Slaven Žabo, CA: Four prerequisites are the solution for extending the tourist season

Interview: Slaven Žabo, director of commercial affairs of Croatia Airlines

Author  Goran Rihelj

27. May 2023.

Announcements and the number of reservations show that a new record tourist season awaits us. 

According to the results achieved during the first four months of this year, system data eVisitor show that in the mentioned period in our country over 2 million arrivals i 5,9 million overnight stays. The above in relation to the same period last year represents a growth of 28 place in arrivals and 17% in overnight stays, i.e. growth from 4% in overnight stays compared to the same period of the record year 2019.

The same is said by other tourist data and research, from Booking-com, Expedia, to the number of reservations of our accommodation and agencies. The summer season in Croatia will always be dominant and very full, but as we know, the strategic challenge of our tourism is to extend the tourist season because we have an extremely high seasonality. The interestingly high seasonality has been the same for years, from 85% of overnight stays in the summer months from 2005 to the present.

Just about the extension of the season, I spoke with The famous frog, director of commercial affairs Croatia Airlines, as well as other topics, such as the potential of domestic lines and other various initiatives and business plans of our national airline.

According to IATA data, international air traffic is returning to pre-pandemic levels, at 88,0% of March 2019 levels according to the latest data, which is a clear sign that the tourism market is recovering steadily. 

Croatia Airlines is also on the road to recovery, as shown by the data for 2022, as well as the growth of passenger revenues and the number of passengers. During the tourist season, Croatia Airlines plans to connect Croatia with a total of 24 international destinations, and the planes will fly on 47 international routes.

In total, more than 17.000 flights are planned, and more than 1,820.000 seats will be offered.

Slaven Žabo, Croatia Airlines: Synergy, a defined tourist product and reason for arrival, and targeted promotion are the solution for extending the tourist season

Slaven Zabo 1
Slaven Žabo, director of commercial affairs of Croatia Airlines

After two years of the impact of the Covid pandemic, the demand for air transport services is growing, and Croatia Airlines has also embarked on the path of recovery, as indicated by the data for 2022 as well as the growth of passenger revenues and the number of passengers.

From the middle of 2022, they gradually began to be eased and abolished all over the world travel restrictions so that airline operations were no longer significantly affected by the pandemic. In such market circumstances, Croatia Airlines achieved a 151,1 million kuna better net result compared to 2021, and at the same time transported 84 percent more passengers compared to 2021, of which the number of passengers on domestic regular flights was higher by 53 percent, and in international regular traffic by 96 percent compared to 2021.

The total flow (expressed by the number of flights) increased by 41 percent, the passenger load factor was higher by 12,2 percentage points, and operating revenues were higher by 87 percent, which is the result of the growth of passenger revenues, which more than doubled higher than in 2021. It should be emphasized that the real financial recovery started in the third quarter of 2022, which was the first positive quarter since the beginning of the crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, and the continuation of such trends is expected in 2023.

The recovery and return of flights to the pre-pandemic level does not mean that the losses in that period have been covered, and on the other hand, the entire industry is greatly comforted by the growth of fixed costs due to the consequences of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, and passengers still expect "cheap" ticket prices. Seems like an impossible mission and a very challenging period for the entire industry? Especially Croatia Airlines, which cannot fight with the lowest price of tickets with global low cost carriers?

In order to restore employment and economic activity supported by the airline industry to pre-crisis levels as soon as possible, governments around the world have made decisions on financial aid and support for airlines, including recapitalization, government loan guarantees, shareholder loans and the like.

This approach contributes to reducing the negative effects of the COVID-19 crisis, due to which airlines lost about 180 billion dollars in 2020 and 2021. Despite the easing of the pandemic, last year airlines faced rising costs, labor shortages, strikes, operational disruptions at many key hubs and growing economic uncertainty, while at the same time increasing jet fuel prices, which make up a significant share of the overall cost structure, caused additional rationalization of operations. 

When it comes to comparing network and low-cost carriers, first of all, it should be said that passengers who travel with network carriers pay a higher ticket price for better service, that is, overall quality. Our ticket includes service on the plane, luggage transportation, free use of the check-in counter, business class lounges, flexibility of the ticket because the change of reservation is free and there is the possibility of refunds, loyalty programs and complementary services.

We fly to the main airports, and in addition, as a network carrier, we provide transfer passengers with transportation from point A through point B to the final destination (point C), which low-cost carriers do not offer. At the same time, we offer the price to the final destination and issue the ticket and check the luggage to the final destination, we offer assistance to passengers in transfers, and in case of loss of connection for the next flight, we guarantee the journey to the destination with as few problems as possible.

Croatia Airlines plays a major role during the tourist season and directly connects Croatia with broadcast markets. What is the schedule of this summer season (planned flights and connections with international flights) and interest from foreign markets according to your information? 

In the summer flight schedule, in accordance with current market demand, we have expanded the network of international destinations and  intensified flights on lines in international and domestic traffic. During this year's tourist season, we plan to connect Croatia with 24 international destinations, i.e. 25 European airports, and the planes will fly on 47 international routes. In total, more than 17.000 flights are planned, and there will be more than 1,820.000 seats on offer, thus contributing to the quality of the Croatian tourist product and the improvement of the transport infrastructure of the Republic of Croatia.

