The Romanian Tourism Trap

kalnoky_guesthouseWhenever 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

17 Responses to The Romanian Tourism Trap

  1. Marius says:

    Romanians want to be acknoledged as modern, that’s why they don’t focus on rural tourism. They don’t want to be stereotyped.

    Practically, that’s a lack of self-confidence from Romania’s side. If Romanians had enough confidence in their own country, they wouldn’t shy from portraying Romania as a time-forgotten paradise (as was Maramureş described to me in Geneva by an 80yr-old couple that really loved its remoteness and lack of electricity).

  2. Marius says:

    I also think Bucharest specifically lost a huge chance of promoting itself where it comes to Michael Jackson. His best live concert was the one from 1992 in Bucharest, and his DVD has been in the top-selling charts since his death.

    A nice walk in his steps or a tour of any sort would have brought lots of willing tourist, I can bet, but there was no such iniative, be it public or private. A shame.

  3. Hi,
    I’m from Romania. I’ve recently finished my Bachelor Degree in Tourism in Madrid Spain. I’ve just discoverde this blog and is a lot of truth in it. I can’t understand why my country is wasn’t abale to create a brand. And you are right there is no good site that gives good information about the contry. The best one is is German and create by Austrian. After getting a vision about the Spanish tourism and its problems I get to the conclusion that change and doing things better doesn’t come from governments but from ordinary people. I love country side in Romania, but if we want a Tourism development in those areas the inhabitants must be educated. And I’m sure that the Government will do nothing in that sens.
    I can’t believed that my countr didn’t take advantage of the Top Gear Show. I like it so much and when I saw the video I thought that was the perfect promotion campain and the frase of Jeremy Clarkson the best slogan for my country.

  4. Michael Bird says:

    The points are all well-made here. Kalnocky needs support. If he ever has any trouble – maybe we could help out somehow? I imagine there are many who are ‘jealous’ of his success and what he has achieved.

    Casa Wagner [Sighisoara] is also another great example of a good tourism initiative – there are also lots of little guest houses which are wonderful.

    But don’t underestimate Udrea. She needs a success and she needs ideas. She is willing to listen to ideas. If you look at the policies now coming out of Romanian ministries – hers are among the most progressive [the selling of council flats, the incentives to make key workers come back to villages – the first is classic liberal pragmatism, the second pragmatic socialism]. She has already helped bring TUI back to Romania – so she can do her stuff – or she knows how to organise people who can do their stuff. In one year she has done more than pretty much any other ministry – except finance.

    In tourism she is yet to come up with a silver bullet – but tourism is always held back in Romania by the lack of decent infrastructure – it is an ‘adventure’ destination and will continue to be – there should be a tourism brand by April.

    Top Gear was a big buzz for Romanians – I still talk to cynical journalists who felt a moment of pride when Top Gear chose to come to Romania – so it worked.

    But Top Gear won’t make tourists come to Romania – and do we really want to attract car drivers to Romania? Per driver, Romania is the most dangerous place to drive in the EU – it is twice as dangerous as the next place – which is Bulgaria – and Bulgaria is twice as dangerous as the next place after that – the fact that Top Gear failed to pick up on this fact was a credit to the ‘brand managers’ of the country.

    I walked home from work today at night in the rain – I was almost killed twice on these roads – in the west – those drivers would have lost their licenses. I think this country has too much time indulging car drivers.

    Plus it takes the same amount of time to pass through Bucharest as it does to traverse the whole of Holland.

    Bring Jamie Oliver here -that would make a difference…

  5. Magnus Wolfe Murray says:

    Nice one. But hey, what about those old school forest paths that go through all the old forests, up hills etc. THey have these painted signs, or colour codes, that take you for miles, make sure you don’t get too lost. Then at the end of it there are these huge bothies, maintained by the forestry service or something. It’s all great. That’s tourism right? Local or foregin, who gives a?
    True, visiting Poiana Brashov, their showcase snow centre, made me want to head to the asylum: noise, sizzling plastic food, nightmare parking and moody people serving everywhere. What a great way to waste a tonne of cash. Much rather go to Slovakia, Georgia, Iran, anywhere where they haven’t turned a nice rural community into a dogs breakfast.

    Screw tourism anyway. Nightmare industry. No locals benefit – only the fat cats who control the big biz, and they probably don’t even live there.


  6. Matei Tudor says:

    The “joke” about God and Romania really made me laugh out loud. And then die a little more inside.

    The slogan is “land of choice” (not plural). The “no” between “of” and “choice” is understood.

    It is rather unprofessional to start a debate with questions, but it’s all I have left in this bizarro world that never ceases to render me stupid.

    My questions for you are: what do you expect? And how can people that never trust themselves or are so dumb they can poke their eyes out drinking tea – make a difference?

    And considering the fact that if anything eastern European politics thought us is that you must be a loud moron with friends in high places to succeed, is it such a shocker that a gal like Udrea pisses in this cesspool called tourism?

