Croatia's azure Adriatic coastline dotted with over a thousand verdant islands has already won the nation a spot on the world tourist map and hopes are high that July's EU entry will boost the sector.
And will provide a much needed shot in the arm to the struggling economy. "EU entry will certainly improve Croatia's image as a tourist destination and might even bring an investment surge," said Goran Hrnic, chief executive of the Gulliver Travel agency, a member of TUI Travel, Europe's largest tour operator.
AdvertisementIn 2012, Croatia hosted a record 11.8 million tourists -- mostly Germans, Slovenians, Italians and Austrians -- nearly triple its population of 4.2 million.
Tourism provides key support for Croatia's economy, which has struggled in recession nearly continuously since 2009. Last year, tourism accounted for some 15 percent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP) with income totalling some 6.8 billion euros ($8.8 billion).
After a peak in the 1980s, Croatia's tourism was hard-hit by its 1991-1995 independence war.
The conflict even touched the so-called Pearl of the Adriatic, when Serb forces laid seige and shelled the medieval port of Dubrovnik in 1991, killing and wounding dozens and causing severe damage.
But since the end of the war, the industry has gradually recovered to surpass its pre-war levels.
The country's main draw is its 1,777-kilometre (1,101-mile) long coast with some 1,100 islands and islets, of which only 66 are inhabited.
An alluring Mediterranean climate, budget airline connections, and affordable prices have proved a winning formula for tourists seeking sun and sand and young clubbers out for a good time.
But its luxurious night spots also draw international celebrities and its and lavish marinas serve the yachting set out to find Robinson Crusoe-style secluded bays.
"We definitely expect stronger demand for Croatia" after July 1 when the nation will wind up a decade-long process and join the European Union, Zeljko Miletic, head of the Dubrovnik hoteliers' association, told AFP.
Hanke Reitz from Germany decided to visit Dubrovnik before the crowds move in at the peak of the season in July that coincides with the EU entry.
"Many in Europe will now notice Croatia and realise they do not have to go to Greece or Spain to have beautiful holidays," said Reitz.
In Dubrovnik, the UNESCO world heritage-listed medieval town described by George Bernard Shaw as "paradise on Earth", tourists often outnumber citizens.
Last year, almost 800,000 tourists visited its famous two-kilometre-long (1.2 mile-long) city walls, built over the 12th to the 17th century, and strolled along the polished stone blocks of the main promenade Stradun.
Apart from tourists, who arrive mainly by plane and stay an average five days, every year Dubrovnik hosts around one million cruise-ship visitors.
Even the owners of a cafe that has made itself an international reputation by doing things the traditional way sees some value in the change coming next month.
"For the past 50 years nothing has changed, neither quality nor service, that is why people like us," said Dinka Popovic, the Skola owner.
The small cafe got its name -- School -- from students cutting classes and spending time there filling up on its typical Dalmatian cuisine, uses organic products from the same suppliers it has used from decades.
Popovic says it "will be better in EU" as she served home-made prosciutto and cheese sandwiches, sardine salad, and strudel to clients at her seven tables.
"There will be no borders, so people might decide on visiting even more," added her husband Miljenko.
But EU membership might have some negative impact as Croatia has had to introduce visas for tourists from Russia, Ukraine and Turkey to comply with the bloc's rules.
"Our bookings from Russia and Ukraine are some 15 percent lower than what we had planned," Hrnic said.
Almost 200,000 Russians visited Croatia last year, less than two percent of the overall figure, but the authorities have already launched a procedure to help facilitate and speed up issuing visas.
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