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 »  Home  »  Business  »  (E) Europe seems anxious to clear Croatia's path - Dubrovnik
(E) Europe seems anxious to clear Croatia's path - Dubrovnik
By Nenad N. Bach | Published  06/14/2004 | Business | Unrated
(E) Europe seems anxious to clear Croatia's path - Dubrovnik


Will greed tarnish Croatia's gem?


Joshua Wright IHT Monday, June 7, 2004
DUBROVNIK, Croatia If not for a few small monuments to the dead, one might never dream that this medieval walled city was besieged and shelled in 1991. The roofs have been redone in traditional red clay, the streets and buildings in polished white limestone. Children play soccer in the church courtyards; history and beauty are on display wherever the eye roams.
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The European Commission seems anxious to clear Croatia's path to membership in the European Union. While tourism is still 30 percent below prewar levels, visitors are flocking back to the stunning coast, particularly to Dubrovnik. There are direct flights from London and Dublin, and ad campaigns touting Croatia's charms decorate the Paris Métro. A golf course is being built where the Serbs and Montenegrins once positioned artillery above the town.
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But the new affluence comes at a cost, and many citizens are worried that they will be squeezed out of this city by rising prices and that the virgin beauty of their coast will be ruined by overdevelopment. A local newspaper recently proclaimed, "We don't want to be the next Ibiza."
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"We're the only unspoiled spot within easy reach of major European centers," said Frano Bezic, a real estate agent, "and if we're not careful we'll lose that." But the temptation to cash in will be hard to resist, because the real estate market in Croatia is red hot. "I would say it's not just booming, but exploding," Bezic said, adding, "Prices have not doubled, but tripled."
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Wealthy Croatian expatriates were waiting for the end of communism so they could invest in this area, and once the war ended in 1995, they swooped in. West Europeans were not far behind.
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Steve Potter, 35, runs an Internet café in Split, home to Croatia's second-hottest property market. Athletic and sun-tanned, he could be just another easygoing Australian expatriate running a modest business by the sea. But he has just opened a real estate brokerage because, he said, for every day of the last three summers, someone has come in and asked for help buying property. His company has not yet been officially launched, but he already has half a dozen customers booked for house visits in May, just by word of mouth.
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In Dubrovnik, a Hilton Hotel is being built near the gates of the Old City. Dubravka Suica, the mayor, recites a list of other hotel developments scheduled for the coming year and smiles: "This is the very beginning of the new face of Dubrovnik."
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But will that new face be Croatian? It is a country of 4.5 million people that already attracts 8 million to 9 million visitors a year. Land prices are rising 20 times faster than the average local income, said Misha Mihocevic, a former major in the army. And Vladimir Bakic, head of the Tourist Association of Dubrovnik, said: "The average Croatian today can't buy property in his own country."
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Young couples find it particularly hard to buy houses, not only because of low wages, but also because local banks cannot keep up with the new demand for loans. Kristie Evenson, an analyst at the East-West Institute in Split, said that "personal debt has skyrocketed" as Croats struggle in vain to compete with foreigners who push up prices in all local goods.
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More young people are leaving the country, a drain of the resourceful people who will be needed to make Croatia a success when it joins the EU.
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Not surprisingly, young people are often the loudest critics of the fashion for cashing in on property. But their reasons are not entirely economic - some are concerned about their cultural heritage.
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"For us a house is a house for generations and that's Dubrovnik, not its suburbs or neighbors," said Anna Tomic, 28, who has lived here all her life. Eyeing the harbor from a local café, she spoke of a generation of idealists, their sense of local identity sharpened by war, who are grumbling that the older generation is selling their city to foreigners.
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They are not alone. Domagoj Sutalo, editor in chief of the local newspaper Dubrovacki Vjesnik, is part of a small, vocal minority of Croats who advocate restraint. "Not everything can be on sale," he said. "The state must save our national treasures of islands and monuments."
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It is not just a question of national pride. As Croatians flee the hotspots and then the country itself, the coast faces the danger of emptying into a network of ghost towns, alive only with the yearly influx of tourists and summer-home vacationers.
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Government officials say they are not worried. "Foreigners have the resources to restore buildings that Croatians don't," Bakic said. Francesca von Hapsburg, a scion of Austria's old imperial family, is renovating a ruined monastery on the nearby island of Lopud - a job no government office could afford right now.
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Still, the Dubrovnik city government has begun to address some of the concerns. The mayor's office started an initiative for affordable housing to keep young people in the Old City, and year-round tourism has become a buzzword for the local economic development community.
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Thanks to Dubrovnik's status as a Unesco World Heritage Site, the city has first bids on any property that comes on the market, but it can rarely find the cash to meet the new prices. So the responsibility for the city's future is left up to private citizens, and for the time being, they are polarized.
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"We're selling our history," said a 26-year-old receptionist, "And we'll never get it back."
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But Bezic is optimistic: "At this point, we in Croatia can still choose to avoid other countries' mistakes. Everything depends on us."
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International Herald Tribune

Source: http://www.iht.com/articles/523605.html

 

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