With the introduction of four new seasonal lines, we have offered passengers an even greater choice of trips, we are talking about flights  Split - Skoplje, Split - Oslo, Dubrovnik - Prague and Bol - Munich, and after three years we renewed the regular international line Zagreb - Mostar. 

There is no doubt that civil air traffic continues to recover and that there is an increased interest in coming to Croatia compared to last year, but it is still not possible to assess whether the volume of air traffic will approach the pre-crisis levels of 2019.

Screenshot 2022 10 04 at 13 3
Photo: Airbus A220

By entering the Schengen regime, new "doors" have now been opened for further traffic growth. Is it already visible in the numbers through greater interest from the market and more flights within the EU?

From March 26, the regime of travel without border controls began to apply in air traffic between Croatia and the countries of the Schengen area. Accordingly, Croatia Airlines flights have become domestic flights within Europe, which enables passengers to travel faster and more smoothly to Croatia and from Croatia to countries that are signatories to the Schengen Agreement.

Passengers now have even greater freedom of movement within Europe and we hope that this will further contribute to their decision to choose air transport for their business and private trips. By the way, our flight network this year covers 18 destinations in the Schengen area, and border controls will continue to be applied for flights to/from destinations outside the Schengen area, namely Great Britain, Ireland, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Romania.

During 2023, CA will experience a revival of sorts with the start of procurement of new A220 aircraft. It will certainly give a new impetus to CA, from the brand and image as well as additional opportunities in business? 

The implementation of the adopted Post-Covid strategy of Croatia Airlines will continue in 2023, in  with the goal of better adaptation to future market conditions and ensuring long-term business sustainability. Accordingly, at the beginning of October 2022, a decision was made to begin the fleet renewal process, i.e. the replacement of existing aircraft with a new unified fleet. This, along with greater passenger and employee satisfaction, will also enable process simplification and better monitoring of the company's operational and financial efficiency, while Croatia Airlines will become a more environmentally friendly airline by significantly reducing fuel consumption and CO2 emissions.

In January of this year, we concluded long-term lease agreements (operational lease) for the first six Airbus A220 aircraft, namely four A220-300 aircraft and two A220-100 aircraft, with the company Air Lease Corporation Clover as a lessor. Intensive preparations are underway at all company levels in order to be fully prepared for the arrival of the first aircraft in 2024.

Croatia Airlines has been a recognizable brand for 34 years, and the renewal of the fleet will undoubtedly further strengthen the recognition of the Croatian national carrier in Europe and the world.

Eternal question: How to extend the tourist season? 

CA's initiative through b2b promotion in the synergy of stakeholders at the destination on broadcast markets is precisely one of the answers.

As an example, Croatia Airlines, in cooperation with TZ Istria, TZ Split - Dalmatian County and TZ Split in Zurich, held a joint presentation to Swiss business (B2B) journalists and travel agents. And what immediately turned out to be a complete hit and according to the statements of the partners, immediately bore fruit.

Only in this way, as a whole destination with all partners, can we take a step forward and go step by step to the holy grail - season extension? It is the only way to achieve long-term success for everyone in the chain. Of course, there is no shortcut, but only with a long-term strategy. We know that the lack of air connectivity outside the summer season is a big problem. In this case, CA as our national airline is a key partner.

Although there has been cooperation with destinations and the private sector, both with the opening of new lines and b2b fairs, the new approach to b2b meetings with key international partners has been raised to a new level. In my opinion, that is the right way. 

Croatia airlines Munich Osijek first flight
Photo: Croatia Airlines

As I pointed out, cooperation and putting resources into the CA is unquestionable, but we cannot do it alone. Let's take as an example the new seasonal line Brač - Munich. A great opportunity for the entire island of Brač, the line is open, you are promoting it through your channels, but it cannot be effective if the destination is not included in the promotion.  

You can't break into a market on your own without a destination. On the contrary, they should drag the story, as in the example around the Split Zurich line - without a well-rounded and strategic story, there will be no long-term success?

Synergy, a defined tourist product and reason for arrival, and targeted promotion are the solution for extending the tourist season. It is known that in the winter period, in cooperation with the Croatian Tourist Board, county and local tourist boards, we held joint presentations to travel agents and business journalists throughout Europe, and we were also present at the most important European and Croatian tourist fairs.

We presented a joint product on the most important broadcasting markets and markets where we introduced new seasonal lines this year, and this approach proved to be very successful. It is indisputable that a strategic approach is needed for a quality step forward, and I am convinced that already this season we will witness positive effects, i.e. an increase in the number of guests who will come to Croatian destinations on our planes, especially those on the coast.

I would also like to point out the fact that this year, in order to extend the tourist season, we started many seasonal flights earlier than in 2022 and that we are planning to operate them longer than last year, which is our direct contribution to the extension of the tourist season and the development of tourist capacities. Republic of Croatia. 

