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Serbia Works to Resurrect Tourist Industry

Prague, July 18 (RFE/RL) -- The former Yugoslav republic of Serbia boasts a mixture of cultural influences, rich and untouched natural resources and modern tourist facilities. Yet one thing is missing--the tourists.

Six years ago, the charming cobbled squares and alleyways of Belgrade teemed with life and Balkan-style music on summer nights. Cafes and wine bars were packed with tourists--up to six million came each year in normal times.

Today, Belgrade suffers from the cost of its war effort, the effects of the now-lifted sanctions, and the loss of its role as one of Europe's leading trade fair cities. Inflation and a sharp drop in the value of the nation's currency (the Dinar) are the consequences. In 1990, Serbia earned $450 million from tourism and from top-level conferences at Belgrade's International Congress Center. Tourism revenue has since plummeted to a record low. And government officials expect income from tourism to barely reach $120 million this year.

The government is working to change all that. In recent months, the Serbian National Tourist Organization (TOS) made tourist "presentations" at trade fairs in Berlin, Milan, Paris, Budapest and Moscow. The message was that Belgrade and the rest of the country is back to normal and is safe for tourists.

TOS also launched a four-day tour of the country for the benefit of foreign press representatives. The delegation was taken on an overnight stay to the Karadordevo Hunting Lodge northwest of Belgrade, where the late Yugoslavian leader, Josip Broz Tito, indulged his passion for hunting.

Tourists came to Serbia for its abundance of lush green forests, national parks and snow-capped mountains ideal for winter sports. The country also wooed them with spas, rehabilitation centers and lakeside resorts.

Visitors were also drawn to cultural treasures such as monuments, churches and medieval monasteries. Two monasteries, Studenica and the Stari Ras Spolocani, are on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Still, the tourists wait.

Jovan Popesku, director of Serbia's National Tourist Organization, attributes tourists' wariness to Serbia's "world image." He told reporters that the horrors of the Balkan war remain foremost in people's minds, hampering efforts to regain a slice of the international tourism market.

Radosav Stankopvic, the deputy minister of tourism, recently quipped to reporters, "I suppose I should thank you for daring to come here."

To add to the challenge, Serbia has suffered a net outflow of tourist money because its own citizens increasingly tend to take their vacations abroad. To stem this flow, Belgrade reportedly plans to begin charging its citizens more to leave the country starting next Monday (July 21).

Local newspapers yesterday reported that residents of Serbia will pay roughly $20 (100 Dinars) to travel abroad, compared to the previous travel tax of $12 (60 Dinars). Those travelling by car will pay an additional $40 (200 Dinars).

The increase comes at the peak of the holiday season. Tourism analysts say it could encourage many Serbians to take their holidays in the nearby republic of Montenegro, boycotted by foreign tourists for several years because of the war and U.N. sanctions.

Authorities in Belgrade introduced the travel tax in 1992 to stem the flow of the country's resources abroad.