Croatia by the sea
Adriatic country relies on beauty of mountains and charm of
villages to draw postwar tourists
By DON MELVIN
Hvar, Croatia -- Few sights soothe the troubled soul like the
beauty of the Adriatic Sea.
After a trip to Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Macedonia, all
caldrons of ethnic hatred, an overnight bus trip from
Macedonia gave me 12 hours to reflect on man's brutality. It
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
The mountains, white and rocky, plunge into what the marine
explorer Jacques Cousteau called one of the cleanest seas on
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
But Croatia is, by all appearances, stable now. Though a
coalition led by the governing Social Democrats was defeated
in elections last weekend by the Croatian Democratic Union,
government transition is expected to go smoothly.
The stability of the past few years has led to a remarkable
turnaround for tourism, aided by an ad campaign on CNN
International. Officials expect the figures on overnight stays
this year 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 farther away and peace a more intrinsic part of life.
The sea was swimmably warm, even at the end of September, with
water 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.
But 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
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
Still, for travelers 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.
Publication date: Nov. 30, 2003
© 2003 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution