In 1991, the cheery town of Dubrovnik, Croatia, crumbled into ruins when artillery fire from invading Serbian and Montenegrin forces peppered the magnificent Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque buildings for seven months. Projectiles hit more than 560 of the 824 buildings in Old Town, and nearly a dozen others were destroyed by fire. The "pearl of the Adriatic," as Lord Byron once called it, lost its luster.
A decade later, however, the walled city returned to its former glory with the help of Unesco. Two decades on, Dubrovnik has experienced a renaissance of sorts, and is poised to become one of the most sought-after destinations in Europe now that Croatia has officially joined the EU as the first expansion of the block since 2007.
Croatia has come a long way since its war of independence, which claimed some 20,000 lives -- but it has a long way to go, too. EU figures show that unemployment across the nation stands at around 20 percent, while Croatia’s per capita domestic product is 39 percent below the EU average.
Yet, tourism has remained one of the few bright spots, and could be the thing that drags the nation out of four years of recession. The industry now represents one-fifth of Croatia’s GDP and is growing at a rate of about 3 percent each year. According to Croatia’s Central Bureau of Statistics, nearly 12 million international tourists (or three-times the population) visited last year, pumping nearly 7 billion euros ($8.8 billion) into the economy.
Beyond the walled city of Dubrovnik -- now a popular cruise ship stopover, where tourists outnumber locals -- Croatia’s strongest tourism asset is its 1,777 kilometers (1,100 miles) of island-rimmed coastline, which, unlike the package-tourist destinations of Turkey or Greece, promises more of a throwback Mediterranean experience. The Croatian National Tourist Board even promotes the country under the motto “The Mediterranean as it once was.”
The marketing board has set a goal of making the small nation of 4.4 million one of the 20 most competitive tourism countries in the world by 2020. Tourism Minster Darko Lorencin told a U.N. World Tourism Organization conference in late May that Croatia’s accession into the EU on July 1 would certainly help in that goal by casting a spotlight on the nation in the global media. “In the short term, this season we will utilize the actual moment of joining the EU, but everything else is up to us,” he said.
Lorencin noted that Croatia’s trend of growth could be hampered by the introduction of visas for citizens of certain non-EU countries like Russia, Ukraine and Turkey, from which Croatia has seen a rise in numbers over recent years. Consequently, he traveled to Russia and Ukraine in the first week of June to meet with leading tour operators and discuss the new entry process amid reports that bookings from Russia alone had declined by 20 percent.
Of those who visited last year, however, two-thirds were from EU-member countries, and by most estimates, Croatia stands to gain more visitors from its EU base than it will lose elsewhere.
Bloggers on sites like European Union Yes Or No overwhelmingly agree that tourism will benefit from the EU label. “Croatia will increasingly be able to count on the growing demand of tourists with a higher purchasing power,” one blogger noted. Other local commentators, like those on news site SEEbiz, believe Croatia could even become a leading retirement destination, the likes of which the Mediterranean hasn’t seen before.
These may be lofty goals, but the coast-hugging nation is already a rising star on the global stage. Rough Guides, CNN and the New York Times, among others, all included Croatia on their 2013 bucket lists.
Meanwhile, the Association of British Travel Agents decided to hold its annual assembly in Dubrovnik this year, citing statistics that 20 percent more Brits visited Croatia in the first eight months of 2012 than in the same time period the year before. Across the pond, North America’s largest travel agency franchiser Travel Leaders said bookings for Croatia in 2013 were up 35 percent over the previous year. Both groups credited Croatia’s inclusion in the EU with boosting its reputation around the world as a safe and attractive Mediterranean destination.
“Emerging” as it may be, Croatia is already a well-known hotspot for regional travelers from Germany, Austria and Italy. It’s also well serviced by Europe’s popular budget airlines, and if all goes as planned, Croatia will become an even bigger tourist draw as the 28th member state of the European Union.