The images of Dubrovnik’s brutal shelling have lingered like a
shadow over Croatia for more than a decade.
The three-month Serbian assault shocked the world.
Gothic-Renaissance churches, red honeycomb-tile rooftops and
centuries-old limestone architecture were reduced to rubble by a
rain of mortar fire.
“When I think of it, I can’t believe what was going on,” said
Branka Franicevic, a licensed tour guide in Dubrovnik. “It was like
a dream; a nightmare for sure. Now I know that I can survive almost
Today, news footage of the shelling is played inside the tourism
information office of the old walled town, a vivid representation
of how much the city has been transformed.
The war ended in 1995, and since then the battle to rebuild
Croatia and its tourism industry has illustrated the challenges
countries face when recovering from war.
“Croatia spent all of its economic resources when it went to
war,” said David Beirman, director of the Israel Tourism Office in
Sydney, Australia, and author of a book on restoring tourism. “So
there were few resources for tourism marketing. As a result, they
had a difficult time getting the message out to the traveling
public that the war was over.”
A country known for its pristine coastline, scattered islands,
turquoise-blue water, bucolic hinterland and historic cities like
Dubrovnik, Croatia was once a major playground for European
tourists and included for about 80 percent of the tourist
attractions in the former Yugoslavia.
But after the collapse of communism and the region’s
disintegration into a decade of war, tourism became virtually
“Before the war, Croatia was known as a tourist destination,”
said Pave Zupan-Ruskovic, the minister of tourism for the Republic
of Croatia. “Not anymore. We are working to change that.”
Slowly, Croatia has made its way out of the dark past and now
has ambitious plans to target international tourism.
With tourism driving 22 percent of the nation’s gross domestic
product and projections indicating that it will become even more
significant, Croatia believes the industry will be a major force in
its economic recovery.
Today, an international marketing campaign highlights the
country’s unspoiled Adriatic landscape with the slogan “The
Mediterranean as it Once Was.” About a quarter of Croatia’s entire
$4 million national marketing budget will be spent on television
advertising worldwide this year.
But as it sells itself to the world, Croatia’s tourism industry
still is challenged with repairing the infrastructure damaged by
the war and convincing travelers that the country is safe.
So far, most of the country’s reconstruction efforts have been
focused on Dubrovnik, which has long been the country’s cultural
treasure and biggest moneymaker.
Nearly $2.5 billion has been spent on the city, with emphasis on
meeting the standards of UNESCO, which has designated the city as a
World Heritage Site.
Damaged rooftops have been replaced with a patchwork of striking
new tiles. Damaged parts of the paving in Dubrovnik’s main square
have been replaced with white flagstones extracted from the same
nearby quarries as the 500 year-old originals.
“In Croatia, the recovery of tourism has taken place along side
reconstruction,” Beirman said. “In a sense, they have made recovery
newsworthy, which has served as a way to promote the country.”
Still, some hotels and coastal resorts in prime locations remain
empty, and the country’s total capacity is 6 percent less than
during the communist era.
South of Dubrovnik, in coves along the winding Dalmatian coast,
vacant resorts and hotels illustrate Croatia’s challenge of drawing
private investors to its largely state-owned tourism industry.
The government still owns about 63 percent of the country’s
tourism assets and has more than 25 percent ownership in 42
travel-related companies. The Ministry of Tourism has been charged
with the task of revitalizing the hotel industry through private
So far, Croatia has offered tax concessions to investors and has
privatized 65 hotels, with investment in properties hitting $220
million last year.
The ministry has listed hotels for sale on its Web site
(www.mint.hr/invest ment_opportunities.htm) and also has undertaken
an effort to turn former military bases into tourist resorts with a
project near the Montenegro border nearly complete.
The ministry also is offering financial incentives to small
tourism enterprises that renovate private homes as tourist
Private accommodation now is the fastest-growing lodging segment
in Croatia and has helped boost overall capacity.
In 2001, private accommodations accounted for 42 percent of the
lodging capacity in the country, up 11 percent from 1991
“In our strategy, we plan to renovate existing hotels and make
them nicer,” Zupan-Ruskovic said.
“Many were built in the Soviet era and are very similar to each
other. We want to invest in boutique hotels. We are going to take
existing buildings and make them into nice, small hotels and build
new ones which are smaller.”
After the years of reconstruction and effort, visitors are
starting to respond. Historically, tourists have been lured to
Croatia for its value, its unspoiled landscape and warm climate.
That appeal remains.
“It has a little bit of everything of the best parts of Europe,”
said Matthew Klein of Continental Journeys, a Sherman Oaks, Calif.,
tour operator that has led trips to Croatia for the last year and a
Europeans have led a gradual comeback, with Germans accounting
for the largest number of visits.
Last year, Croatia came close to meeting pre-war levels for
tourism arrivals. It drew 8.3 million visitors compared with 8.5
million who came in 1990, its most successful year to date.
But Croatia has had a more difficult time getting the attention
of Americans. Last year, U.S. visits were less than half of what
they were before the war.
Still, numbers are improving and this year U.S. arrivals are up
about 6 percent over 2002 levels.
“Honestly, we can’t realize everything in just three to four
years,” said Zupan-Ruskovic. “We will try to find foreign
investment. But there is not a lot of money here. The war has spent
The ministry is now trying to extend the tourism season beyond
the traditional summertime months, offering subsidies and
incentives to tour operators and travel agencies who do substantial
business in the country.
But Croatia still must battle for tourists with neighboring
countries like Italy and Greece. And it still often remains a
secondary choice of travelers considering a visit to the
What Croatia lacks, according to the author Beirman, is a single
notable attraction that helps people identify a destination.
“The one problem Croatia has is that it is not a country that
has a compelling image,” he said.
“New York has the Empire State Building. South Africa has its
wildlife. Generally speaking, having a compelling attraction is
what drives tourism. I guess what Croatia has been doing is trying
to find their image.”