International visitor counts boom in Croatia

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LONDON -- At its "comeback" press conference here on Nov. 13 during World Travel Market, Croatian tourism officials proved they had plenty to celebrate, including a 60% increase in international arrivals for 2000 and a commitment by Hilton to open a hotel in Dubrovnik.

Croatia's tourism minister, Pave Zupan Ruskovic, said that nearly 8 million visitors came to Croatia so far this year.

"If you consider that we have 20% less capacity than before the war [between Croatia and Yugoslavia from 1991-95], then our current numbers are back at pre-war levels," she said. "Our goal was only a 35% increase, so we are really happy with this achievement."

Ruskovic has acknowledged in the past that a sticking point for the development of foreign-run deluxe properties in Croatia was a state-run economy and concerns about potential conflicts within neighboring Yugoslavia.

Both worries have been eliminated, as the 10-year dictatorship of Franco Tudjman in Croatia ended and democratic elections were held in February, followed by the more recent elections in Yugoslavia.

"For the first time in my very long career, I can honestly say that there is a government in Croatia that has made tourism a priority," said Ruskovic.

"[The government is] driving forcefully toward full privatization of the tourism sector which should be achieved over the next two years."

As an example, Ruskovic pointed to Hilton's takeover of the Hotel Imperial in Dubrovnik as a reflection of the government's efforts to attract foreign investors.

The Hilton management and ownership contract represents the first time a foreign company will operate a hotel in Croatia's most popular tourism destination.

The Hotel Imperial is a turn-of-the-century property built for Hapsburg emperor Franz Joseph; it was severely damaged during the bombing of Dubrovnik in 1991.

The hotel will be extensively renovated and should be open by 2003, according to Croatian tourism officials here.

Similarly, the German chain Arabella, which is in a development cooperative with Starwood, has committed to reconstruct Dubrovnik's Hotel Argentina, Ruskovic said.

The hotel, which has marvelous views of the Adriatic and the Old City, will be upgraded by 2003.

Croatia's current government also is making an effort to spawn upscale boutique hotels by offering low-interest loans and creating a supportive environment for small-scale investors.

Earlier in the day, Ruskovic received an award from the World Travel Market Advisory Council, Tribute 21, for her contributions to the travel and tourism industry over the last 21 years.

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