Croatia's Crowning Glory

Article excerpt

FOLLOWING ITS TRAUMATIC BREAKAWAY FROM THE FORMER YUGOSLAVIA, CROATIA HAS BEEN GEARING UP TO WHAT MANY PEOPLE ARE PREDICITNG WILL BE A TOURISM "EXPLOSION". LISA SYKES VISITED THE DALMATIAN COAST TO SEE WHAT IS BEING DONE TO PROTECT ITS WILD AND FRAGILE AREAS.

Croatia, a country with 1,000 years of history, first appeared on the political map of Europe in 1992 after more than 50 years as a republic within the Yugoslav federation. Perhaps it is the fact that it has only recently acquired independence that has caused confusion over its geographical identity. Its position, so close to Austria, bordering Hungary and just across the Adriatic Sea from Italy, places it firmly in the Central European belt along with neighbouring Slovenia. However, a visit to Croatia throws in a further possibility -- and ultimately the one that best captures the nation's ethos.

Croatia is a Mediterranean country, looking outwards to the Adriatic Sea for its livelihood, its trade and, more recently, its tourists. Croatians are a Slavic peoples but with a Mediterranean lifestyle -- fishing, vine-tending, olive-growing -- living much like the Greek islanders did before the arrival of mass tourism. The Croatian language (no longer Serbo-Croat) and architectural heritage reveal a Venetian influence, while the biscuits and cakes sold along the Dalmatian coast have that unmistakable Viennese melt-in-your-mouth quality.

Of course, there are parts of Croatia that are many miles from the sea, including the capital Zagreb, which has the laid-back chic of many other European cities, without, as yet, their more unsavoury characteristics. Yet it is the Dalmatian Coast, with its 1,185 islands, islets and reefs, that Croatia's economy will come to rely on as visitor numbers gradually climb after the war.

Istria, a region in the north of the country, was given clearance for tourists by the Foreign Office in 1992, and Dalmatia at the end of 1994, but it is only this year that the big European tour operators have managed to fill their flights. Minister for tourism Niko Bulic says foreign earnings from tourism were $2 billion in 1996 compared to $1 billion the previous year. He expects $2.5 billion in tourist revenue by the end of this year.

This brings its own dilemmas, particularly to the fragile areas of the Dalmatian Coast which risk having both their traditional way of life and their environment changed dramatically by the demands of tourism. Yet, as the Kornati National Park on the Dalmatian Coast will hopefully prove, tourism can develop and coexist with conservation.

The Kornati National Park was established in 1980. Comprising of 91 of the 140 islands in the Kornati archipelago, it is hard to believe that these blue-green clear coastal waters and deserted islands are part of the polluted and crowded Mediterranean at all.

The largest island is Kornat, which at 25 kilometres long, covers more than two thirds of the 22,000-hectare national park. Two roughly parallel rows of islands, running down the Adriatic coast, the park descends steeply into the sea creating submarine microclimates with the highest biodiversity in the Adriatic. Legend has it that God made the labyrinth of straits and islands from the fistful of rocks he had left over after he created the world. He threw them into the sea, looked down and decided they were beautiful as they had fallen.

Vladislav Mihelcic is conservation manager at Kornati National Park. His main concern is to protect the park, most of which is sea, and ensure its sustainable use. "It is the geomorphology of Kornati that is unique and special," he says. "The limestone dates from the upper Cretaceous period and the sparse, low vegetation means geological features can be easily seen."

Water erosion has produced textbook karst features characteristic of limestone regions including cracks, funnels, caves, chasms, pits and little karst fields that hold the last fragments of fertile red soil. …

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