Effects of War in Former Yugoslavia on the Island of Hvar
A look at how war in former Yugoslavia affected life on the island of Hvar.
With the billionaire yachts moored up and the picturesque stone squares full of tourists in the numerous cafes, it is hard to imagine that the citizens of Hvar were caught up in war just sixteen years ago. A common request from incoming tourists is a simple explanation of the war in former Yugoslavia, and while much has been written on the subject, rather less has been documented about the effects of the war on Hvar.
The Yugoslav army (JNA) attacked Croatia in July 1991 and Hvar was blockaded the following month. The main effects of the blockade were shortages of foodstuffs normally brought from the mainland, such as flour, and no access to hospitals and main medical services.
After the sinking of some JNA ships from land fire on Brac and the Peljesac Peninsula, a ceasefire was signed and the navy left Sucuraj territorial waters on December 3 1991.
Arrival of Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons from the Mainland
The situation on the ground in the mainland was dire, with large tracts of Croatia occupied. A steady stream of refugees had to be housed, and a logical supplier of beds was Hvar, devoid of tourists due to the conflict. Refugees, particularly from the front-line town of Vukovar, began to arrive by boat.
The refugee situation deteriorated in 1992 as Croatia took in numerous refugees from the brutal war in Bosnia and Hercegovina. The effect of traumatised refugees replacing affluent tourist was two-fold: severe reduction in revenue and severe increase in wear and tear in the hotels.
Full Hotels but No Tourists
A UN fact-finding mission in August 1992 found that there were 624 displaced persons and 3,727 refugees on Hvar, of whom 1,323 were in private accommodation, the rest in hotels. Usually closed in winter, most of the hotels had no heating installations, which caused problems for the new temporary residents.
Although never invaded, Hvar did experience enemy attack, and the tiny airstrip in Stari Grad was bombed at least twice. The main result of the bombing was denying local people emergency services on the mainland.
With the demographic balance upset both ways – increased population during the winter and decreased in the summer due to lack of tourists – the hotels were full all year, which had a negative impact on the condition of the buildings.
The absence of many paying visitors had a devastating effect on the island's economy and many cafes and restaurants closed because of the lack of electricity (because of the occupation of the Peruca dam, source of hydro-electric power) and the difficulties of obtaining necessary goods such as coffee, milk etc from the mainland. Many of Hvar's male population were drafted into the defense forces on the front line near Zadar, where one man from Stari Grad was killed and many more returned suffering from PTSD.
As Yugoslavia's premier island, Hvar was popular with Serbs, many of whom had holiday homes there. Some of these were requisitioned for accommodation for the wounded and refugees from areas on mainland Croatia under occupation, while others were sold off cheaply by their owners who figured they would never come to the island again. Many others decided to bide their time and are once again regular visitors to Hvar.
A great hindrance to the post-war development of tourist infrastructure has been ownership issues of hotels and other such buildings, many of which were nationalised by the newly-independent Croatian government. One such example on Hvar was the Belgrade Resort, a 10,000m2 beach front complex with 400 hundred rooms and 25m indoor pool east of Jelsa.
It remains abandoned today despite much interest from large investment groups during the real estate boom of 2004-5, with ownership problems (the City of Belgrade was the pre-nationalisation owner) the main stumbling block. This ownership issue was repeated along the Adriatic coast and was one of the main reasons why hotels in prime locations remained derelict for so long.
Recovery of the Tourist Industry
The war had a devastating effect on the entire region, and recovery has been slow. In terms of tourism, the main challenge facing Croatia was to persuade potential visitors that the country was safe, not at war and open for business. A highly effective marketing campaign under the slogan The Mediterranean as it Once Was went some way to achieving this, but has still not fully recovered 16 years after hostilities ceased.
While the scars of the conflict, both physical and psychological, still exist, Hvar's tourism is once more booming, with Hvar Town in particular benefiting from a multi-million dollar investment in the town's hotels. Hvar has been described as one of the world's sexiest islands by Forbes Magazine and voted one of the top ten most beautiful islands in the world by readers of Conde Nast.
UNDP Mission to the Republics of Former Yugoslavia to Assess the Humanitarian Needs of the Disabled and the Priorities for Dealing with Them. Vivian Grisogono, August 1992