Tourists flock to Southeast Europe for holidays

08/10/2007

Tourism is a key component of Southeast European economies. While Greece and Turkey have long been magnets for visitors, post-transition countries such as Bulgaria, Croatia and Macedonia are looking to maximize their potential.

By Natasa Radic for Southeast European Times in Zagreb -- 08/10/07

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Tourists enjoy a view of the famous Croatian Adriatic resort of Dubrovnik. [Getty Images]

Each summer, the images shown on the national evening news are the same -- cars queuing at the Croatian border, waiting to continue their trip to the coast. The reporters can barely contain their excitement. The queues are 8km long, they exclaim. All the border crossings are open and being used to capacity.

Then we hear what the tourists have to say: they are tired and did not expect to run into such severe congestion and so many customs formalities. The influx is similar at airports, seaports and train stations. At times, it seems as though Croatia's population doubles during July and August.

Throughout Southeast Europe, tourism is a vital industry, holding out the promise of economic growth and prosperity. The region is unusually wealthy in terms of potential tourist attractions, from coastlines to mountain ranges and historical or cultural sites. And the tourists are coming. As the Balkans finally emerge from the post-communist transition and the violence of the 1990s, countries such as Croatia and Bulgaria are beginning to challenge established destinations such as Greece and Turkey for market share.

Croatia has set its sights on becoming a European tourism superpower. It has opened up to foreign investors and hotel chains that would like to get in on the action. With five star accommodations, yacht rentals, golf courses, scuba lessons and plush apartments overlooking the Adriatic, the country is on the map for elite tourism.

At the same time, the tourism authorities seek to attract visitors who are looking for a reasonably priced destination with a friendly atmosphere. The official tourism slogan invites visitors to come experience "the Mediterranean as it once was". A potential challenge for the future will be to preserve this kind of experience while also catering to the high rollers.

Although the influx of visitors pumps money into the economy, it also creates difficulties for locals. Many residents of Dubrovnik have trouble coping with the dramatic increase in prices during peak season. Drinking a coffee on the town's main street costs about as much as in the French Riviera. As a result, locals are starting to feel excluded from their own way of life. In the summer, it is simply impossible to find a parking place in Dubrovnik, and locals mostly avoid going to restaurants and clubs during the season.

Bulgaria is another ex-member of the communist world that is now trying to maximize its potential for tourism. According to Bulgaria's State Agency for Tourism (SAT), nearly 3 million foreign tourists visited the country between January and July this year -- up about 4.5% compared to the same period last year. The number of foreigners who visited the Balkan country – now a member of the EU -- during the whole of 2006 exceeded 5 million people.

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A beach near Varna, Bulgaria. [Getty Images]

More than 70% of those who visited the Balkan country in the first six months of 2007 were from other EU member states, with Greeks, Romanians, Germans and Brits topping the list. Meanwhile, the number of tourists from Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia has dropped significantly.

Like Croatia, Bulgaria has been going after the big revenues provided by elite tourism. Hundreds of hotels have been built along the Black Sea coast in recent years, including five-star facilities at the major resorts, such as Albena, Golden Sands and Sunny Beach. The Kempinski Grand Hotel Hermitage at the Golden Sands and the Kuban Hotel at Sunny Beach also attract visitors with their casinos.

At the same time, the country remains affordable to budget travellers. The same resorts offer plenty of 3-star and 4-star hotels. Indeed, the country probably offers too much of everything at the moment. Over-construction has led to supply outweighing demand in some places, threatening financial problems for investors.

By and large, high-end tourism has not yet come to neighbouring Macedonia, despite the Balkan country's stunning natural beauty. So far it is mostly a destination for travellers keen on exploring new places, or those with particular interests such as religion or sports. This year, UNESCO-protected Lake Ohrid hosted 250,000 tourists, with 1,100,000 overnight stays, but these were mostly from within Macedonia.

Most would agree that the country has yet to promote itself effectively. Nevertheless, between 2002 and 2006, the sector saw growth of between 6% and 9%, and the trend is expected to continue. A milestone was achieved in March when Aquapura, a Portuguese company, announced plans to build a 50m-euro elite resort at Lake Prespa. The lake thus joins a list of Aquapura resorts that also includes Brazil, Mexico, Tuscany, Budapest, Prague and Portugal's Douro River.

Macedonia's southern neighbour, Greece, has long been a magnet for world tourism, though its appeal has changed somewhat over the years. Decades ago, it was inexpensive and a little on the raw side -- a haven for backpackers, student travellers and the adventurous. Facilities tended to be underdeveloped and the attraction among high-end visitors somewhat limited.

All that has changed. Although the opportunities for shoestring travel can still be found, the country these days is anything but inexpensive. The islands and other popular sites are crowded with glitzy bars, discos and resorts. Tourism is an economic powerhouse for Greece, with the sector accounting for 20% of the GDP and one out of every five jobs.

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Tourists visit the ancient city of Ephesus in the western Turkish coastal city of Izmir. [Getty Images]

This year has been a record in terms of tourism arrivals and revenues, despite the summer fires that swept through the country in late August, during peak season. "More than 17 million visitors will have visited our country by the end of the year, and we are already working to break this year's record in 2008," said Greek Minister of Tourism Development Fani Palli-Petralia. Despite the trauma of August, no major resorts or tourist facilities have reported mass cancellations, the minister said.

That is welcome news for a country that suffered severe damage in other sectors. Around 184,000 hectares of vegetation burned in the fires. At least at least 1,500 houses were destroyed, along with 72,000 animals and more than 4.5 million olive trees. Government estimates of the losses range between 1.5 billion and 1.7 billion euros, while some experts quoted by the press put the figure at 3 billion euros or more.

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Across the Aegean, meanwhile, tourism in Turkey continues to roar ahead. The number of visitors increased more than 16% in the first seven months of this year. Around 13 million foreign tourists visited the country, according to official data. The country's most popular resort, Antalya, hosted 5.5 million visitors in the first eight months of the year. Germans continue to make up the largest group, followed by Russians.

More than 700,000 tourists visited Istanbul -- Turkey's largest cultural, historical and business centre -- in August alone. Formerly the capital of Byzantium and then the Ottoman Empire, the city charms visitors with its museums, palaces, mosques, churches and bazaars.

Following the visit of Pope Benedict XVI last year, the town of Selcuk has found itself on the tourist map, with the number of visits increasing by about 30% in the first seven months of the year. Selcuk has many historical remains of early Christianity, including a house which many believe to have been visited by the Virgin Mary, and Ayasoluk Hill where St John wrote his Gospel.

Contributors: Svetla Dimitrova (Sofia), Zoran Nikolovski (Skopje), Gabriela Preda (Athens) and Ayhan Simsek (Ankara)

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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