    In order to have a working tourism system we must first have a country. And in order to have a country we must like the fact that we’re born Romanian, not curse it to death, like I do. I cannot have a future anywhere else because of that. I am tagged, like a random stray dog. I love New York.

    And more than that, we must have an identity, a strong backbone. Stand up for the fuckheads that pay us shit so they can fill up their sportscars with gas and eat at McDonalds.

    To conclude and agree with Magnus, you don’t need bullshit advertising for a place. The real travelers such as yourself will find marvelous places to see anyway. Tourism is just a way for the fat cats to get more dough. Well said Magnus.

    Really great article, Rupert!

  7. Craig Turp says:

    Romania needs to find one niche and then sell that. It currently tries to be all things to all people. I have long suggested it become a major gambling centre: Bucharest has more casinos than most cities for thousands of miles around. It could become Europe’s Vegas.

  8. Mircea Nanca says:

    Well put. I had no idea Top Gear came to Romania. Good thing they did not end up with the same conclusion as Tony Bourdain…
    Would be really surprised to see Mme Udrea turn out to be doing something useful for a change.
    Do you know of any other businesses similar to Kalnoky’s? I would be more than thankful if you could point them to me…
    @Matei Tudor – you seem a bit tense – I recommend you this article about “identity”.

  9. Intersting comments in this article. I disagree with you Magnus that Tourim industry is a nightmare. No,it isn’t. People make this industry a nightmare, people that don’t understand it and only want to make more and more money. I really love this industry because is about people and what they enjoy.
    And Matei ¿Why don’t you like the fact that you are born in Romania? Really, that only means that you don’t like yourself. I really apreaciate that I was born in Romania. I’ve learn so many things from my COUNTRY, because it is a conutry with is best and worst things. ‘Perfect country’ doesn’t exist. All people are tagged. For example, Americans are tagged as uncultured, Germans as rude and agressive, etc….
    And I want to say something about infrastructure. I don’t think that it hels back Tourism. For example, near Bordeaux, France, where I live now, some “rural area”, where Zidan and Leonardo DiCaprio have chalets- I was impressed by the poor state of infrastructure.


  10. Parmalat says:

    You know what’s the difference between Romania and Hungary in terms of tourism?

    – Romania has more than one lake to develop and our ministers of tourism lose their heads while prioritizing.

    On the other hand I don’t understand what more they could do for Romanian tourism: during season all hotels are full with Romanians, only the ones that couldn’t fit in went away to the turks, greeks, etc…
    During winter everyone goes to the mountainside to ski. During summer everyone goes to the mountainside to enjoy the fresh air. All year long everyone goes to the mountainside, you drive from Bucharest to Brasov like you’d drive from Romana to Piata Unirii at 6 p.m. Most of the tourism that remained from Ceausescu I think still enjoys good public – Romanian public used to the bad Romanian services.
    Now if we want to expand and export tourism, that’s another business. Clearly we have no infrastructure to do this and we won’t have it in the next 50 years so we really don’t have what to rely on.
    But even here we have a paradox: foreign tourists like to visit the places that lack infrastructure and are avoided by Romanians.
    My conclusion would be that as long as we keep hearing on tv about foreign tourists being chased by the bears in the woods it means that Romanian tourism functions at full capacity.
    Imagine what would happen if more tourists would walk through the woods: bears wouldn’t come out, restaurants would appear instead of trees and foreign tourists would move elsewhere to be chased because that’s what they came here for, restaurants they have close to their homes no need to travel 1000km for them.
    I think that we will only need to be concerned when Romanians won’t fill the premises year after year anymore.

  11. Parmalat says:

    I forgot about the Top Gear show, I’m gonna fit that into my previous comment:

    I think their presence was so much advertised in the Romanian media that the show itself got more fans from Romania than Romania got from the show.
    That’s why Romanian tourists will never leave the premises: everything is so much advertised here (not only in the media but also from Mouth-to-Mouth Inc. – Romania’s most important advertising agency) that we’ll always have locals waiting in line to visit the country.
    After all, new people get born every day…
    The problem with pensions is that they represent rather new premises (they weren’t here in the times of Ceausescu) and it may take another 5-6 years untill tourists need to make reservations 6 months in advance otherwise they won’t find places.
    They appeared with bad timing – hit by the crisis right in the moment when Mouth-to-Mouth Inc. began working for them…

  12. alex says:

    Thanks for mentioning the TopGear RO@UK embassy aftermath. I just couldn’t believe how dumb that was, I was closing my eyes but then the news was still there – and I guess we send our elite diplomats to a place like London.

    For the moment being, Romania, as a travel destination will just have to be discovered (at best) by the few ones that happen to stumble (somehow) in some of the right places.

  13. Mike Waters says:

    Romania would be ideal for a new niche-market, one which, I believe, actually exists: failed-state tourism. Zimbabwe and Ivory Coast spring to mind. Indeed, despite its political woes, Iran has a much better tourism advertising campaign and indeed, reports better tourist figures.

