Croatia eyes road to recovery

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NEW YORK -- Croatian tourism has not fully recovered from the slump that was brought on by the conflicts among the former Yugoslav republics in the past decade, but hope is on the horizon.

"We cannot repeat the numbers of the prewar period for another two or three years," said Pave Zupan-Ruskovic, Croatia's minister of tourism, referring to Croatia's war of independence from Yugoslavia, which ended in 1995.

"Part of it is hotel capacity," which she said she hopes will grow by 20% and thus return to its prewar size by 2003.

Eight million tourists are expected to visit Croatia this year, of which U.S. arrivals are expected to be 80,000.

That would be an increase from the 50,000 Americans who visited last year but only about 40% of what U.S. arrivals were in the benchmark year of 1989, Zupan-Ruskovic said.

This was the year before the Croatian war of independence and the conflicts that followed.

The privatization of Croatia's hotels began two years ago, and boutique hotels are the dominant trend in hotel redevelopment, Zupan-Ruskovic said.

Investors include Hilton International, which last year signed a joint venture and management agreement to rebuild and operate Dubrovnik's Grand Hotel Imperial, which was built in 1897 and severely damaged during the war, as a five-star hotel with 150 rooms. It is expected to reopen in 2003.

The cost of the project is $20 million of which Hilton's investment is $2 million.

The Imperial is "the oldest and most classical hotel in Dubrovnik," said Nazli Weiss, vice president marketing, North America with Atlas Travel Agency Croatia, Washington.

In addition, the investor group that owns the Four Seasons Hotel in Istanbul, Turkey, bought the Hotel Dubravka in the heart of the old walled city. That property will be converted into a five-star, 17-suite hotel by the summer of 2002.

Another recovering tourism segment is cruises. During the first week of June, the three vessels ported in Dubrovnik brought some 4,500 people, the minister said.

The addition of Croatia by a number of operators should also boost U.S. arrivals, she said.

Blue Heart Tours in Washington added guaranteed departures last year, as did General Tours in Keene, N.H., this year.

Isram, IST Cultural Tours, Kutrubes Travel, Kollander World Travel, Sunnyland Tours and Travcoa also will have Croatia tours in 2002, Weiss said, adding that Lindblad Expeditions' Endeavour will start calling on Croatian ports.

Although U.S. visitors constitute less than 1% of the tourists expected to visit Croatia this year, Zupan-Ruskovic said, "the U.S. is a very important market for us."

Next year, the number of guaranteed departures on the eight-night Dalmation Sunshine escorted tour from Kutrubes Travel will increase from six to eight.

Michael Benz, president of Kollander World Travel, Cleveland, which does about 5% of its business to Croatia, said he's excited about the future of tourism there.

"You think of the attractions of Tuscany or Provence: wine, fine cuisine and relaxation in the countryside, and Croatia has it all, plus the Adriatic Coast. To me, it's just a matter of time before that combination catches on," said Benz.

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