North Macedonia has opened its borders to tourists from the European Union and other European countries, but measures related to the prevention of COVID-19 discourage visitors from choosing the country as a travel destination.
A key factor has been that some European Union countries, such as Hungary for example, require their citizens returning from North Macedonia to spend two weeks in self-isolation when they get home. Germany asks travelers returning from one of the 130 designated risk countries to undergo mandatory diagnostic tests. These rules vary from country to country, and the European Union has established the Re-Open EU website to be able to follow them all.
The World Health Organization has praised North Macedonia for its high level of transparency in reporting COVID-19 cases. With a population of about two million inhabitants, the country has registered 10,617 confirmed cases since the start of the pandemic, with 480 deaths to date. In recent weeks, the number of new cases has ranged from 100 to 200 a day.
Tour operators bringing foreigners to North Macedonia must abide by regulations against the pandemic, starting with the requirement that buses must provide physical distancing between passengers, with a limit of 50% of occupied seats. Thus, every full tourist bus coming from Poland, for example, must meet an empty local bus just after crossing the border, and half of the passengers must transfer to the local bus to continue the journey. Renting additional vehicles increases the overall price of the plan, making it less attractive to tour operators.
In this way, unlike in previous years, the majority of foreign tourists who visit the main tourist destination of the country – the Ocrida Lake area – will be destined for Albania, which has been much more open to visitors and, like Consequently, this holiday period has a better financial outlook. However, some Europeans who have visited the Albanian coastline go on day trips in the picturesque UNESCO-protected region of North Macedonia, including the Old Town of Ocrida and the beautiful natural sites that surround it.
Daniel Medaroski, Experience Balkan tour guide, explains the current difficulties:
“I work with an incoming agency and as an authorized tourist guide; I haven’t earned any money since New Year. I share these difficulties with about 5,000 people like me who are in this sector. This season is certainly over and we are focusing on 2021, but what shall we do till then? Lately, I have been trying to rent my boat on Lake Ohrid, but the domestic tourists cannot afford it, and I still hope that some individual travelers or smaller groups will come to Ohrid, so that I can be of service to them for touring the area or renting my boat. And I am very much sure that the travelers will remember the beauty of the Ohrid region and will go back to their countries with pleasant memories and revelations of new destinations. ”
I work as a licensed tour guide in a new agency; I haven't earned money since New Years. I share these difficulties with some 5,000 people like me in this sector. This season is definitely over, so we're focusing on 2021, but what will we do until then? Lately I have been trying to charter my boat on Lake Ocrida, but internal tourists can't afford it, and I keep waiting for independent travelers or small groups to come to Ocrida so I can guide them around the area or rent my boat to them. And I am very sure that travelers will remember the beauty of the Ocrida region and that they will return to their countries with good memories and revelations of new destinations.
The country has established protocols for the pandemic to protect visitors and tourism workers. The beaches, most of which are leased by private operators, must offer a physical distance between the beach chairs; bars and restaurants can only seat four people per table, and waiters and other workers must all wear masks and institute other preventive measures.
The Ocrida Lake area features a number of attractions, including some accessible only by boat, such as the so-called “wild beaches” under the cliffs of the Galichica National Park.
Meanwhile, the citizens of North Macedonia face a border closure, except with their neighbors Albania and Serbia. They are not allowed to visit Greece or Montenegro, while to enter Bulgaria or Croatia, where the sea is much further out, they must show negative results in recent PCR tests at the border. In Croatia they must also present proof of their travel reservations.
For this reason, tourist sites are crowded with national visitors, especially on weekends, when cities clear up and lake and mountain resorts are crowded with visitors and garbage (and where one of the local initiatives is to try counteract the dumping of garbage on the beaches of Ocrida through voluntary cleaning actions).
Visitors from the interior of the country often use their own weekend houses or low-budget rented rooms instead of hotels, and therefore bring much less profit. They also buy fewer souvenirs, and are much less interested in guided tours that explain culture and other aspects of national heritage, as most have already enjoyed the sights or feel they know all the information they could get from paid guides.
The real lifeblood of North Macedonia's tourism industry is foreign guests, but there is little chance that they will arrive in droves this year. This is evident in the other tourist destination in the country, the capital, Skopje. Its old town, with a well-preserved Old Ottoman Bazaar, the second largest in the Balkans behind the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, was bursting with tourists in previous years. However, since the start of the pandemic, even after curfews and travel restrictions were lifted, merchants have struggled to make ends meet.
“We have been forced to stop working on Sundays, when it used to be one of our busiest days of the week. We also close much earlier, around 6:00 p.m. or 7:00 p.m., and not at 10:00 p.m., because in the afternoons the bazaar is empty of people “, says Xhemal Bajrami, manager of the Don Giovani restaurant, located in a one of the liveliest streets in Old Skopje.
While 2019 set a record as the most successful year for tourism in North Macedonia, official statistics for May this year indicate several losses for the tourism sector.
Many companies have cash reserves that can only last the summer, that is, until August, and they have been warned that unless they get substantial support, they will have to lay off employees in September.
On July 29, tourist workers demonstrated in Skopje to demand state aid under the slogan “tourism is on respirators”, referring to the final stage of treatment for the COVID-19 disease.
They asked for state subsidies to pay their minimum wages until the end of the year, as well as various forms of exemptions that would prevent the bankruptcy of these companies.
The provisional government, which has run the country since the elections that took place on July 15, offered some subsidies to tourist companies between March and May, and gave citizens with the minimum wage vouchers of 50 euros. However, they have not yet responded to the latest round of requests from representatives of the tourism sector.