Choice and consistency are challenges Romanian tourism must meet, as the industry aims to win ten per cent of the country's gross domestic product.
A beautiful, exciting, good value and fun location with growth potential and delightful guest houses, say some visitors.
A dirty, unpleasant and unfriendly waste of excellent natural resources, where the roads are bombed-out and people in shops never give back your change, say others.
Romania may lack a unique selling point that makes it attractive to tourists, like Croatia's seaside or Prague's baroque heritage. But the general view among visitors is that a trip to Romania is worth it, despite everything.
However much needs to change to improve the quality of service and the variety of activities on offer. Marius Crivtonencu is a newly-appointed state secretary and the President of the National Authority for Tourism (ANT).
His role is to sell Romania in what he calls the first serious tourism “strategy” the country has ever seen.
“It is easier for Romanian tour operators to sell programmes for Romanians to go abroad than to create a Romanian product to be sold to foreigners,” says Crivtonencu.
The potential exists. Two hours from the capital is mountain area Valea Prahovei (Prahova Valley), three hours is the Black Sea and an hour further the Danube Delta, but the lack of experience in management of tourism and infrastructure has not yet brought the country a huge number of visitors.
According to Crivtonencu six million foreigners come into Romania annually, registering as tourists, most of them from Hungary, Republic of Moldova, Germany, Austria and France. This compares to ten million for Croatia, which has a population four times as small. Starting next year, when the new “strategy” begins, he expects an increase of at least 20 per cent, over one million more people.
“I want to enforce good relations with Scandinavian countries. These have a huge potential for tourism and I want them to choose Romania,” he says.
With international cooperation, local agencies have traditionally promoted the monasteries of Bucovina and the unspoilt beauty of Maramures. But most tourists who travel around Romania are foreigners working in the country, who spend a little extra time on vacation, favouring mostly the Prahova Valley and the seaside.
“Now I want to promote the whole country,” says Crivtonencu.
“We divided the nation into eight development regions, one of which is Bucharest, and this is the way we intend to promote it to international organisations.” The strategy will focus on the varied forms of natural environments the country enjoys, such as mountains, seaside and the Danube Delta. While the ANT will capitalise on Sibiu's status as 2007 European Cultural Capital and help connect this up to promoting the Transylvanian counties of Alba, Mures and Brasov.
Keeping the logo ‘Romania: Simply Surprising’ ANT's strategy has been developed along with international organisations for tourism, local tourism associations and the National Institute of Statistics. Co-financed with support from foreign partnerships from Germany, USA and national associations, Crivtonencu says the implementation will cost the state only 200,000 Euro. The aim is to increase tourism to provide at least ten per cent of the GDP, four times its current value.
But it seems that Romania does not have accurate figures as to how many tourists it hosts. The six million number of foreign visitors to Romania, it seems, are only those who register so at the border. No one knows exactly what their real intentions are.
Therefore, in cooperation with the World Wide Council for Tourism and Travelling (WWCTT), Crivtonencu will launch a statistics initiative to determine how many foreign visitors to Romania are here only to see the sites. And not for anything else. Whatever that may be.
Nature tourism is the fastest growing branch of the tourist industry and the wetland paradise the Danube Delta, declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1990, hosts a cornucopia of delights in bird-watching and fishing, as well as a rich archaeological and cultural heritage.
'Delta Nature Resort' is Romania's first five-star villa complex with 30 exclusive houses over 13 hectares on the banks of Lake Samova. So far the premium market-targeted buildings have cost 6.5 million USD. Its president, Diwaker Singh, aims to invest another million in improvements.
“My dream is that the Danube Delta will become a world destination,” says Singh. “Today if a European wants to go on a nature holiday, the closest real nature destinations are either in Africa, South America or Asia - a minimum of seven to nine hours flying time, plus local transportation. What people don't seem to know is that there is outstanding nature destination right in the heart of Europe.”
