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(E) Croatian Hotel Esplanade restores old glory reaching new markets
By Nenad N. Bach | Published  05/11/2004 | Tourism | Unrated
(E) Croatian Hotel Esplanade restores old glory reaching new markets


Hotel Esplanade in Zagreb

Croatian hotel restores old glory while reaching out to new markets



Wed May 11,12:09 PM ET

ZAGREB (AFP) - The Regent Hotel Esplanade in Zagreb has played host to celebrities from "Black Venus" Josephine Baker to the Rolling Stones and Queen Elizabeth II, earning a reputation along the way as the grand old dame of Croatia's social elite.

Now in its 80th year but looking younger than ever after a restoration by new owners Regent Hotels International, the Esplanade is hoping to cash in on Croatia's booming tourism market with a mixture of modern luxury and past elegance.

Built in 1925 to accommodate passengers on the Orient Express between Paris and Istanbul, it has had no shortage of well-heeled visitors such as Orson Welles, Nikita Khrushchev and even the Nazi Gestapo, who used it as their headquarters during World War II.

Baker's notorious "banana dance" scandalized the city's puritans but crowds still gathered at the hotel to catch a glimpse of the glamourous American who epitomised the Roaring 20s. Forty years later, the Esplanade pushed the boundaries again when it opened communist Yugoslavia's first casino in 1967.

Manager Torbjorn Bodin said the Art Nouveau hotel had to preserve its old-world charm while remaining fresh for the demanding modern visitors who are flocking to Croatia in increasing numbers.

"We are trying to offer the same comfort and luxury but in a different way," he told AFP.

The hotel's ballrooms carry the names of cities on the route of the Orient Express and the 202 rooms have been refurbished in a retro design, but history is not standing in the way of progress at the Esplanade.

"People do not travel on the Orient Express to Zagreb anymore ... but at the same time I don't think our guests in 1925 would have appreciated a wireless high-speed Internet connection," Bodin said.

Croatia last year received more than 8.8 million tourists, the highest annual intake since its 1991-1995 war of independence from the former Yugoslavia.

The vast majority of visitors make a beeline for the Balkan country's stunning Adriatic coast, so the challenge for Zagreb, Bodin explained, is to be recognized as a tourist destination in itself.

"We will see more people visiting Zagreb as tourists than before. There's a lot of interest abroad because Zagreb is a new destination for city breaks and for longer vacations," he said.

"Croatia is so well known now in Europe and other parts of the world and we have to take advantage of the good brand Croatia has, which was created mainly on its Dalmatian coast. Now we have to say this is also valid for Zagreb."

Overnight tourist stays in Zagreb rose some three percent in 2004, but Croatia's tourism industry remains almost exclusively focused on attracting sunseekers to its 5,500-kilometer (3,300-mile) coast.

Deputy Tourism Minister Robert Bacac is confident Zagreb can be "developed as a distinct offer" to visitors from western Europe, but analysts warn that more foreign investment is badly needed to boost the city's tourist infrastructure.

"There is no infrastructure for things to attract tourists like golf courses, and that's why no new hotels are being built and old hotels are not being refurbished to the standards of international chains," Bodin said.

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