For many cities, tourism is one, if not the main economic sector creating jobs and bringing about development. Over 700 million tourists travel all over Europe every year, accounting for 38 million jobs in 2019 alone and a bit over 5.6% of the region’s GDP, making Europe the global leader in international tourism.
With the pandemic, lockdowns, travel bans or restrictions, however, many European countries and cities ended up seeing a major economic source dry up and having to adapt to the ‘new times’ to try to save businesses and avoid the steep loss of jobs and income. In 2020, 35 million people had jobs linked to the tourism sector, a noticeable decrease.
It was not an easy task to survive the past two years, and many cities are still suffering from the consequences of the pandemic (which is not over but seems to be under control), while others are precisely using tourism to reactivate and recover their economies.
Zagreb was hit hard, but plans for the future
In Croatia, where tourism represents 18% of the country’s GDP, the City of Zagreb had to find new and innovative ways to help such an important sector.
“After enjoying strong and robust annual growth for almost a decade, took a substantial hit in 2020 as tourist arrivals had declined by 76% and overnight stays for 70% in comparison to the exceptionally successful 2019, explains Mladen Kovačević, Expert Advisor at the City of Zagreb’s Tourism Department.
He goes on to say that “in 2021 we witnessed a certain upward trajectory, but still well-off pre-pandemic level of arrivals and overnight stays that, in comparison to 2019 declined for 56%.”
To put data into perspective and to show what difficult road lays ahead, Kovačević stresses that “between 2014 and 2019 Zagreb tourism tourist arrivals and overnight stays had enjoyed steady increase totalling almost 11% annually on average.”
Pre-Covid Zagreb was booming with tourists, with strong development of hospitality and flourishing event industry, but both suffered a significant hit. Also, aside from the pandemic, Zagreb was hit by a devastating earthquake in March 2020 that, says Kovačević, “damaged many buildings in the historic centre including hotels, apartments, bars, restaurants, theatres, museums and public buildings that had a significant impact for the tourist industry, as it is mostly concentrated in the city centre.”
However, Kovačević, is optimistic. “We have reasons to be positive regarding the near future, as it seems that the worst effects of the pandemic are behind us.”
However, the city is not just waiting for better times and the complete reopening of the service sector.
During the pandemic, with air travel severely limited, Zagreb Tourist Board, in cooperation with Zagreb County Tourist Board and Krapina-Zagorje Tourist Board, “has introduced the campaign ‘Blizu grada, blizu srca’ (‘Around Zagreb’) with the aim of encouraging visitors from neighbouring countries, who are only a car drive away, to experience and enjoy beauties of Zagreb and the wider region,” he explains.
In January 2022, Zagreb City Administration launched the ‘Smart City Zagreb platform’ that, he explains, “serves as a hub for projects, city news and apps. Some of the projects currently in development aim at the improvement of public transport, traffic management, cycling and pedestrian infrastructure and the construction of new electric car charging points that are by most tourists recognized as primary weak points during their stay in Zagreb.
In addition to city projects, there was a strong push from the local business and hospitality industry to adjust to health measures introduced to limit the effects of the pandemic and to find adequate solutions in order to continue doing business in the new circumstances.
In addition to the European-wide relaxation of measures that led to the resumption of air travel, the event industry is currently experiencing a period of rejuvenation with an ever-increasing number of events being scheduled for 2022 and 2023 such as major exhibitions, numerous concerts, exhibitions, festivals and fairs.”
Ostend never stopped investing in tourism
In Belgium, the coastal city of Ostend is also recovering from the pandemic. Even though tourism impacts just a bit over 1.9% of Belgium’s GDP, for Ostend, tourism is of the utmost importance.
“We are a city by the sea, it’s our biggest attraction, so tourism is quite important. We have a lot of hotels, and restaurants, so a lot of people are living directly or indirectly from tourism. Is one of the biggest economic players for the city, a non-removable player, is stable. We are not a big city, so we really need tourists to be economically relevant,” explains Pieter Hens, Marketing Manager at Toerisme Oostende, a Department of the City of Ostend.
Like many cities all over Europe, during the pandemic, there were periods of lockdown, “when hotels and restaurants closed and numbers weren’t good,” says Hens, adding that, however, “we had the advantage that when people could travel, it was inside Belgium and a lot came here.”
He notes that “70-80% of our tourists are already from Belgium, so it was easier for us to attract those people as our market is focused on Belgium.”
During the pandemic, the city offered support to local businesses. During the lockdown, “restaurants that had to move for takeaway were assisted with campaigns with the public – videos, content, chefs cooking at home, etc.
When the restaurants could open, we did a big campaign to welcome people again with restaurants and hotels sharing videos with welcome messages,” says Hens.
He notes that the city “never completely closed down, we kept talking to people online, doing social media and once people were able to come back again things were smooth. We worked a lot during covid on how people could travel safely with alerts on beaches so they know when they won’t be too crowded. We attracted delivery companies to Ostend during covid to help restaurants.
We had a reservation system to book a place on the beach and every zone had a maximum capacity (for free), other people could walk in up to the beach’s capacity sharing the burden among several beaches. Dividing people, spreading over the whole city (beaches). Through the city’s website. We created walking routes for people to go to places outside the city as well, to know new places.”
Now, he explains, “we are not doing big extra campaigns, but rather picking up where we left before.”
Cities all over Europe did their best to cope with the many restrictions on tourism during the pandemic and with the full reopening of the sector, they are now expecting their economies to grow once again. However, it’s not just about restarting tourism the way it was pre-pandemic. Cities are reflecting on urban tourism as a whole and developing practices to address changing consumer needs. As part of the Cultural Heritage in Action project, some cities started the discussion. Their aim? To strike a balance between economic, social, cultural and environmental needs, including the protection of cultural heritage, and ensuring the mid and long-term sustainability of tourism.
This article is part of a series charting local recovery efforts made by cities all over Europe – cities want #MoreThanRecovery