Europe editor Dinah A. Spritzer recently traveled to Slovenia
and Croatia with a delegation from the Central and Eastern Europe
Travel Board (CEETB). Her report follows:
DUBROVNIK, Croatia -- You can't keep a good destination down.
Cafes, hotels and shops in this Unesco World Heritage Site were
overflowing with international tourists in May, before the start of
the peak summer season.
The crowds reflect a doubling of May visitors over last year,
when Croatia's tourism industry paid a tough price for the
country's proximity to last spring's Kosovo conflict.
Lodgings in the jewel on the Adriatic, as the city has long been
promoted, have undergone a revolution: A spate recent renovations
included the $15 million remake of the Hotel Excelsior, which
boasts a commanding view of the city's medieval fortifications
jutting out into the sea.
Formerly a behemoth with the dreary brown blankets and carpets
once ubiquitous at Yugoslavian hotels, the Excelsior is now a
bastion of luxury with a Four Seasons-like decor.
Pave Zupan Ruskovic, Croatia's minister of tourism, predicted a
25% arrivals increase over 1999, a forecast by the Croatian
National Tourist Office in New York, for U.S. visitors.
Things are also looking up for Croatia's neighbor, Slovenia.
Daria Gacik, director of the Slovenian Tourist Office in New
York, estimated that U.S. arrivals would be up by 15% to 17% for
2000 over 1999, following a 14% increase last year.
"Not all of the hype about Americans being afraid of traveling
to the former Yugoslavia is true. Last year the Americans who came
to Italy and Austria didn't cut Slovenia out of their plans," she
Bled, a case in point
It would be misleading to look at officials' growth predictions
as the end of a crisis.
Business is still not close to what it was in the late 1980s,
when Yugoslavia was a magnet for European sun seekers and American
A spokeswoman for the pristine resort of Lake Bled said that in
the period of 1985-87, Bled received 8,000 to 10,000 Americans per
year, but only 1,000 U.S. visitors in 1999.
The image of a war-torn Yugoslavia still resonates with most
Americans, according to those promoting the former Yugoslav
This is true even for Slovenia, which was not involved in the
neighboring Bosnian or Croatian conflicts of the early 1990s.
"The biggest obstacle to selling the region is that the public
is still not 100% sure of its safety," said Predrag Krivokapic,
president of the CEETB and Kompas Tours in Fort Lauderdale,
"Slovenians will rightly say that the fighting in Kosovo
occurred two hours away by plane," said Michal Barszap, president
of ITS Tours in College Station, Texas.
"What they don't understand is that sometimes I drive two hours
to go to lunch -- distance means something totally different to
Americans," he said.
Dubrovnik's lodging renaissance is more the exception than the
rule in the former Yugoslavia. Tourism representatives here agreed
that in order to attract more international visitors, they must
invest in their hotels, which in some cases have not been renovated
for more than a decade.
Many properties are boxy monoliths left over from Yugoslavia's
socialist era, when function was given priority over form.
Most hotels in Croatia and Slovenia have not been privatized and
foreign management is non-existent, in contrast to former Eastern
Bloc countries like the Czech Republic and Poland, which have
successfully sought Western investment and expertise for their
Ups and downs in Croatia
In Croatia, "privatization is one of the top priorities," said
Ruskovic. She noted that foundations have been put in place for
privatization over the next two years for the country's 50
state-held tourism companies, of which 90% are hotels.
Ruskovic said she hopes to raise the country's profile and
attract more high-end business.
"We may have to wait another few years to upgrade our facilities
and service before this is achieved," she acknowledged.
Hotel financing problems were exacerbated under the 10-year rule
of president Franco Tudjman, whose death last December paved the
way for democracy and free market reform.
The country's 22% value-added tax, introduced in 1998 as one of
Europe's highest, is another thorn in the hospitality industry's
side, said Ruskovic.
"Hotels are only passing on 5% of the tax to guests for fear
they won't come," she said. The minister will propose a reduction
or elimination of the tax in parliament at the end of the
Different cities, same challenges
Dubrovnik embraced tourists with renewed facilities and
attractions in 1996, one year after the Dayton Peace Accord ended
the war between Croatia and Yugoslavia.
This was despite the fact that the city was shelled in 1991 and
1992, and suffered about $10 million in damage, all of which is now
invisible except to the most discerning eye.
Dubrovnik's hotel facilities were among the war's casualties,
with only half of the 10,000 rooms functioning following the
But the city has reopened and renovated properties at a frantic
pace, and based on site inspections, now offers the most high-end
and international-style facilities in the former Yugoslavia.
The alluring Dalmatian islands were not damaged during the war,
although they are also still trying to recover their visitors.
A spokeswoman for Hvar said that before 1991, the island was
averaging 10,000 visitors a day from May through October, and now
that number has been cut in half.
Zagreb, the country's capital, was also hit hard by the Balkan
wars. But Drazen Hocheker, director of the Zagreb Tourism &
Convention Board, had some good news.
"Some of the major tour operators are back, like Trafalgar,
Travelscene and Saga Holidays. Based on the bookings we have now,
we think we will have an increase of 20% to 25% in arrivals for
2000," Hocheker said.
Even the region of Croatia that was occupied by Serb forces from
1991-95 is on an upward swing.
In Plitvice National Park, where facilities were destroyed by
war in the early 1990s, hotels have since been restored with the
foreign market in mind and feature English-speaking staff, room
service and satellite televisions.
"This year we expect 400,000 visitors," said Vinko Bartolac,
sales and publicity manager for the park.
Because nearly everyone who works in the park was a refugee
during the war, arrivals are a cause for celebration.
But Bartolac still yearns for the pre-war days when 740,000
visitors showed up each year to see Plitvice's waterfalls and azure