Croatia: Spectacular scenery, low cost
By DON MELVIN
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 03/08/04
HVAR, Croatia -- Few sights soothe the troubled soul like the beauty of the Adriatic Sea.
I was coming from a reporting trip to Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Macedonia, all cauldrons of ethnic hatred. An overnight bus trip from Macedonia gave me 12 hours to reflect on man's brutality and did nothing to improve my mood.
Then the darkness lifted, the sun rose and, as the bus careened down a mountainside, before me spread the Adriatic, blue as the sky, smooth as glass and dotted with islands. The heart started to heal.
I changed buses in Dubrovnik, a beautiful walled city jutting into the sea, and headed north for the city of Split. The ride revealed some of the most spectacular coastline in the world, on a par with that of California or the southern tip of South Africa.
The mountains, white and rocky, plunge into what the marine explorer Jacques Cousteau called one of the cleanest seas on earth.
Croatia, too, has known hatred. Like the places I had just visited, it used to be part of Yugoslavia. When Croatia declared independence in 1991, war erupted. About 750,000 people were displaced and 10,000 were killed.
Hotels were forced to house refugees. The name of the country became associated with war. Tourism, part of the economy of this area for generations, collapsed.
"In 1991 and 1992, it was awful," said Oliver Kesar, an assistant in the department of tourism at the University of Zagreb.
But Croatia is, by all appearances, stable now. And in a remarkable turnaround, fueled by an ad campaign on CNN International, tourism is back. Officials expect the figures this year on overnight stays will match the highs of the late 1980s.
Croatia, in the public mind, is becoming associated less with war and more with beauty.
There are compelling reasons to visit Croatia. The splendor of the mountains, the clarity of the water and the charm of the villages are chief among them.
The Dalmatian Coast is best appreciated by boat. The view from the sea offers the constant backdrop of white cliffs, and there are attractive ports of call on many of the more than 1,000 islands that line the coast.
Being a man of lesser means -- and lesser free time -- I chose to spend a couple of days on the island of Hvar, considered among the country's most beautiful. Nowhere could conflict seem further away and peace a more intrinsic part of life.
The sea was swimmably warm, even at the end of September, with water was so clear you could count the stones beneath. The town of Hvar, on the western tip of the island of the same name, was a small and enchanting port that reflected -- in its architecture, its open square and its cuisine -- the long domination of this coast by Venetians.
The hotels were inexpensive, and justifiably so. Beachfront lodging could be had for less than $70 per person per night in resorts that, from the magnificence of their location, could have charged $300. I was there in the off season.
In my hotel, the personnel were sometimes, to put it charitably, inappropriately abrupt. The fluid the hotel restaurant passed off as orange juice was more akin to Kool-Aid. The food was more akin to swill. Thank goodness the restaurants in town were good.
"We must bring the level of the service to the level of the scenery," Boris Vukonic, a professor in the university's Graduate School of Economics and Business, told me.
The industry faces other challenges as well. As part of a former Communist country, where the hotels used to be owned by the government, the ownership of such property is not always clear. Foreign investors have little taste for lengthy court procedures to clear up titles, Vukonic said.
And some tourists who used to know of the Yugoslav coast -- Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton frolicked here -- don't recognize the name Croatia, he said. Sometimes, Vukonic said, people send him mail addressed to "Zagreb, Yugoslavia." Others send e-mails asking if battle tanks are still in Zagreb, when, in fact, they never were.
As Croatia struggled to attract tourists again after the war, its first clients were from former Soviet satellites. The fall of Communism freed them from travel restrictions and Croatia had the nearest seacoast.
But big spenders they are not, said Katarina Tudor, who works in a gift shop in the town of Hvar. Many travel in groups and spend little beyond their all-inclusive meals-and-lodging package deals.
Word about Croatia is spreading, and this year tourists arrived in numbers, particularly from the Scandinavian countries of Norway and Sweden, and even from as far away as Australia and New Zealand.
Many people in town want the hotels to improve their services to attract a "better class" of tourists, Tudor said. But the hotel owners so far have resisted doing what is necessary, and that has rankled residents who see the island's potential, she said.
Still, for travellers who find Venice far too pricey but long for the incomparable loveliness of the Adriatic, Croatia is well worth a visit. It offers, for far less money, a chance to experience one of the most attractive spots on earth.
One evening in Hvar I saw signs taped to poles announcing a concert. It turned out to be beautiful a cappella singing by a local choir in the open cloister of a centuries-old Franciscan monastery. And life doesn't get any more peaceful than that.