Whenever the words “tourism” and “Romania” are mentioned in a discussion the word “potential” is sure to follow: it is generally agreed among those who know and love this country that Romania has huge potential as a tourist destination, but it is equally clear that Romania has failed miserably to build on this potential over the last 20 years.
Romanians like to tell a joke about how God gave Romania an abundance of natural resources, and when one of the angels asks “Why are you giving so much to Romania?” God replies: “Wait till you see the people I’m going to populate it with”. It’s almost as if Romania is cursed to perpetually fail at developing its tourist industry (which is the biggest industry in the world).
The Romanian’s approach to tourism is all wrong. I’m not just referring to expensive and absurd efforts carried out by successive minister’s of tourism (I still remember Spagathon and his palm trees), but even at the local level people don’t seem to understand what is required. Middle class, culturally aware, foreigners – the ideal target group, one would have thought – are not interested in kitsch villas with blue roofs, cable TV and air conditioning in every room. They want to enjoy Romania’s original, friendly, aesthetic and exotic rural life. Unfortunately this is very hard to find because most Romanians assume that we don’t want this; they assume we want big, modern, kitsch hotels with loud music playing and surly young waiters in black suits.
The basis of a good tourism strategy is to define a target group and then really try and understand what this group wants. There is no point trying to promote “mass” tourism as Romania will never be able to compete with Turkey, Greece, Croatia or Hungary. In my experience the cultural, ecological, hiking and biking types tend to love Romania; they can accept the “different” standards of public transport, get on with local people, who are generally very friendly, and have an “experience” of a lifetime. Many of these individual “travellers” fall in love with Romania – a fact that is totally ignored by the Ministry of Tourism. But these travellers have to be totally self sufficient as there is only about two tourist information centres in the whole country (the new one at Gara de Nord is always closed) and most official websites are incomprehensible.
The Romanian view of tourism seems to come from the Soviet and Fascist period when whole factories of workers would be sent to massive seaside resorts on the train. It was all about quantity and mass transit; quality was not (and is still not) an issue. The Russian tourist of old would probably be so grateful that he wasn’t in Siberia that he wouldn’t mind about sub-standard services. Tourism is viewed as an “industry” rather than a personalised service.
From this old fashioned perspective, tourism can’t develop unless the infrastructure is modernised and new motorways, airports and resorts are built, and since these things will cost tens of billions it’s probably never going to happen. But developing cultural or eco tourism only really needs a good promotional campaign, clear information, some signposts, and a government that supports (rather than punishes) local families who want to provide services.
I have been visiting Romania for over 20 years and, like most foreigners, hate the big resorts and love the countryside. But the only place I’ve found that has been able to capitalise on Romania’s rich cultural heritage is Count Kalnoky who has renovated 10 exquisite small cottages in the village of Miclosoara in Covasna. Unlike every other rural guesthouse I have stayed in, he pays attention to the little details in each room and he takes visitors on day trips to caves, forests, Saxon villages and churches. Rather than learn from the positive experience of Kalnoky, and the thousands of happy foreigners who stay with him, the Romanian state penalise him (most recently with a fine for installing an ecological sewage system).
It’s tempting to think that Elena Udrea is the worst Minister of Tourism that has ever been inflicted on Romania, and easy to mock her for the absurd and nonsensical national slogan “Land of Choices” (a phrase I still fail to understand), but I think she’s very similar to those who came before her.
What all these ministers seem to excel at is the inability to understand or exploit the incredible promotional opportunities they are faced with. The biggest marketing opportunity that has not been used since Ceausescu is Dracula – one of the best developed brands of Hollywood. Romania’s failure to develop the Dracula brand into something cultural, aristocratic, mysterious and passionate is incredible (think of the range of historical tours that could be arranged in all points between Sigisoara and Giurgiu). The only time I have seen this brand used tastefully is by Count Kalnoky, who cleverly uses the words “Count” and “Transylvania” on the same web page; although he makes no reference to Count Dracula, these keywords are enough to set western imaginations racing. And it works: Kalnoky gets the bookings.
A more recent example of a staggering lost opportunity was in 2009 when Top Gear – which has an estimated global audience of a billion – dedicated an entire show to Romania. Jeremy Clarkson’s drive over the Transfagarasan was cynical and dismissive at first, but when he reached the top of the mountain pass he became unusually enthusiastic and he offered Romania rare praise. He described the Transfagarasan as “every great corner from every great racetrack in the world, knitted together into one grey line of unbroken motoring perfection”. He finished the programme by thanking Romania and asking if they could come back — “for ever”.
Getting this level of praise from Top Gear is unprecedented (they recently told viewers not to bother visiting the USA). Instead of taking advantage of this PR gift from God, the Romanian Ambassador to London sent an official letter to the BBC complaining that Jeremy Clarkson was wrong to refer to a villager as a gypsy when he wasn’t. The mind boggles and I wonder how many generations will it take before the Romanians get a Minister of Tourism whose attitude has not been deformed by Communism.
The Romanian version of this article can be found in Dilema Veche. Rupert Wolfe Murray can be followed on Twitter @wolfemurray