Croatia's reputation as a travel destination is built on its Adriatic coastlines and rich history. But there is a subset of travellers attracted to the country for a new reason: the relative ease with which binational couples, divided by pandemic travel bans, can reunite there.
After "six months of nightmares trying to meet each other," Israeli Dana Zigdon, 34, was able to reconnect with her Portuguese fiance in Croatia.
"You ask all of the ambassadors to help you, and everyone says no," Zigdon, said over the phone this month from a bar in Zagreb, Croatia's capital. "It feels like over here that there's no virus."
Like countless couples and families around the world, Zigdon and her fiance, Pedro Bourgard, 32, had no inkling of the global crisis they would face when they parted ways in early March. Days before they were set to reconvene that month, the virus grounded international travel and countries shut their borders. Many people wound up stuck wherever they happened to be.
Nearly six months later, many lives revolve around calls with loved ones stranded across continents and divided by time zones. On Facebook pages such as Love Is Not Tourism and Couples Separated by Travel Bans, people share experiences and keep a constant eye out for news of any changes in travel restrictions.
As of early June, Croatia is open to nearly all foreign nationals who have tested negative for the novel coronavirus within 48 hours. Travellers on tourist visas must also provide a basic itinerary. EU citizens can enter the country of 4.2 million residents without any restrictions.
Rendezvous in Croatia are possible because it is part of the European Union but not the Schengen Area, so it is not subject to the same travel restrictions as most other countries on the continent. Croatia has also maintained a relatively low coronavirus count - about 12,600 confirmed infections and 206 related deaths since late February. From March to September, 6.4 million tourists visited Croatia, 40 per cent of arrivals the country saw over the same period last year, according to the Ministry of Tourism and Sports.
Like elsewhere in Europe, virus numbers have begun to creep up. Some European governments have put Croatia on lists of countries to which they no longer recommend travel, or require quarantines for returning travellers.
On Saturday, several thousand people gathered in Zagreb to protest coronavirus-related restrictions, such as mask requirements and limits on public gatherings.
Nearby Turkey and Albania also have become popular meeting spots for separated binational couples, because of relatively relaxed visa and entry rules. From Croatia, some couples have been able to travel on together to the United States or other countries in Europe, depending on the rules in place at their final destination.
Before the pandemic, the Schengen Area effectively abolished internal borders between member states. But since March, in an effort to curb the virus, members have limited travel within the bloc. Visitors from the United States are among those banned from travel for nonessential purposes.
Some governments provide travel exemptions for certain classes of workers or for spouses and family members of citizens.
Rules in many countries that allow married couples to reunite have frustrated Julie Linchant, 31, of Belgium. She was separated from her Canadian boyfriend, who lives between Burkina Faso and Cyprus, from March though late July, when they reunited in Croatia.
"We are in 2020 and we still need to be married to be recognized as essential," she said. "It seems crazy."
Like others interviewed, Linchant and her partner, Christian Poonwah, 39, said they understood the need for travel restrictions to contain the virus. But after going through the system themselves, Linchant said many of the rules were "arbitrary."
"How can they accept business trips and not family reunions?" she asked.
The Love Is Not Tourism campaign, among others, has been making this argument for months, with some success. After Europe partially reopened this summer, campaigners pushed countries to include unmarried couples as part of the "essential" travellers list. More than 10 countries now do so, with Italy the latest to join the list. The European Commission has urged all E.U. member states to expand their criteria.
Still, many lives remained upended. Sanne Broekhuizen, 27, from the Netherlands and her partner, Ian Daavettila, 29, of Wisconsin, had been planning to move to Spain this spring. They last saw each other in March.
"Our goodbye at the airport should have been a more dramatic one, because we weren't going to see each other now for a very long time," Broekhuizen said.
The Netherlands is on the list of countries offering travel exemptions for non-married couples, but only allows partners in for 90 days. They decided to meet in Croatia instead.
Earlier this month, Broekhuizen found herself alone in an Airbnb in Zagreb, after Daavettila's flight from the United States was canceled. Undeterred, he booked another flight - Chicago to Istanbul to Croatia - for Wednesday.
"A lot of people are not married but have been in relationships for years and years." Broekhuizen told The Post by phone as she awaited his arrival. "We all deserve to be with the one that we love."
The Washington Post