Quiet days for Croatia-on-sea: Tony Barber, on the Adriatic coast, found that what Zagreb gained in pride it is losing in revenue

THREE summers ago, when Yugoslavia still existed, Croatia's Adriatic coast was packed with foreign tourists and there was not a Croatian flag in sight. This summer, Croatia has completed one year of independence and the red, white and blue flag with its chequerboard symbol is flying everywhere - on boats, at petrol stations, in shops, bars and hotels. But in most resorts, there is scarcely a foreign tourist in sight.

What Croatia has gained in pride, it has lost in revenue. Even in 1990, when ethnic hatreds were driving Yugoslavia closer to war, people flocked to the Adriatic coast to enjoy the islands, beaches, silver-blue sea and ancient Roman towns. They spent more than pounds 1bn that year - essential cash for an economy sinking under the twin burdens of debt and inflation. The outbreak of war last year drove away many foreigners, but it is only this summer that the true impact has been felt.

'There is just no one here,' said a hotel manager in Split, the site of the palace built by the Roman emperor Diocletian. 'The last Briton who showed up was a 21-year-old from Bristol in July. He had a military backpack. He said he had come to fight for Croatia in Dubrovnik. He stayed two days and took the ferry, and I've not heard from him since.'

In town after town along the coast, businesses have closed, restaurants are empty and shops have no custom. Signs still hang outside guesthouses - sobe, Zimmer, rooms - but no one is coming to stay. Cafe owners sit dejectedly in the sun, listening to radio stations that intersperse pop music with war reports.

Not that the big hotels - if they are undamaged by war - are empty. Many were obliged last year to offer rooms to thousands of refugees from the fighting in other parts of Croatia. The Marjan, one of Split's best hotels with a commanding view of the marina and sea, now looks rather like a nondescript apartment block. Refugee families hang out clothes to dry on balconies, and children squat outside the hotel entrance. In the nearby Bellevue Hotel, 50 refugees have taken over the entire third floor.

'I've been in this hotel since August last year,' said Goran, a refugee from Vrlika, north of Split. 'My wife had our first child here. Conditions are not too bad. I have done service with the Croatian National Guard.'

The story is the same in Dubrovnik, which came under Serbian siege last October and until a few months ago was virtually isolated from the world. As artillery and mortar battles raged outside the stone walls of the historic Old Town, refugees streamed in from the countryside. About 21,000 had arrived by April. Then the war spread to neighbouring Bosnia- Herzegovina, and even more refugees began to flood in.

'All accommodation capacities are filled and the problem of providing sufficient food supplies for refugees located in Dubrovnik is tremendous,' two residents of the town, Berta Dragicevic and Miho Katicic, wrote to the Croatian representation in London.

The Argentina, one of Dubrovnik's most famous hotels, was taken over by European Community and United Nations observers. Its manager says the tourist industry needs a complete overhaul, involving foreign investment and joint ventures, before it can thrive again. 'I plan to have a full hotel by 1994,' he said.

One of the most striking features of coastal life this summer is the presence of Croatian soldiers in combat gear who lounge in outdoor cafes with pistols in their holsters, or who amble along the seafronts with rifles dangling at their sides. There is a constant hum of military activity in the area north of Dubrovnik up to Neum, where the shattered roofs and windows of private houses testify to the war's ferocity.

You must pass several Croatian checkpoints to reach Dubrovnik by road, and the closer you get the more military vehicles you see. Some are Fiats and other ordinary cars that have been stripped of their number plates and painted camouflage green.

With the exception of Dubrovnik and Zadar, a port north of Split whose town centre suffered heavy destruction, the main coastal resorts have been largely spared violence on the scale endured by eastern Croatia and Bosnia. The Makarska Riviera south of Split is unspoiled, and foreign tourism has resumed in Pula in the far north.

But smaller seaside towns were caught up in the war. A 300-room hotel in Slona, 20 miles north of Dubrovnik, was gutted after the Serbian-led Yugoslav army arrived last October. It lost its deep- sea diving school, tennis courts and kindergarten. At Cajkovici, a yacht lies half-sunk in the marina. Near Sustjepan engineers are repairing stretches of the Adriatic highway that appear to have been blown up with explosives.

Generally, the cultural treasures of Dubrovnik escaped destruction. Inside the walled Old Town, guarded on three sides by thick stone fortresses, the palaces, museums and galleries filled with paintings and sculptures remain intact. But several churches - both Catholic and Serbian Orthodox - were damaged by shells, as were some private houses that rise up the steep, narrow streets leading off the Praca, the main pedestrian road of the Old Town. In addition, explosions blew out the windows and glass fronts of many small businesses. In some streets, the little lanterns that once lit the Old Town at night have been smashed to pieces. Dubrovnik has effectively broken its siege, but its airport remains closed, Serbian forces are camped over the hills that dominate the coast, and the occasional artillery burst still breaks the silence.

Compared to last autumn, the Adriatic coast appears a relatively safe place to visit. There are flights from Zagreb to Split with Croatia Airlines, and ferries shuttle between Split, the islands and Dubrovnik. If you want to hire a car, however, you may have to think again. The representative of a large Western firm at Split airport demanded an insurance deposit of dollars 15,000 ( pounds 7,500) before he would hire out a Renault 5.

The reason? Several Western journalists and photographers have driven hired cars into Bosnia, where the vehicles have been stolen or blown up.

(Photograph omitted)