As Croatia's tourism fortunes continue to rise, its airports have also gone from strength to strength. Zagreb's international Franjo Tudman Airport, which began life as a single runway in 1909, has become one of the busiest in the region of central and south-east Europe. March 2017 saw the opening of a new passenger terminal to cope with the increased numbers. Jacques Feron, CEO of airport operator MZLZ (Medunarodna zracna luka Zagreb, or Zagreb International Airport), says traffic results have more than justified the construction costs of over €300 million.
"The airport has recorded a high increase in passenger traffic since the opening, and double-digit growth is expected by the end of this year," says Feron. "By the end of 2017, we expect that Zagreb will, for the first time in its airport history, record three million passengers."
2017 was a bumper year for Croatian ports, both sea and air, with a total of 8.1 million passengers passing through in the first nine months. Franjo Tudman reported a record-breaking 351,532 passengers during the peak summer period in July - 14.5% higher than in 2016. The airport's traffic growth throughout the year was averaging 12.0% by the end of November, and cargo traffic also saw an unprecedented rise in July, with a 47.0% traffic increase year on year.
Feron says the airport's staff and infrastructure have handled the spike smoothly: "More than 80% of passengers said they were satisfied with the service."
The building of the new terminal was Croatia's largest infrastructure project in ten years. Construction was overseen by Viadukt and Bouygues Bâtiment International, with several Croatian companies as subcontractors. Designed by local architect team Velimir Neidhart and Branko Kincl to replace the previous terminal, it's a state-of-the-art, contemporary building that investors hope will become a regional landmark. The design provides 65,000m² of space spread over four levels: two for arrivals and two for departures. Two asymmetric piers are dedicated to international and domestic flights. With eight boarding bridges and 30 check-in counters, the terminal is designed to deal with traffic of up to five million passengers a year. It has the potential to handle up to eight million, whereas the previous facility had a capacity of only two million. Over 110 new staff members have also been hired, most of which are full-time employees.
The new terminal has attracted a flock of bigger airlines, with eight new routes being introduced this summer. Since 2013, Franjo Tudman has added 11 new airlines and 15 year-round routes. Croatia Airlines, the country's national carrier, has made the most of the tourist bonanza by contributing four of those new routes, connecting to Oslo, Stockholm, Helsinki and Bucharest.
"In addition to the new lines, the number of frequencies and the size of the aircrafts to the existing destinations were increased," says Feron, "including LOT airline flights to Warsaw and Czech Airlines to Prague, but also long-haul flights such as direct flights to Canada by Air Transat and Qatar Airways on a regular flight to Doha."
Feron says he is especially excited by the introduction of Emirates, the wide-body Boeing 777 300ER aircraft of which will bring premium traffic from inbound markets such as Asia and Australia.
"The arrival of Emirates, one of the most prestigious airlines, is a considerable step forward in the operations of our airport. This line makes Zagreb and Croatia more accessible to distant markets, which will have a positive influence on Croatian tourism even after the summer season," he says.
Tourism is a major pillar of the Croatian economy, accounting for roughly 18% of GDP, and there is a national strategy in place to keep the numbers growing. Arrivals have been rising for a decade as Europeans flocked to the holiday islands of the Adriatic and, as Croatia hopes to become part of the Schengen region in 2018 - and currently accepts all visitors with a valid Schengen visa - the ease of entry for passengers from other EU nations has given tourism an extra boost.
As the buzz gets louder, interest from outside Europe is spiking, too. It may be helped along by major TV series and films shooting on location around the Adriatic, raising the profile of Croatia as a destination for fans around the world. Game of Thrones regularly films in Dubrovnik, while blockbuster sequel Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again was shot on the island of Vis. The fast-growing Asian market is now better connected with Zagreb through Middle Eastern carriers, and the Americas are on their way with the arrival of Air Canada Rouge and fellow Canadian carrier Air Transat.
The Croatian tourism authorities' promotional efforts are now centred on inland cities like Zagreb, which sports photogenic historic centres and relatively affordable accommodation. Zagreb has made a name for itself as a city break destination, focusing on culture, food and sightseeing. Parks and museums are the major draws for many visitors, including the quirky but extremely popular Museum of Broken Relationships. With cathedrals, 18th-century architecture and a reputation for being romantic, the city is an attractive destination with wide appeal. In the spirit of things, the construction of the new terminal at Zagreb was marked by renaming the airport - previously named Pleso - in honour of Croatia's first president.
With summer arrivals having surpassed expectations, the country is looking to extract better value out of each visitor in terms of accommodation, food and retail spend while also focusing on increasing off-season growth. The strategy going forward will include cutting down on cruise ship visits to coastal cities to avoid overcrowding. While beaches and islands are highly seasonal destinations, inland cities are attractive throughout the year. The added year-round routes and retail opportunities provided by the new passenger terminal at Zagreb will go some way towards achieving the Croatian Government's goals.
New routes have also been added this winter at Franjo Tudman, including the launch of a new direct Eurowings route to Düsseldorf, which runs three times a week. Croatia Airlines has expanded its summer Lisbon and Barcelona routes into the off-season, with plans to run them until the first week of January. Qatar Airways, meanwhile, will be continuing the four additional frequencies that it introduced over summer 2017, and the airport is rapidly cementing its links with the Middle East.
"Thanks to Emirates, Dubai will also have direct flights to Zagreb in the winter timetable, which will ensure better connectivity for Zagreb and Croatia with major emissive markets in Asia," says Feron.
Moving into next summer, growth at Franjo Tudman shows no signs of slowing with two new carriers already expected to begin operations in the next six months. In June, Air Canada Rouge - the low-cost subsidiary of Air Canada - will introduce direct flights to Toronto four times a week. Aegean Airlines, Greece's largest carrier, is set to fly direct to Athens three times a week beginning in May.
Feron takes it all in his stride as part of the airport's duty to its country. "The arrival of large airlines that have chosen Franjo Tudman to conduct passenger and freight services enables us to brightly look into the future - by developing the airport, we are also helping develop the state economy."