There is also an excellent project in cooperation with destinations through the marketing of Dalmatian brunch and Slavonian snack, i.e. Tastes of Slavonia. What are the reactions of travelers, especially international ones, to this kind of approach and something unexpected? Surely it is something totally different in the industry? And that opens up a new market for our domestic local products, both directly through procurement and indirectly through promotion? Can we expect continuation or even new collaborations with some regions?

The reactions are truly positive, especially among foreign passengers who encounter Croatian gastronomy for the first time on our planes. We are glad that the travelers are part of our Tastes of Croatia project, which is based on the promotional project Croatia, Full of flavors (Croatia full of flavors), could enjoy part of the gastronomy of Slavonia and Baranja on all international and domestic flights of Croatia Airlines in the second half of last year.

They were served specially designed meals with characteristic features of Slavonian - Baranja cuisine called Slavonic snack and that gastronomic trip contributed to an even stronger presentation of the gastronomic region of Slavonia and Baranja abroad and within Croatia, and at the same time it was an additional promotion of the gastronomic values ​​of our homeland and a contribution to the quality of the Croatian tourism product as a whole.  

In the meantime, passengers had the opportunity to get to know and taste Zagreb's food, and currently Dalmatian brunch is served on our flights, followed by the flavors of Primorje.

With this project, we confirm our efforts to continuously improve and enrich the quality of service both in the air and on the ground, and to make trips on the planes of the Croatian national airline as pleasant and interesting as possible. We remain persistent in our intention to stand out among other airlines with a different service and distinctive approach, and to encourage passengers to take a new flight with Croatia Airlines.

Dalmatian brunch photo croatia airlines 1
Photo: CA

Find out more information at:

/ / / Dalmatian brunch on Croatia Airlines flights

/ / / Slavonian snack on Croatia Airlines planes

Domestic lines - PSO model 

How satisfied are you with domestic flights? At first glance, it looks like we are well connected, because all the main airports are covered in domestic traffic, but often in practice the flight schedule, especially the return flights, is not exactly aligned with the needs of domestic passengers. How can we better activate domestic flights? Is traffic on domestic lines growing? In your opinion, is it possible and how to activate domestic flights better?

We also have to be aware of the fact that it is a small HR market, so the question of covering costs is even more challenging. Should the state encourage flights more through incentives, so that the price is lower or that there are more rotations? How do you view domestic flights and their potential? 

Croatia Airlines, as a national airline, operates flights of general public interest on the basis of a contract with the Government of the Republic of Croatia, which was concluded after a public tender procedure. The PSO model, which translates as public transport obligation, is defined by European regulations and determines all parameters such as the number of flights on individual lines, the required quality of service, financial conditions for performing a service of general economic interest, and more. 

Domestic flights should first of all be viewed in the context of their importance for the year-round traffic connection of Croatian regions, while ensuring the business of other stakeholders in Croatian civil aviation (airports, suppliers, etc.), which is particularly important in the low season.

The network of domestic flights and weekly frequencies are adapted to certain parts of the season, so during the summer season we operate between 8 Croatian airports  - Zagreb, Dubrovnik, Split, Zadar, Pula, Osijek, Rijeka and Bol on Brač. The network of domestic flights, as well as regional international flights, is set up so that upon arrival at ZL Zagreb, passengers have good connections to our international lines to the most important European hubs from which they can travel to destinations around the world.  

You have a great initiative and desire to better connect Slavonia through Osijek airport. How to better connect the whole of Slavonia and redirect tourist flows towards it? 

The key to everything is synergy, and in this context, the excellent cooperation with the Osijek-Baranja County, the City of Osijek, the Osijek-Baranja County TZ, the City of Osijek TZ and the Osijek Airport should be emphasized. We jointly launched direct flights Osijek - Munich in the winter of 2021, and thanks to the excellent cooperation of all participants in this project, the achieved results and the high-quality market demand for flights, space has been opened for the improvement of the line and it has been agreed that the line will become year-round.

Thus, at the beginning of May 2022, we started year-round air connections between the east of Croatia and the world, and passengers have at their disposal two weekly flights from Osijek to Munich, on Mondays and Fridays. With this joint project, a new and high-quality service was created, which provides direct air connections between the east of Croatia and abroad, and passengers on this line are also offered the possibility of connecting flights from Munich to destinations around the world. 

The same applies to travelers who want to come to Slavonia for private or business reasons, and I hope that in the future, with the expected development and additional promotion of the region's economic and tourist potential, there will be increased interest in traveling to our beautiful Slavonia.

Our national airline, Croatia Airlines, must be a key partner in order to extend the tourist season. Firstly, because it is a national carrier, and secondly, all business processes and the opening of new routes can be agreed more easily with CA, than with foreign airlines that will not take off if the plane is not full and there are not multiple routes involved.

We have everything, as well as the answer to the question: How to extend the tourist season?

The synergy of everyone in the destination, from the City and TZ, hoteliers, agencies and airlines. The second is to define the motive of arrival and to define tourist packages. When we define it as a destination, then we start advertising and communicating the reasons for arrival in the target markets, which are linked to direct airlines.

This is called the strategic development of tourism. 

Author  Goran Rihelj

27. May 2023.