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Shattered Dubrovnik Woos Tourists Again : Not Far From War-Torn Bosnia, This Historic Adriatic City Waits for the World to Return

September 12, 1993|MIM SWARTZ | Swartz is travel editor of the Rocky Mountain News in Denver

DUBROVNIK, Croatia — We all hear the sound at the same time and blurt out the same words in unison: "What was that?"

That , it turns out, was the sound of an airplane taking off.

We are near the makeshift airport that serves this ancient walled city on the Dalmatian Coast, in one of the prettiest parts of what used to be Yugoslavia, and it is logical, of course, to hear airplanes taking off and landing from here. But we are understandably nervous: We're in the nearby town of Cilipi, just four miles from the Bosnian border. Cilipi has been largely destroyed by Serbian forces, and we're here to meet a group of young volunteers from England, Australia and New Zealand who are helping to rebuild it--using picks, shovels and sheer brawn to dig a trench for the town's new water system.

One of them, Michael Phelan of Melbourne, has just told us that he was here in June, when the Serbians started shelling again and the work crew had to take cover in their own ditch. "It was pretty scary," he says. That might have something to do with the fact that most of us probably considered dropping to the ground in the split second after that airplane noise. Or maybe it's just because we're still jet-lagged, or can still hear the disapproval of our friends and relatives when we told them we were coming here. They think we're daring, if not demented, to visit Croatia. But what do they know? What do any of us know while we're sitting half a world away?

*

It is our second day in Croatia, and we've already had several official briefings about the war--the "War of Serbian Aggression" in the Croatian lexicon. Although there has been a cease-fire in the Dubrovnik area since October, 1992, parts of Croatia are still under United Nations protection--everywhere were UN soldiers, in their distinctive blue berets, when we landed in Zagreb, the Croatian capital--and there are still a few "problem areas" in the country, to put it mildly.

Our tour group of 15 journalists from the U.S. and Canada--including a Croatian-born photographer from New York and a Florida magazine writer who is going to meet her Croatian husband's mother, for the first time--has been put together by Croatian government and tourism officials and by the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Rebuild Dubrovnik Fund, established to raise charitable contributions for restoration of the city. (Though I traveled with the group three weeks ago, I paid my own way.)

This also is the first coordinated effort to bring travel writers to Croatia since the war began two years ago. Before the war, Croatia attracted some 10 million tourists annually, bringing $3.5 to $4 billion a year in revenues. The scenic Dalmatian Coast--parts of which you no longer can drive safely--was particularly popular with tourists from other European countries, but also attracted growing numbers of Americans (some 67,000 of them in 1990, before the war), who deemed it a travel bargain on the otherwise expensive Continent. Dubrovnik and nearby islands charmed even more tourists who arrived briefly on cruise ships between Athens and Venice.

Hardly surprisingly, Croatian tourism has been virtually nonexistent since the violent breakup of Yugoslavia. The point of this trip was to hope to demonstrate to us, so that we can tell American readers, that not all the one-time tourist hot-spots along the Dalmatian Coast have been destroyed (which indeed they haven't), and that no visitor to the region need fear being attacked. In fact, we feel improbably safe here--and so silly about the airplane incident that, for the rest of our six-day visit, nobody overreacts like that again.

"Croatia looks about a centimeter big on a map," laments Sylva Tuskanac, a tour guide with Atlas Travel, Croatia's official government-owned travel agency, "so everyone thinks we are so close to the fighting that they are afraid to come."

What will it take to bring tourism back to Croatia? An end to the war in general? Or perhaps just a return of the cruise ships, and a few adventurous visitors to carry back word that this no longer is a war zone.

*

Next to Venice, cherished Dubrovnik is the best-known tourist spot on the Adriatic Coast. Dubrovnik was founded in the 7th Century by refugees from Greece, and, under its former name of Ragusa, became one of the great naval powers of the eastern Mediterranean, retaining its independence as a city-state until it was conquered by Napoleon in 1806. Its walls, dating from the 13th through 16th centuries, are remarkably well preserved, and its palaces, religious buildings and old stone streets remain largely intact--making Dubrovnik one of the most beautiful remnants of the medieval world in Europe.

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