War Is Hell On The Tourist Trade

Soon after dawn, before the sun grows too scorching, the villagers of Jelsa wander down streets of polished stone to sit by the tiny harbor and watch the day begin. For many of them, there's not much else to do. Neno Grgevcic used to lead tourists on donkey rides through the perfumed hills of pine and lavender that ring this island town. Marijana Miskovic was busy as an innkeeper, with two apartments in her home rented out to vacationers. But Grgevcic has sold his donkeys to farmers, and Miskovic hasn't seen a paying guest all year.

Sitting in a near-empty cafe in Jelsa's main square, Miskovic vents the frustration that everyone feels. "Tourists think war is here," complains the energetic mother of two. "But no soldiers. No fighting." She sweeps her arm to indicate the peacefulness of this charming stone village, built by Venetians in the 16th century. "All is normal," she assures me.

But just then, a white car bearing the black letters "U.N." cruises by. And later that day, I visit a former resort hotel where 40 aging Bosnian refugees live on bread and beans and stare out at the Adriatic, wondering what the future holds in store.

"POLITICALLY INCORRECT." Jelsa, on the Croatian island of Hvar, lies just 70 miles from Bosnia--as the F-18 flies. In earlier summers, Hvar and bigger Dalmatian Coast resorts such as Split and Dubrovnik crawled with foreign tourists. I've spent three vacations in Jelsa, most recently in 1990 before Yugoslavia broke up, and I have been eager to come back. "Politically incorrect!" scolded one friend, accusing me of exploiting the war to find empty beaches.

Maybe so. But this rocky island pulls me strongly. It's a land of vineyards, pine woods, gentle people, low prices, and fabulous swimming in coves of crystalline water. Ulysses is said to have tarried here. I bet he had a good time.

Hvar is as gorgeous as ever, I discovered. But even on an island where the only sign of hostilities involved a single bomb dropped on an empty airstrip two years ago, war is present. Local youths in bathing suits show wounds they received in fighting on the mainland. And the island has gone through a resort-style "ethnic cleansing": Serbs from Belgrade who owned summer homes here--including friends of mine--fled early in the war to avoid reprisals. Now, their houses stand abandoned along the seacoast, looted by bitter Croatians. Will they ever dare come back? Marijana Miskovic's husband, Neno, shrugs. "Maybe," he says doubtfully. "In 10 years or so."

The island has also become a haunting window on Bosnia's pain. Groups of shell-shocked kids from Mostar and Sarajevo are being sent here this summer for three-week rests. They splash happily in the sea and are learning English from 20 British students who are spending their vacations here as volunteers. Less content are the 400 Bosnian refugees who are lodged on Hvar, many in otherwise empty hotels. Among the island's smattering of tourists, they wander among farms and villages seeking work. They feel isolated and ignored by relief agencies, says a refugee priest from Mostar, Don Ivan Zovka. "All they want is to go home," he says.

Arnold Dickhoff, a retired Dutch railway worker who has vacationed here, is struggling to collect aid for them in the Netherlands. His daughter, Marga Witteman, has just arrived in a Volkswagen camper with a meager load: a few boxes of food and some World Cup '94 children's coloring pads donated by McDonald's Corp. "We showed people back home a video of refugees here, but they can't believe there's need in a beautiful resort," Witteman says.

Only by reviving tourism--keystone of the region's economy--can Dalmatia develop jobs and heal its wounds. Planners are trying. Split and Dubrovnik are working to rebuild their music and drama festivals to prewar glory, although with tiny budgets. On one recent night inside Split's magically beautiful walled city, it did seem like old times. An open-air opera drew a capacity crowd. Vacationers jammed sultry streets and cafes. Hvar, where I heard an excellent string quartet in a church square, also has a fair number of tourists. Many sunbathe nude, sprawled like seals on rocky promontories.

HARD TRAVELING. On both island and mainland, however, virtually all the tourists speak with Slavic voices. They hail from Zagreb, Prague, and Bratislava. The absence of freer-spending Western vacationers explains why several restaurants I knew have closed. Two of Jelsa's four hotels also are shuttered. Fast hydrofoil boats built by Boeing Co. no longer swish from Jelsa to the mainland, as they did four years ago.

Zoran Tadic is delighted to see a pair of Western tourists when my friend and I stop by his cafe for lunch in the Hvar village of Starigrad. For four years, he tells us, "I've been swimming every day, but I haven't made any money." He likens Hvar to Homer's island of the lotus-eaters, where no one moved: "It's like that here." The bistro's only other customer, a pretty local teacher of about 30, yearns for Hvar's swinging discos of yore. "It's been four years out of my life," she complains. I'm tempted to ask how she would feel if she had spent those years in Bosnia.

FEW FLIGHTS. One reason foreigners aren't returning to Dalmatia is that getting here is tough. Western airlines no longer serve Split and Dubrovnik. The trains aren't running, either: The main line from Zagreb, Croatia's capital, crosses Serbian-held territory. As a result, ferries from Rijeka in the north are so full that you must book far in advance to get a cabin, or be willing to spend the night on the deck. Ulysses had it easier. Croatian Airlines flies from Rome and Zagreb, but flights are both expensive and infrequent. Dalmatia's prewar tourists--mostly Germans, Austrians, and Italians--usually came by car. Frantic for guests, Marijana Miskovic recently phoned old clients around Europe, including an Austrian family who stayed with her every summer for 11 years. "They're all afraid to drive," she laments.

That's understandable. Although fighting between Serbs and Croatians has stopped, the shadow of war still hangs heavily over the coast. U.N. vehicles are everywhere. When I landed at Split's airport, soldiers with automatic rifles ringed the airfield as U.N. troop carriers lumbered aboard British cargo planes bound for Sarajevo. On Aug. 5, NATO warplanes flew off to bomb Serb positions in Bosnia--crossing right over Hvar's beaches.

Hvar's villagers are optimistic that their tourist economy will bounce back. Recently, a German tour operator shot photos for a brochure aimed at next summer's vacation market. Neno Grgevcic is talking of buying back some of his donkeys. Marijana Miskovic has her two four-room apartments ready with a view of the Adriatic--at the bargain prewar rate of $40 a night. I'll certainly be back. And even though the empty beaches were indeed nice, I'll be happy to see the old flood of tourists as a sign that life is returning to normal in this unhappy part of the world.

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