KORCULA, CROATIA — Backpackers, honeymooners, and vacationing families pour off the Jardrolinija ferry in cars, on foot, and by bicycle. Italian, German, and Austrian tourists crowd Korcula's winding streets and sidewalk cafes. The island's marinas are packed with foreign pleasure yachts. It's the height of the Adriatic tourist season, and for the first time in years, Croatia's coastal resorts are packed.
Croatia's all-important tourism sector is experiencing a long-awaited recovery. With Serbian forces pushed out of the country and away from its borders by an Army offensive and the Dayton peace process, West and Central Europeans have returned to Croatia's Istrian and Dalmatian coasts in droves. For coastal residents, it ends a period of empty beaches, hotels, restaurants - and bank accounts.
Tourism is vital to the Croatian economy, accounting for 10 percent of national economic output and 7 percent of employment before the war. It also generated the lion's share of Yugoslavia's foreign currency, which Belgrade authorities invested in the country's less-prosperous south. Now independent, Croatia has the currency to itself.
Most of the coast was untouched by war, yet the conflict devastated the region all the same. In 1993, a year after the end of the Serbia-Croatia part of the Yugoslav wars, tourist arrivals were down nearly 75 percent from before the war.
Foreign earnings from tourism fell almost 90 percent to $360 million in 1991. In tourist towns like Korcula, virtually every restaurant, shop, and hotel remained closed as recently as last spring. Many island residents left for mainland cities in search of work.
"This season was a test case for the sector, because it is the first since Dayton," says Luka Znaor, a spokesman for the Ministry of Tourism. "We are very pleased that foreign tourists have come in numbers that exceeded our best expectations."
While not releasing figures, the Tourism Ministry reports "significant increases" in foreign tourist traffic, particularly from nearby Italy, Austria, Hungary, Germany, and the Czech Republic. For the past two years, resorts on the Istrian Peninsula in Croatia's northwest, far from war zones, have been packed with visitors. This year the summer tide of vacationers pushed farther south.
Still, in Korcula many shops and restaurants remain closed. And 31,000 refugees, mostly Croatians from Eastern Slavonia, still reside in hotels up and down the Adriatic coast. Mr. Znaor says that their relocation to the recently liberated Krajina region is a top government priority.
Ana Grba, who rents rooms in her Dubrovnik home, received her first foreign guests Aug. 12. She shows her guest register - packed with visitors from Europe and North America until the fall of 1990. "After that, nothing!" says Ms. Grba, who survived the war on a meager pension, fleeing to Rijeka when her neighborhood came under artillery attack. "Thank God people are finally returning."