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[INTERVIEW] Croatian ambassador hopes to rekindle tourism

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Damir Kusen, first Croatian ambassador to Korea, speaks during an interview with The Korea Times, July 6, at the National Library of Korea where 'Croatian Literature and Cultural Heritage from the Middle Ages to Modern Times' exhibition is held through July 25. Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk
Damir Kusen, first Croatian ambassador to Korea, speaks during an interview with The Korea Times, July 6, at the National Library of Korea where 'Croatian Literature and Cultural Heritage from the Middle Ages to Modern Times' exhibition is held through July 25. Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk

By Kwon Mee-yoo

Croatia is best known among Koreans as an emerging tourist destination in Europe for its beautiful natural landscapes along the Adriatic Sea as well as cities with medieval charm.

"In 2019, almost half a million Koreans visited Croatia and enjoyed the rich historical and cultural heritage, natural beauty, as well as the hospitality of the local people and excellent food and wine," Croatian Ambassador to Korea Damir Kusen said during an interview with The Korea Times at the National Library of Korea (NLK) in southern Seoul, July 6.

However, the country has much more to offer, so the Croatian Embassy has joined hands with the NLK to present "Croatian Literature and Cultural Heritage from the Middle Ages to Modern Times," an exhibition looking into Croatia's lesser-known cultural heritage.

The NLK signed an MOU with the Croatian National Library, and the embassy then proposed the exhibit to the NLK.

"I was very pleased that Suh Hye-ran, chief executive of the NLK, gladly accepted our proposal to organize an exhibition of early Croatian literature and the first Croatian script ― the Glagolitic. This was a script, or alphabet, that Croatia, besides the Latin script, used beginning in the early 12th century. We expanded the scope of this exhibition and managed to bring in a large number of artifacts that, together, provide a great opportunity for visitors to take a journey through thousands of years of Croatian literature and culture," he said.

Croatian books are displayed at the 'Croatian Literature and Cultural Heritage from the Middle Ages to Modern Times' exhibition at the National Library of Korea in southern Seoul, July 6. Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk
Croatian books are displayed at the 'Croatian Literature and Cultural Heritage from the Middle Ages to Modern Times' exhibition at the National Library of Korea in southern Seoul, July 6. Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk

From the photos of the ancient Croatian Glagolitic Script inscribed on the Baska Tablet, from the island of Krk, dating back to around 1100 A.D., ?to a photoprint of the "Missale Romanum Glagolitice," the first book printed in Croatia in 1483, and Toso Dabac's black-and-white photos of 20th century Croatia and traditional costumes and craftworks, the exhibit gives a peek into the vibrant history and culture of the Southeast European country.

"Croatia is among the few Slavic states that has managed to preserve a significant number of old printed books ― called incunables ― from the mid-15th century, just after Gutenberg's invention of the printing press. I am very glad that some reprints of these old books are displayed at this exhibition, like the Roman Missal, a liturgical book for the celebration of the Catholic Mass, which was printed in the Croatian language in 1483, only nine years after the first original Latin Missale Romanum was printed in Rome," the ambassador explained.

Also on display are contemporary books that have been mutually translated between the Korean and Croatian languages.

"Our goal is to encourage more mutual translations, since, with each translated book, we bring our cultures closer to each other," Kusen said.

Ambassador Kusen recommended Ivana Brlic-Mazuranic's children's book, "The Brave Adventures of a Shoemaker's Boy," and Nobel Prize for Literature winner Ivo Andric's "The Bridge on the Drina," among the works of Croatian literature translated into Korean.

"I firmly believe that culture and language are the soul of any nation and the foundation of its identity. We recognize the value of our culture by sharing it with others. The MOU between these two national libraries is exactly the type of a bridge that has the potential of strongly promoting a cultural exchange and initiating projects for stronger collaboration," he said.

Krka National Park / Courtesy of Croatian National Tourist Board
Krka National Park / Courtesy of Croatian National Tourist Board

Tourism bridges Croatia, Korea

Kusen is the first resident Croatian ambassador to Korea since the embassy opened in 2018. Croatia established diplomatic relations with Seoul in 1992, but it took 26 years for Croatia to open its embassy in Seoul, after a significant increase of Korean tourists to the country, which is on the Adriatic Sea.

"Through a complex process of reforms in all areas of its society, Croatia fulfilled all the criteria required for joining NATO in 2009 and the European Union (EU) in 2013. Since its independence, international recognition and subsequent U.N. membership, Croatia has been deeply interested in cooperating and developing friendships with all other countries," Ambassador Kusen said.

"I am deeply honored to serve as the first Croatian ambassador to Korea and am confident that we have already brought our two countries much closer together."

In recent years, the number of Korean tourists to Croatia has skyrocketed and, as a tourism-oriented country where tourism accounts for 17 percent of its GDP, it was natural for Croatia to take an interest in Korea. Kusen describes Korean tourists in Croatia as a "wonderful bridge and people-to-people connection between our two countries."

