You can also read this article in Romanian, on the Contributors section of Hotnews. I don’t have a TV as I can’t stand the sensationalist nonsense pumped out by ProTV or the endless “analysis” the 24 hour news channels inflict on the public every evening. But when something interesting does actually happen you get to hear about it (I was in a Romanian village in the early 1990s when a peasant told me the American’s were bombing Iraq. “Nonsense” I replied. But he was right, he’d seen it on his ancient black and white TV).
Earlier this week I was visiting a friend who, like most Romanians, has the TV on all the time. I noticed a headline about Prince Harry coming to Romania for easter. The news bulletin cut between an endless loop of a masked man riding a motorbike in the snow, and one of the TV stations tame experts (people who know everything about everything) banging on about Romania’s need for a country brand.
On a subway train I read the key elements of the story on the back of a passenger’s newspaper and a British friend of mine sent me this report from the Daily Mail. The most curious thing about this whole story is the fact that Prince Harry flew on a budget airline — I’ve never heard of a celebrity doing this. Wizz Air was even mentioned in the Mail’s headline.
Most people — Romanians and Brits — that I have discussed this issue with seem rather suspicious of the fact that the Prince Charles owns property in Romania. Many Brits don’t like Charles as he makes challenging comments about architecture, agriculture and the environment, and is generally considered eccentric. He also owns a lot of land in England, has several palaces and is very rich.
Romanians are ambivalent for other reasons. Like the Brits they tend to resent people with too much money. Many people are still affected by fifty years of anti-royalist propaganda by the Communist regime and others are open to the rumours (and inaccurate news reports) that Prince Charles is buying up large tracts of land in Romania. The truth is that he owns a few peasant cottages, and their gardens, in Brasov and Covasna and he really believes in helping to preserve Romania’s unspoilt countryside. And I like the idea that he can help promote a positive image of Romania in the world.
What strikes me about this whole story is the fact that you can go and stay in the Prince of Wales house in Valea Zanului in Covasna: it is a guest house that is open to the public. I’ve never heard about a royal property anywhere in the world being available to paying guests in this manner and the idea that you can stay in one of the Royal Families palaces in UK would never even cross the mind of the average Brit.
Whatever you think of royalty it is well worth checking out the Prince Charles’ cottages in Valea Zanului — Zalanpatak in Hungarian — in the county of Covasna . I went there last year and here is an extract from an article I wrote about it:
“I recently spent a weekend at this guest house, which opened a few months ago, and can report that it is sensational. There are no “royal” pretensions at this humble abode, in fact the whole set up is quite down to earth: you need to go outside in order to reach the dining room; at night it is pitch black and you can hear the sounds of wildlife. The only indication of the owner’s identity is his coat of arms on one of the walls. The previous owner was the local judge in the village of Zalanpatak, a 120 soul settlement in the heart of Covasna county (just north of Brasov). The buildings are over 200 years old.”
I wanted to know why Prince Charles bought properties in Romania and was setting up a simple guesthouse in the middle of nowhere and was told that he admires the way that Romanians still live off the land and the countryside hasn’t been industrialised, as in the UK where only about 2% of the population live in the countryside. They also told me he’s aware of rural poverty and wanted to contribute something by creating jobs — the guest house in Zalanpatak seems to employ several families of locals; cutting wood, stoking fires, making food, driving and guiding people through the woods. It’s probably the biggest employer in the village.
It seems that Romania and its uniquely unspoilt biosphere struck a chord with Prince Charles, who said: “Ever since I first visited Romania in 1998, I have been doing my utmost to ensure a sustainable future for the Saxon villages of Transylvania and their people. Tourism clearly has a vital role to play in this.”
The fact that Prince Harry’s recent visit provoked a media debate about a country brand says a lot about Romania’s tourism industry: Romania doesn’t have a “national” brand, its attempts at promoting the country have been farcical (Ceausescu did it better) and the media are quick to debate the issue — and propose instant solutions — as soon as a celebrity shows up.
I have always argued that Romania is wasting its money by trying to develop a “national” brand, as this requires a level of coordination and trust that is unattainable in Romania. Rather than waste millions on another failed attempt at branding the next government could consider something a lot cheaper with a guaranteed positive impact on foriegn tourists: clean up the railway stations and remove the mafia taxi gangs from Bucharest airport.
And if the Romanian government actually wanted to change the way it promotes tourism in this beautiful country it should go to Covasna and look at what Prince Charles and his people have done; they should look at the way he has restored ancient buildings with sensitivity and taste and ask themselves “is this type of cultural tourism perhaps more appropriate than the Soviet style mass tourism that we still practise?”