drive, sail, travel”? Even when it happens, how long will it pass before people dare to sit on a plane, or board a ferry without holding social distance to everyone else?
In the meantime, besides taking all precautions not to get infected, the economy is collapsing right in front of our eyes. As a freelancer, and small business owner, I might expect some of the measures announced by the Croatian government will apply to guides, and other similar jobs. Those measures are not perfect, but anything might help, when it comes. Right now, looking to the near future, day-to-day survival is the name of the game. Personally, I can still count on some writing and other jobs to fill up the family budget, many others have only guiding as a source of income. If this is prolonged, we will really talk about survival.
(To be continued)
We will be following Ivica Profaca’s journey through the rocky weeks ahead.
If you find yourself in Split, or are planning a post-corona visit, check out his range of tours on his website – families, look out for the kids tour of Diocletian Palace. It will not only entertain your kids while allowing you to absorb this unique UNESCO World Heritage Site, but it will bring out the inner child in you too. Learn more about it here.