Yugoslavia revs up for tourism comeback

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LONDON -- It's too soon to hail Yugoslavia's tourism recovery, but the two nations that comprise the Yugoslav Republic, Serbia and Montenegro, are revving up for the possible pent-up demand.

The National Tourist Organization of Serbia returned to World Travel Market here in November after a two-year absence.

"We came to let people know we are still on the map and ready to receive tourists," said Jovan Popesku, director of the tourist organization.

A decade of conflict in the Balkans diminished overseas visitors to Serbia by 75%.

Still, in 1998 the country managed to attracted more than 225,000 foreign visitors, according to Popesku's figures.

But Serbia's 1999 conflict with Kosovo "made it all but impossible for Yugoslavia to attract international tourists," he noted.

The authoritarian rule of Slobodan Milosevic also kept tourists away, as the republic suffered under international trade sanctions, Popesku added.

The pedestrian promenade on Belgrade's Knez Mihajlova Street.But with the Kosovo war over, the election of democratic-minded president Vojislav Kostunica in October and the subsequent promise of Western aid, things are looking up for Serbia.

The tourist organization is relaunching the products that were most popular with international visitors in the 1980s, such as skiing in Kopaonick, city tours of Belgrade and Danube River cruises.

"We are first seeking to be promoted by operators in Europe, since this is our top market," said Popesku.

Among Belgrade's biggest draws is St. Sava's, one of the world's largest Orthodox cathedrals, and the 16th century Petrovaradin fortress. The nearby Krusedol monastery also has long been a favorite with international visitors.

Although the city was bombed by NATO in 1999, only government and military buildings were destroyed, Popesku said, acknowledging that it will be obvious to tourists that the city had suffered wartime damage.

Two of the three bridges that were destroyed during NATO bombing have been replaced, he said. The debris created by the bombing of the Danube river bridge at nearby Novi Sad, home to the millennium-old Kalemegdan fort-ress, is expected to be cleared by next summer.

The junior partner in the Yugoslav Republic, Montenegro, was physically unscathed by a decade of Balkan infighting, but suffered economically under sanctions against Yugoslavia.

Like its neighbor Croatia, Montenegro has a dramatic coastline on the Adriatic packed with medieval fortresses, Venetian-influenced architecture and seaside resorts.

St. Stefan, for instance, is a fortified 15th century island that was a 1960s vacation spot for royalty and celebrities.

The coastal city of Budvar, dating to the 16th century, has terra-cotta roofs and an impressive citadel similar to those that draw crowds to Dubrovnik, Croatia.

But unlike Croatia, Montenegro has been unable to invest in its tourism infrastructure in recent years, nor have foreign investors come calling. Serbia and Montenegro also have not had the advantage of Croatia's tourism industry privatization.

None of this has tempered the optimism of Velibor Zolak, managing director of the National Tourism Organization of Montenegro, which also had a booth at World Travel Market.

Zoltan declared that in Budvar, 22 family-run hotels with 60 to 150 beds have opened during the past two years.

"These are modern facilities with air conditioning, minibars, satellite television and direct-dial phones," he said.

He also emphasized that in November, Montenegro adopted the German mark as its sole currency in an effort to stabilize its economy (The currency of Serbia is the dinar).

In December, credit cards were widely accepted in Montenegro for the first time.

Montenegro received 320,000 tourists in 2000, down from 1.3 million in 1987 before Yugoslavia fell apart.

Despite this decline, the tourist industry of Montenegro is not dormant, said Zoltan.

"But right now, with the elimination of trade sanctions on Yugoslavia, the best thing for tourism is the millions of marks we are receiving from Germany to reconstruct our roads and upgrade our water supply."

Visas for Montenegro

WASHINGTON -- While Montenegrin authorities have declared visas unnecessary for Americans to travel to Montenegro, the Yugoslav federal government has requested that Americans obtain visas for travel to Montenegro.

The U.S. State Department strongly advises American citizens not to attempt travel to Serbia or Montenegro without a valid Yugoslav visa. The visa costs approximately $50. A valid passport is also required for travel to Montenegro and Serbia.

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