No foreign tourists please!

Romania doesn’t have a great image in the international media at the best of times. Corruption, populist politicians, poverty, human trafficking, all kinds of “scandals” and sleaze provide fodder for newspapers and TV when the foreign media actually covers Romania. There is one exception to this generally downbeat coverage and that’s Transylvania, a topic the German, French and particularly British media enjoy writing about. With its magical landscape seemingly from another age, traditional villages and houses that look like they could have come from a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, it’s a picture of old Europe transported to the 21st century. Count Dracula who’s traditionally been associated with Transylvania has been usurped by the Duke of Cornwall, better known as Prince Charles, as the region’s most famous nobleman. The heir to the British throne even boasts of being a descendent of Vlad the Impaler, the real-life prince who inspired the fictional Dracula character.

 By chance, I was a witness to Prince Charles’ initial interest in Transylvania. In the late 1980s, Nicolae Ceausescu’s claim that he was a maverick in the Warsaw Pact, a lone, brave fighter in the old eastern bloc was wearing thin.  Western journalists had begun to come to Romania and report on “systemization,” Ceausescu’s plan to rip up villages and move the rural population into towns.  In 1989, British television station ITN broadcast an undercover film shot by British journalists and Prince Charles invited the producer Sue Lloyd Roberts to lunch to explain what was going on in the Romanian villages. The story is more complex than this, but that was when Prince Charles first became interested in Romania and Transylvania.

Fast forward 30 years. I was listening to a discussion on a private radio station about a recent article in the Financial Times that compared Transylvania with Tuscany the other day. It was a positive piece, praising Romania and was shared thousands of times on social media, something obviously good for local tourism. But the radio host was having none of it. Bad, bad and more bad! The presenter, a seasoned radio journalist, was flummoxed. He didn’t like the article, he didn’t like Viscri, the village where Prince Charles has his Prince of Wales Foundation in Romania, and what’s more he wasn’t keen on the idea of foreign tourists.  The copresenter argued that tourists bring money, but he disagreed: tourists leave piles of plastic and rubbish.

His arguments went like this: the road to Viscri is full of potholes_ perfectly true, but that’s the responsibility of local and government authorities. He was annoyed that the local villagers were “full of themselves,” their hands outstretched expecting funds and money. He claimed this wasn’t an authentic Romanian attitude. Moreover, he said other villages were prettier and better cared for, without mentioning their names (it would have nice to know which ones so we could visit them). Basically, his nose was out of joint because the locals in Viscri (and probably other nearby Transylvanian villages) weren’t proper, hardworking, down-to-earth Romanians. They’ve been paid too much attention which isn’t fair.

 Our man carried on the theme to make sure the listeners got the point. If Romania attracts foreign tourists, it’s a bad thing because they dump rubbish and plastic like they do in Venice or Thailand. What a wonderful situation it would be if the number of foreign tourists actually became a problem! Currently, Romania is well below its potential for tourism, near the bottom of the list of European countries. That said, the situation is improving. There were 3.6% more tourists in July this year compared to July 2018, according to figures released by the National Statistics Institute on September 2. Of those, 18.2% were foreign and 81.8% were Romanian.

 Romanian needs both Romanian and foreign tourists not just for the economy, but also to show another face of country which you don’t often read about in the press.

But it also matters what you offer people. After they’ve arrived in Romania, foreigners are faced with a rickety infrastructure, such as there’s no motorway to Brasov, there’s no subway line from Bucharest to the airport, and trains are slower than they were 35 years ago. These things are off-putting for tourists and cast a shadow over an otherwise pleasant stay.

Even worse is that no government has made tourism a priority. There should be brochures for tourists available in English and French at international fairs, the main airports in Romania and the Gara de Nord and other stations. Why don’t authorities promote lesser known destinations such as the Vulcan Noroiosi, Lacul Rosu, Sighisoara, Corabia and other areas along the Danube? Romania has more to offer than Dracula, Peles, Bran Castle and Mamaia. If we’re talking about the Black Sea coast, there’s little on offer for the foreign tourist compared to Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece. Black Sea tourism is well below potential due to apathy, corruption and over-inflated prices as well as an unattractively short season (hello, global warming with higher temperatures means the season can go on longer).

These minuses are unhelpful for the private sector which began to really take off after Romanian joined the EU while unfortunately the state didn’t do enough to support this important sector for the economy and the country’s image. In 2017, some 2.6% of Romania’s GDP came from tourism, compared to Croatia where it made up 17.2%, Malta 14.4% or Cyprus where tourism contributes 12.3 % to the GDP, according to a report by the Court of Accounts.

Without wishing to be pedantic, it’s worth adding that foreign tourists who come to Romania aren’t the sort that travel to more regular places such as Spain. Foreign tourists aren’t looking for hotdogs and cola, but to discover another part of Europe and eat roast peppers or Romanian meatballs, drink wine and enjoy the breathtaking mountains and virgin forests. They aren’t the kind of people to leave piles of plastic and rubbish behind. Let’s be honest, Romanian sometimes dump rubbish and it can be hard to find public rubbish bins.

The radio show caught my attention in a bad way. There were elements of populism, ignorance or maybe it was the radio’s editorial line (the FT criticizes Romania for corruption), I don’t know. It reminded me of the 1990s when there were all kinds of slogans such as: “We’re not selling the country,” to which my unspoken response was: “who’s going to buy it?”

Lots of Romanians go on holiday or trips to the Bulgarian coast, the mountains, or to places along the Danube. It’s a beautiful country, with reasonable prices and it’s close to Romania. Crossing the border has become much simpler since both countries joined the EU in 2007, and the Bulgarians have moved on and learned how to encourage tourism with good services, attractive offers and tasty food. If the Cyrillic alphabet can be a bit of a problem for foreigners, a smile and a good attitude more than compensate. The Financial Times did Romania a big favour with this article and it would be a shame for it not to take advantage of it and to invest in its potential: in the country and the tourism trade.

Alison Mutler is an experienced British journalist based in Bucharest and has covered Romania, Moldova and occasionally Bulgaria and Hungary for almost 30 years. She first reported from Romania, Bulgaria and Moldova before communism ended, and was In Romania, working for British television station ITV during the 1989 anti-communist revolt. She recently left the Associated Press after 25 years. Her Twitter handle is @AlisoNJMutler



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