"I think that the real interest for Croatia has been heightened by the Korean film industry, which recognized it as an attractive filming destination. Several large mega film productions, such as 'Star Wars,' 'Game of Thrones,' 'Robin Hood' and 'Mamma Mia 2' were filmed in Dubrovnik and on Croatia's coastline and nearby islands," he said.

"In the past few years, several reality travel shows (of Korea) have been filmed in Croatia, such as 'Battle Trip.' The famous 'Sisters Over Flowers' was a major trigger for increasing the popularity of Croatia as a travel destination."

Many Korean travel agencies and airlines have recognized this trend. Korean Air has been flying a regular direct route to Zagreb since September 2018 ― although it is currently suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic ― and low-cost carrier T'way has acquired a license to operate between Zagreb and Seoul.

"We believe that this would certainly be an attractive option for younger travelers to Croatia due to the significantly lower-priced ticket. Croatia is now open for Korean tourists and they are not required to stay in self-isolation upon arrival if they provide a medical test confirmation that they are not COVID-19 positive or that they have been vaccinated," the ambassador said.

Among Korean tourists, the Old City of Dubrovnik, also known as the "Pearl of the Adriatic," and the unique waterfalls of the Plitvice Lakes National Park would be the most popular, but Kusen also shared some of the more hidden gems of the country.

"Travelling to Croatia is like a journey through a 'history of architecture' textbook, offering rich cultural heritage from Ancient Greece and Rome, to Medieval, Byzantine, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Classic and Modern art. Visitors can enjoy or feel like they are part of ancient history by walking through hundreds of small medieval cities on the tops of picturesque hills and surrounded by stone walls," he said.

"Croatia has a long coastline of 1,777 kilometers with thousands of islands, many of which are uninhabited. It gives endless opportunities for enjoying the crystal blue Adriatic from private beaches or small romantic bays as hidden gems to sailing through archipelagos of a thousand islands. Croatia also offers incredible scuba-diving experiences, with 10-meter sea visibility and numerous ancient Venetian boats that sunk very close to the coast," the ambassador continued.

"Those who love nature can walk through numerous national parks and experience the hidden forest lakes and fast rivers. More adventure-oriented visitors can have top-quality rafting at one of the numerous mountain rivers in Croatia or enjoy the long and relaxing horse-riding tours along the beach or through the magnificent nature."

The ambassador believes that Croatia will reemerge as an attractive European tourist destination once international travel is restored and the epidemiological situation allows.

"We sincerely hope that this magnificent trend will recover because Koreans really love Croatia and they will again be warmly welcomed there with both arms wide open. Korean people, when they travel around the world, truly promote the wonderful image of their amazing country, its rich history and vibrant culture."

View of Croatian city of Dubrovnik / Courtesy of Ivo Pervan
View of Croatian city of Dubrovnik / Courtesy of Ivo Pervan

Attractive gateway to Europe

Over the past two and a half years, Ambassador Kusen visited many Korean government and regional institutions, universities, cultural and sports organizations and companies, and he is pleased with Koreans' genuine interest in stronger cooperation between the two countries.

"I was highly impressed by the magnificent overall transition that Korea has so successfully managed to make in a single generation, from a war-torn country in the 1950s to the technologically-advanced and world-leading economy that it is today," he said.

"Croatia is strongly interested in having a partner and friend in East Asia and offers its friendship and cooperation as a new EU country. Croatia would like to encourage Korean companies to further recognize Croatia and its seaports as an attractive gateway to Europe and to the EU's market of 500 million people."

Every company established in Croatia is an EU company, and can therefore utilize all the benefits of the EU's single market policy, along with the FTAs or preferential trade agreements that the EU has with many countries and regions around the world.

"Croatia has a very attractive geographical position, deep in Central Europe, with its seaports ― Rijeka and Ploce ― which can make the sea-route from the Pacific area to Europe shorter by 2,500 nautical miles, saving a week of travel," the ambassador said.

Croatia also has a long tradition in electronic engineering and chemistry. Electrical engineer Nikola Tesla, who invented the first alternating current motor and inspired the electric car company Tesla, was born in present-day Croatia. Two Croatian scientists have won the Nobel Prize in chemistry ― Lavoslav Ruzicka in 1939 for synthetic hormones and vitamins and Vladimir Prelog in 1975 for stereochemistry of organic molecules.

"The latest example of Rimac Automobili and his fast electric hypercar ― Nevera ― with new, advanced battery technology and numerous innovations in the car design and construction, have built a reputation for Croatia in this field as well. We are glad that Porsche and Hyundai Motor have recognized this potential for cooperation and are already significant shareholders of the Rimac Automobili company," Kusen said.

"Croatia will market itself as a European hub for electric vehicle (EV) production and R&D. The just announced news that famous automobile company Bugatti will merge with Rimac Automobil at their new headquarters in Croatia, is of great importance, and another step in building a reputation for Croatia in EV-related industries. In that context, I believe that Korean companies in the field of EV, electric batteries, semiconductors or sensors might also be interested in establishing their own businesses there, targeting the highly attractive European market that is rapidly turning toward renewable energy and EVs."


Kwon Mee-yoo meeyoo@koreatimes.co.kr


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