    Romania doesn’t want a tourist industry, just the tourists’ money. This is a harsh truth which has dogged the country since the so-called revolution. When Romania decides that it is prepared to do what it takes to earn money, instead of making some easy cash (at which it has singularly failed in any case), then maybe it will start looking at what the tourist as a customer actually wants, and possibly even provide it.

    At the moment, Romania is not ready for tourism. You cannot expect people to pay money for a) a service they do not get; b) a product the salesman himself hates; or c) what they most likely don’t even know about.

    I take the point in one comment that there is a significant local market. If Romanians are happy with this one, fair enough, but they should remember the lack of foreign revenue and limited local-spending-power.

    Romania is a beautiful country with much to offer certain kinds of tourist. But to exploit this would mean catering to the desire of foreigners, and yes, doing some things the foreigners’ way. Like providing decent service! The still prevalent mentality of “If they want to come to Romania, then they must do things our way, otherwise it’s their loss”, is fatal to the country’s future. Romania wants to have what western Europe has, but doesn’t want to do what the west does.

    As far as most potential tourists outside the country are concerned, that is Romania’s loss.

    At the moment, a plane-crash in the Carpathians is about Romania’s only chance of significantly increasing the number of foreign arrivals!

  14. Mike Waters says:

    I should add that the type of eco-friendly, sustainable tourism as practiced in Mikes and Miklosvar, by the Chowdhurys and Count Kalnoky respectively, is exactly what Romania should be focusing on. There will never be mass-tourism, it is not needed, and it would in fact be destructive to Romania. But there must be some form of tourist industry, and Romania’s historical, cultural and natural attractions make it ideal for the “off the beaten track” tourist.

  15. Peter Harwood says:

    I love tourism in Romania exactly because it’s unregulated and poorly promoted, even if it is only for purely selfish reasons.

    I recently went on a short weekend break in Transylvania with my other half. We visited an area just north of the Carpathians, a few dozen miles off the main drag from Bucharest to Brasov.

    We stayed in a small, lesser-known village in the barn conversion of one of the villagers. She doesn’t have a website, she doesn’t meet various health and safety codes, nor, I’m sure, does she pay tax on her income. She just lets out the room to people who know about it and want to stay there.

    We helped her make telemea (a kind of cheese) in the traditional manner – not as a kind of Fernley-Wittingstallesque-nostalgia-of-by-gone-ages exercise, but simply because that’s how they still make it. We visited another neighbour and helped mill some flour and maize, and bought a couple of kilograms of each to bring back to Bucharest with us – no receipts of course. We visited a couple of local places of interest and were freely guided around them by their caretakers/security guards.

    Overall, the holiday was extraordinarily cheap, any money we spent ending up directly in the hands of those who deserved it, and we saw a real version of Romania. Of course, this kind of holiday would be hard to organise without local knowledge, contacts, and language skills.

    Mass tourism in Romania would mostly kill all this. Stricter regulations to protect tourists would kill off the cash-run cottage industries, replacing it with kitchy over-priced versions (such as can already be seen in places like Bran) mostly owned in the background by rich locals, businessmen, and/or the local mayor.

    Service can be improved, and probably will be. I’ve been here a decade and I’ve seen vast improvements. Hotels are starting to catch on to the sterilized ‘rustic’ experience that middle-class Westerners want, roads are improving, websites are starting to reveal more info, and so on.

    Given another (optmistically speaking) ten years, Romania will be full of kitchy hotels, devilish tourism regulations, corporate/chain owners, unrealistic rustification, and overpriced pseudo rural experiences, with all the tax euros from these enterprises ending up in the government coffers to be wasted, stolen, or spent on things the population don’t want.

    For the moment, I love Romania as it is: hard to discover, but rewarding when you do. Middle-class Guardian readers will just have to wait a few more years for their molly-coddled poverty tourism package holidays.

    But as I said at the beginning, I’m incredibly selfish.

  16. Paul Brazier says:

    I visited the restaurant half way up the ski slopes in Sinaia (a Romanian leading resort) with five friends and we thought we would have breakfast. The moody waitress dropped three menus on the table, I said we would keep it simple and ordered 6 coffees and 6 simple omelettes. With deep sigh of disapproval the waitress stated “we have eggs, but we don’t do omelettes” !! We left.
    However on our way out I noticed in the toilets the toilet paper holder was on the outside of the cubical, so it was necessary to calculate how much was required if you were brave enough to go in.
    Romanians may accept these types of facilities, but most tourist will only get caught once and tell 10 people about the deplorable conditions and service.

  17. Paul Brazier says:

    I have been well acquainted with Romania for 16+ years and what I fail to understand is why don’t most Romanian’s respect their own country, as it’s beauty could be second to none. If you stand anywhere and watch people they are forever throwing down cigarette packets, beer cans and plastic the bottles that litter the beautiful countryside. Sadly the forests are being raped.The other disgusting habit I just cannot get my head around is the snorting and spitting in every direction.
    In my own small way, I sometimes feel that I care more for Romania as a foreigner than many people. All Romanians should look at themselves and ask how can they take better care of this beautiful country.

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