This article also appeared in Romanian on the Contributors section of Hotnews.
When I published my first article in the Huffington Post I was greeted by over 100 negative comments, all from people who passionately believe that cannabis should be legalised (my crime was to suggest that cannabis can cause psychosis). Most comments on most articles in most news-sites seem to be negative and there is a phenomenon in UK (I’m not sure if it has reached Romania yet) called “trolling” whereby a group of like minded people, or “trolls”, bombard individual articles with negative comment, creating the impression that the people are against the point made by the journalist. It is a form of PR.
So it came as a pleasant surprise to see the quantity of intelligent comments that I got under my first article in Contributors this year, on Prince Charles’ Pensiune in Covasna. I didn’t know that intelligent and interesting comments existed on news-sites as my experience with the rest of the Romanian media have shown the opposite.
One particular comment really caught my attention: in Italy there is no Ministry of Tourism. To a Romanian, or anyone living in an ex-Communist country, this is a really new idea. How can you have no Ministry of Tourism? How can tourists stay in “authorised” guest houses? How can tourism function without the guiding hand of the state? Who will promote the country?
Italy is one of the biggest tourist destinations in Europe and is this because of a superb ministerial strategy? My intelligent commentator on Contributors pointed out that everything that the tourism sector needs can be organised by the private sector.
What this means in practice is that trade associations, as well as city and regional authorities, agree standards and organise promotional campaigns. What this also means is those organisations working in the tourism business (hotels, transport companies, caterers, entertainment providers) are attracted to each other and as partnerships can lobby government for better laws. This combination of trade associations and partnerships can provide all the expertise and funding required to ensure tourism becomes a big part of the national income. All this is backed up by a functioning legal system.
I can illustrate this ability of the private sector to organize things with the AA (Automobile Association) in Britain. The AA is one of the most impressive associations I’ve ever come across, which isn’t surprising considering that millions of Britain’s drivers pay an annual fee in order to have access to a state-of-the-art breakdown service. It is also one of the richest associations I have come across.
The AA run the best known hotel classification system in Britain. They employ hundreds of inspectors who visit hotels anonymously and check them out for hygiene, friendliness, standards of food, décor and service. They assign a number of stars – one star for the most simple place to five for a palace. When I was a kid in Scotland we all knew there was only one five star hotel in the entire country – Gleneagles – and stepping into a four star hotel was a rare and exciting experience.
In Romania the hotel classification system is run by the ministry and is a joke. The inspectors are underpaid and their visits are announced – the ideal ingredients for a corrupt outcome. Apparently the rating system in this country is based on the price of the room and is open to negotiation; if your hotel is expensive and you want to attract the luxury market you talk to the inspector (before he indulges in too much free wine) and arrange a five star rating.
On the other hand if you own a big, ugly, concrete monstrosity in the countryside (Romania’s answer to rural tourism) and you need to attract a lower income group of tourists, you can get your concrete block classified as a pensiune – which in other countries is a family based operation in a private house.
So what does Romania’s vast Ministry of Tourism actually do? Their main brief appears to be the promotion of Romania and vast sums have been spent on this over the last 20 years – almost all of it in vain. The last attempt to build a country brand cost millions of Euros and resulted in an unimpressive logo (a green palm leaf) that turned out to be available on the internet for just over $100.
They also employ an army of inspectors and have offices in each of Romania’s 42 counties. Their brief is to maintain standards among hotels and guest houses and what this means in practice is that
the inspectors fine whoever they can. I know an Englishman who had a guest house in Bistrita and was fined because his bedsheets touched the floor. Another foreign guest house owner I know was fined 2,000 Euro because he installed an ecological sewage system that consisted of equipment the inspectors had not heard of. Their view is that the ministry is one of the hazards of doing business in Romania.
The Romanian Ministry of Tourism consists of a vast number of bureaucrats who need to generate an extra income to supplement their wages. It is like a mythical monster that needs to be given human sacrifices and is so terrifying that nobody dares to challenge it. Like most public servants in this country they have inherited the Communist-era view that private businessmen are speculators, cheats, thieves and exploiters – and they are just claiming back for the state some of these stolen goods. The idea that the ministry could actually encourage growth in the tourism sector is alien to these people.
If the Ministry of Tourism was abolished the effect on tourism would be positive as the tourism sector would be free to develop naturally. The only downside is that tens of thousands of bureaucrats would be put out of work, and many of them are so well connected that getting them out would be almost impossible. What politician has the courage to even raise this issue?
