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Croatia: Flack Jackets To Beach Chairs, Dubrovnik Awaits Tourism Revival

Dubrovnik, Croatia; 11 September 1996 (RFE/RL) -- For ten months in 1991, the former Yugoslavia's most famed landmark -- the Croatian city of Dubrovnik -- was under siege.

Shelling by Serb and Montenegrin forces of the Yugoslav National Army (JNA) killed 200 people and damaged two-thirds of the old city's 900 historic buildings. The tourist industry in Dubrovnik, which generated a significant portion of former Yugoslavia's $5 billion a year tourist trade, also was left for dead. All told, the Croatian government estimates war damage in the Dubrovnik area at $2.5 million.

Five years later and the guns now silenced, Dubrovnik's tourism officials are waiting to see if travelers will return. But changing peoples' perceptions from flack jackets to beach chairs isn't easy.

Steve Andjus, vice president of Atlas Travel, Croatia's largest travel agency, says that the problem initially was convincing potential tourists that Dubrovnik is a safe place to visit. The problem now, he says, is to convince people that Dubrovnik still is alive. Andjus says there also is an urgent need to update the historic Adriatic port and conform it to the needs of the modern traveler.

That's where the director of Dubrovnik's Tourist Authority, Vladimir Bakic enters. Bakic, along with the mayor's office, is busy formulating a new path for tourism. The plan centers on creating smaller hotels with better service and modernizing and expanding tourist infrastructure such as roads and rail lines.

There even is talk of opening Dubrovnik's port as a duty-free stop-over for cruise ships, because ports in European Union countries no longer are permitted to offer duty-free shopping. According to Bankic, this would allow the city to reap revenues even without large crowds of overnight tourists.

At present, 15 of Dubrovnik's 18 hotels have managed to reopen, but most are operating well below full occupancy. Atlas Travel's Andjus says that the others, mostly in out-of-the way sites, still are housing refugees from the war.

An RFE/RL correspondent reports that in two days in Dubrovnik, she saw only a handful of tourists, primarily Italians and Germans. Restaurants of all classes sat virtually empty throughout the day. Taxis were few and idle. A walking tour atop the city's limestone fortress walls, long a tourist mainstay, found no other takers. Equally empty were Dubrovnik's many car rental agencies, tourist shops, and beckoning stretches of beach.

Tourism in Dubrovnik also has been affected by this year's fatal crash of the airplane carrying U.S. Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and leading businessmen, and a recent earthquake that destroyed four villages west of Dubrovnik.

Despite the challenges, Atlas' Andjus says that travelers to Dubrovnik, the jewel of the Adriatic, will be rewarded. He says most of the physical wounds of the war have been patched and that construction mostly is finished.

As one local restaurant owner put it: "Dubrovnik still bears scars from fierce fighting, but no army can ravage the sea."