People pose for pictures next to a decorated fountain in a park in central Zagreb
Zagreb - Arab Today
With an ice sculpture festival, brass band fanfares and a huge skating rink, Croatia's capital is pulling in growing numbers of winter tourists in the hope of cheering its struggling economy.
In a country better known for summer holidays along its pristine coastline, Zagreb is promoting itself as a festive wonderland aiming to rival Europe's traditional Christmas destinations such as Vienna and Prague.
A packed 'Advent in Zagreb' programme offers special flight and hotel offers, themed walking tours, dozens of concerts and illuminated market stalls, where mulled wine, hearty sausages and cinnamon donuts are among the big hits.
The event, now in its sixth year, has propelled Zagreb to win the title of 'Best Christmas Market' this month from a poll of more than 100,000 travellers on the European Best Destinations website.
"This event is something really really important for our economy here in Zagreb," said Luka Benko from the city's tourist board, outlining the "huge promotion" of the Advent programme in domestic, regional and faraway markets.
"Probably you would say Croatia is a country for sea and summer, but then we are a continental country as well, we are very diversified."
- Record numbers -
Tourism is crucial for the European Union's newest member as it slowly emerges from six years of recession.
The sector was hard-hit by Croatia's 1990s war of independence from Yugoslavia, but it has since gradually recovered and now accounts for about 17 percent of gross domestic product.
Last year, this Adriatic nation drew in more than 13 million tourists -- more than triple its population.
While most headed to the coastline dotted with hundreds of islands, the Advent programme attracted a record 56,000 visitors to Zagreb in December 2014, marking a 21 percent rise from the previous year.
"We are experiencing the same thing this year. We are hoping to achieve at least these numbers but I'm sure we are going to have much much more," said Benko.
Visitors can download a smartphone app to guide them around the attractions on offer from late November until January 10, ranging from children's art workshops to pastry chef demonstrations and tastings.
Zagreb's growing appeal is mirrored by the rise in places to stay: since 2006, the number of hostels has shot up from five to 43, hotels from 38 to 53 and private accommodation options from 42 to more than 900, Benko said.
The range of bars and restaurants has also significantly increased amidst the graceful Habsburg architecture of the capital, which is home to 800,000 people.
"Zagreb is a city that is big enough to offer all the highlights of a typical European capital, but small enough to be walkable with a charming neighbourhood vibe," said writer Andrea Pisac, who runs the 'Zagreb Honestly' travel blog (travelhonestly.com).
She said the Advent programme had infused local people with a sense of optimism at a time of economic sluggishness -- and changed habits in the largely Roman Catholic country, where Christmas has traditionally been celebrated indoors with family.
"The festive spirit has spread out into the streets and everything feels more exciting," Pisac said.
- Beyond 'sun and sea' -
While tourist industry representatives have hailed the Advent programme, they say more investments and efforts are needed to diversify what Croatia can offer and encourage year-round visitors.
"Croatian tourism's main challenge is to extend the season, and the issue has been on the agenda for a long time," said Nikolina Frklic at the country's largest travel agency, Atlas.
She hoped Zagreb's example would inspire other attractions and events beyond the "sun and sea" to lure more visitors.
Most Advent guests currently hail from neighbouring Bosnia and Slovenia as well as Italy, but the ambitious marketing push has targeted further afield, including the United States and Asia.
With a return to national growth of around just 1.0 percent forecast for 2015, a broader tourist base would be welcomed by many -- but those drawn to Zagreb's relaxed Christmas atmosphere may be hoping that it does not get too popular.
"It's very cosy and it has soul," said first-time Italian visitor Franco Rossi, sipping champagne with his wife as a local folk band struck up in central Zrinjevac Square.