Now that the Ministry of Tourism has been amalgamated with the Ministries of Transport and Development, creating an even bigger bureaucratic monster, why not abolish all three of them? Look at their track records: the Ministry of Transport has been unable to build more than 200km of motorways in 20 years (the Chinese built over 40,000km in the same period) and despite the billions of Euro the government has thrown at it. The Ministry of Regional Development have failed miserably to utilise the billions of EU funds that have been made available to them. All of the ministries are guilty of creating an incomprehensible web of regulations that function to keep the public confused and themselves employed.
All of the functions carried out by these ministries could be done by three new offices under the Ministry of Finance – which is the source of funds for all of these ministries anyway. The MOF could set up a “Road Contracting Office” and hire an experienced foreign engineer who could supervise the tenders (and if family connections, secrecy and corrupt practices are removed from tender procedures they can become highly effective mechanism for rebuilding the infrastructure). The same could be done for the EU funds which remain about 95% unspent because of the government is unwilling to cede control to professional outsiders, and a few international experts in tourism could keep an eye on the tourism sector.
Many people reading this would dismiss the proposal of abolishing these ministries as risky and absurd: surely these ministries are the guardians of laws relating to tourism, infrastructure, EU funds and so on? But the key word here is law, not ministry. If there are laws about basic standards in tourism, road-building and tender procedures then anyone can challenge corrupt practices in the courts. The money saved by abolishing these ministries could be invested in the legal system which could, in turn, ensure that standards are applied and abuses kept in check.
You raise an important question: what does the Ministry of Tourism (or any government agency) add to the country? In this case an outside observer would be hard pressed to identify much of value. Whereas private enterprise, adquately regulated and encouraged to work together, can do an enormous amount.
My experience back in the UK is that, whilst government and the ministries of state may be useful for distilling policy (the more so if the people get involved in the debate), once civil servants get involved in the detail their incompetence begins. I can think of the ineffective and inefficient attempts by the UK Depertament for Transport to procure new trains – a task better suited to the industry that will operate those trains, for goodness sake. (Oh, and they gave all the orders to foreign companies too.) That is without the dark hand of corruption at work – simply a meddling attitude combined with distrust of the private sector. Government can be a monster.
Yes, with roads and railways (and other utilities), once a broad national strategy has been worked out, an honest and competent agency could handle all of the contracts effciently. I suspect that would have to be forced on Romania (or any other country) by whoever is supplying the funding. After all, we in the rich West are paying – why shouldn’t we insist on value for money? That would be a win-win for taxpayers here and ordinary Romanians.
Don’t believe that the private sector is honest by default though. Think of the Transylvania Hightway and how Bechtel got the contract (and finally had much of it taken away). I work with Bechtel people and they still insist that no bribes were paid! So what did Iliescu (or was it Nastase?) get for suspending the competition law for one day so that Bechtel could be appointed?
Things are not perfect in Italy. Friends there who work in tourism report some quite ridiculous problems. An example is a law that bans guesthouses and hotels from collecting guests from the station or airport in their own vehicles – in order to boost the income of taxi firms. In rural areas especuially that is ridiculous. When I visited these people we were stopped in their car by police twice in an hour checking our particulars. We had to explain that we were friends, not tourists. So it’s not all wonderful there by any means. But still a better functioning market than that in Romania.
We should ask why tourists visit any particular country. For example, Scotland is scenic, Ireland is friendly, Italy has nice food and culture…..one could go on. So why do people visit Romania? What are the positives that attract visitors? What might visitors come to see if only they knew about it? What can Romanians (I emphasise people rather than ‘the state’ here) do to promote the positives.
Why do positives outweigh negatives? Scotland may be scenic however it does rain a lot there. So what do visitors (and, more to the point, those who might visit but currently don’t) perceive as being ‘wrong’ with Romania? In the light of what is perceived to be wrong why should tourists visit? What real and meaningful steps can be taken to correct the problems and tell potential visitors?
As for fixing ‘problems’ this has to be real. Someone told me of a law that forests cannot be clear-felled within a certain distance of a main road. So tourists think that they are driving through a wonderful forest land. Until, that is, they stop to perform bodily needs, step into the woods, and discover a wasteland of bald tree stumps. (The answer is not to legislate that WCs must be provided or make it illegal to urinate in the forest – though the former might make the country more attractive to visitors!)
The irony of this story is that the Romanian version of it got loads of nasty comments (presumably from people at the Ministry of Tourism who were — justifiably — offended that I propose to eleminate their ministry and thus their job).