Croatia beaches are EU bait

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I live in a country so sure of its appeal that it cant be bothered to found and fund a national tourism board. It can be hard for Americans to appreciate how important travel and tourism are for less developed destinations.

While it may be an industry cliche to say that tourism brings people together -- literally and figuratively -- its rare that it moves geopolitical mountains, either in the U.S. or abroad.

More often, it is the travel trade that is jolted by the tremors of nature, politics and unrest, as in Bali, Sharm el-Sheik, Taba and, most dramatically, lower Manhattan.

But tourism cachet may well prove to be the trump card in the geopolitical hand now being played by scenic, coastal Croatia, former Yugoslav republic and now candidate for European Union membership.

The EU is currently nursing an enlargement hangover, after absorbing 10 new member states last year. It is nonetheless debating a hair of the dog that bit it -- Croatias pending membership bid, along with those of Bulgaria, Romania and darkhorse Turkey.

None is considered a sure thing. All four countries might well find their applications delayed or denied. But pundits make persuasive arguments that Croatia has more of the right stuff than the other three -- democratic credentials, a solidly Western heritage, a vibrant economy and, perhaps most important, great tourism appeal.

Croatias EU bid has been dogged by the alleged reluctance in Zagreb to turn over suspected war criminal Ante Gotovina to the Balkan war-crimes tribunal in the Hague. Accession talks have been stalled since March, despite Croat claims that Gotovina is not in the country and is thus out of their jurisdiction.

Elusive war criminals aside, the smart bet in Brussels is that Croatia may well sneak in under the wire simply because so many Europeans love to vacation on its gorgeous Dalmatian coast. It may sound implausible, even laughable, in certain parts of western Europe, but its music to Croatian ears.

Nena Komarica, director of the Croatian National Tourist Office in New York, is of the opinion that tourism will play a crucial role in Croatias EU negotiations.

Croatia has always been an integral part of Europe, but the EU member countries just dont have beaches like ours yet, she said. The rest of the Mediterranean is beautiful, but the east coast of the Adriatic Sea is really something special.

With increasing numbers of Germans, Britons and Italians  snapping up vacation homes along the coast from Dubrovnik to Pula, the notion of bringing Croatia into the visa-free, tariff-free E.U. family makes sense. Others, such as U.S. tour operator Predrag Krivokapic, president of Fort Lauderdale-based Kompas Tours, arent as sure.

Even though his companys Croatia bookings jumped 400% this year, Krivokapic said, The people who are voting on [expansion] probably know Croatia is a nice area for vacations, but I dont know whether that will affect their decisions or help Croatias bid.

And what of Turkey? Shouldnt its tourism prowess usher it to the head of the line, too? Turkey may be even more popular than Croatia among European travelers -- with 15 times the population, it attracted eight times as many EU visitors last year -- but Croatias a bit closer and competitively priced.

Its also Christian and central European, with a tidy Hapsburg heritage, both of which matter to an ever more jittery EU The same exotic eastern flavor that makes largely Muslim Turkey a huge tourism draw will likely work against its EU bid.

Alex Harris, chairman of General Tours in New York, has long championed Croatia. He is among a growing number of travel industry seers who predict it might move to the top of the EU candidate list. Its very acceptable politically to both Europe and U.S. for Croatia to join the EU, Harris said, describing the coastal country as a candy box full of travel goodies.

Also, Harris states flatly that theres not a country in Europe whose traveling population hasnt visited Croatia in large numbers. All of this is good news in Zagreb, where it is hoped that European vacationers will do the work of Croatias EU accession team for them -- or at least will grease the skids.

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