Croatia is looking for foreign tourism workers
CAME FOR ‘THRONES’ This photo from June 11, 2022 shows the town of Rovinj on the west coast of Croatia’s Istrian peninsula. The Balkan country has risen to prominence in recent years as the main filming location for HBO’s hit series ‘Game of Thrones’. AFP PHOTO
ROVINJ, Croatia: Tourists are flocking to Croatia after the pandemic decimated its vital travel industry, except the Adriatic nation has a problem: it lacks workers to cater to the legions of visitors.
Faced with a chronic shortage of tourism workers, Croatia is recruiting people from neighboring Balkan countries and as far away as Asia, including the Philippines, to fill the void.
It’s a problem that other top tourist destinations in Europe – France, Spain and Greece – have also experienced since the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions.
But it is a problem that Croatia, famous for its idyllic coastline dotted with more than 1,000 islands and islets, has already been grappling with for years and has worsened since the start of the global health crisis.
The tourism industry could be short of 10,000 workers this year, according to official estimates.
“The situation is alarming,” said Stanislav Briskoski, owner of a restaurant in the tourist hotspot of Rovinj on the northern Croatian peninsula of Istria, and head of the guild of caterers and tourism workers in Istria.
Croatia is poised for a tourism rebound: it has already welcomed almost 3 million visitors in the first five months, almost triple the number of last year, which bodes well for the peak summer season in July and August.
The country of 3.8 million people welcomed a record 21 million visitors in 2019.
“The desire to travel is great, tourists will come,” said Veljko Ostojic, head of the Croatian Tourism Association.
Tourism is a major source of revenue for Croatia, accounting for a fifth of its economy.
Ostojic said the industry could break its 2019 record unless the war in Ukraine escalates.
But the sector needs workers.
‘The Opportunity of a Lifetime’
Since Croatia joined the European Union in 2013, more than 250,000 Croats have left the country in search of a better life in Germany, Austria or Ireland.
More recently, the Covid-19 closures forced restaurant and tourism workers to seek jobs in other sectors, where they eventually stayed, with better wages and working hours.
Last year, Croatia lifted quotas for foreign workers coming mainly from its non-EU Balkan neighbors, as well as from Asia.
In June, it issued more than 51,000 work permits for foreigners, mostly in the construction sector, followed by catering and tourism.
It has nearly doubled from the same period in 2021 and some 100,000 permits are expected to be issued this year.
“It’s a unique opportunity to work here in Europe,” James Pepito, gardener at Mon Perin campsite, near Rovinj, told Agence France-Presse (AFP).
The 32-year-old Filipino, who worked in Oman and Qatar before arriving in Croatia two years ago, hopes to stay for another year.
“I have a good experience, that’s why I’m still here in Croatia,” he said, praising the salaries, the weather and the good colleagues.
Pinoy 385, an employment agency for Filipinos, has found jobs for Pepito and some 1,700 others, with another 500 expected to be hired by the end of the year to work as assistant cooks, maids, waiters and bakers.
“We need to realize that the labor shortage is not current, but rather a long-term problem and plan employment accordingly,” said agency owner Stjepan Jagodin.
David Trajanovic, a 21-year-old Serbian waiter at a restaurant in the picturesque town of Bale, near Rovinj, listed the reasons for working in Croatia: “Better pay than at home, fun, summer, sea” .
The big resignation
While foreign workers fill some jobs, tourism industry insiders say efforts should also be made to woo Croatians.
Briskoski, the restaurateur from Rovinj, said the government should promote vocational schools, which have fewer students than in the past, to train young people for skilled jobs, such as chefs.
Croatia, like other countries, also experienced the phenomenon of the “big quit”, in which employees reconsidered their jobs during the pandemic.
Natasa Kacar, who runs an agency for tourism jobs, said young people had a different mindset.
“If their conditions and goals are not met, people quickly change jobs and this also happens in tourism,” she said.
But Kacar said employers should also adapt to the situation by offering better working conditions.
“Whoever gives a decent salary and good conditions has no problem” finding a worker, she stressed.
Marin Medak, who employs 60 people, including nine Filipinos, at his two restaurants in Zagreb, believes overall working conditions are far more important than finances.
“Restaurant workers expect normal working conditions – not too much overtime, normal shifts, not too strenuous work, decent pay,” said Medak, the former head of the National Association of Caterers.