His business has three stages of marketing: sell Romania, sell the Delta and then sell the resort. “Many people have seen the world, but they are looking for new experiences and locations. People are looking for luxury eco-tourism and Romania is becoming a popular country,” he adds.
In one month since opening Delta Nature Resort, the location has played host to 250 tourists and the average occupancy is 70 per cent. The resort even has a few requests for Christmas.
The percentage of tourists the resort expects is 60 per cent European (25 per cent of which are Romanians), 20 per cent from USA (which Singh believes is the best market for nature tourism) and 20 per cent from Asia, especially Japan.
“I can't think of a tourist who has come back from Romania with a negative impression. People have commented on the hospitality of the Romanians, they even comment that the road from Bucharest to Tulcea is very good.”
CLIMB EVERY MOUNTAIN
But while a room and meals at the Danube Nature Resort costs around 350 Euro a night, the other end of the scale tells a different story.
Every morning 55 year-old widow Geta Oprea goes to the Busteni train station and waits for the trains. She has a piece of cardboard on which she writes 'Cazare' (accommodation) and, as the travellers to the mountain resort disembark, she stops them and asks if they have a place to stay.
If not, she offers her services. Oprea has a small villa with five rooms are all up for rent. A room overnight at her place costs 400,000 lei (12 euro) per night.
Although she has her monthly pension, tourism represents a necessary supplement.
“The tourists bring me a good income,” says Oprea. “It is nice because this way I meet so many people. For my most devoted customers, I offer them a discount for accommodation. My business helps me survive these days when living is so expensive.”
If she gets on well with her guests, she prepares them a barbecue with mici, pork cutlets, salad and home-grown potatoes or her free services as a guide for the mountains.
If she gets on very well with her guests, they can sample some of her homemade liqueur made from sour cherries.
Many of the tourists become her seasonal customers in the summer or during the winter time. “But with guests I do not like,” says Oprea, “when they call again, I say I am fully-booked.”
It is this countryside where American travel guide Rebecca Poal sees the largest touristic potential. “Amazing geography, unique painted churches, fantastic castles and fortified saxon churches, medieval cities, a rural ‘virgin’ ambience,” she says.
“For walking tours and hiking tours the country is a gem,” agrees Loren Siekman, general manager of US firm Discover France/Pure Adventures, who adds that for cycling tours the roads are not yet ready. “The countryside is fabulous... I hope to capitalise on this to develop more active travel.”
Siekman says that Bucharest's three and four star hotels are “on a par with those in Paris, also hotels in Sighisoara, Predeal, and Sinaia are also quite good.”
But John Rodgers, the economic counsellor of the Embassy of the USA, says that although individual hotels are good, the full range is not available.
“The choices are missing,” says Rodgers. “You need a good four or five star hotel in the same place you have rural tourist options. So tourists can choose. Some people don't want to reside in a pension.”
Tourists save the biggest criticisms for the quality of roads.
“We travelled last month to Mamaia and arrived there exhausted by the tension,” says Poal. “The railway system is slow and overheated in winter and summer, there is a lack of enough decent places to rest and eat on the roads, poor signs on roads and tourist places… It is true that we have seen some improvement in this last year, but there is still a long way to go.”
Siekman agrees. “Access into Bucharest [from the airport] is horrible,” she says. “The main road is badly congested. More services in and out of the airport would be important for development. It is not easy to get to Bucharest from North America and it is expensive; there needs to be more flights and even better would be service by discount European airlines.”
Search consultant Joshua Burke says buses and maxi-taxis are good alternatives to trains: “But they are used for locals only and tourists would have a tough time finding locations and schedules.” However, he argues rail travel has vastly improved compared to two years ago, “but first class may be needed for those who don't like to smell their neighbours,” he adds.
ON THE PISTE
Although it cannot rival the slopes of the Alps or Aspen, Romania is proud of its skiing facilities. However foreign tourists have not been impressed, criticising their lack of dramatic race potential and poor facilities.
Skiing is very low value for money, says one foreign visitor, who call the lines “ridiculous” and price “not great”. But, despite this absence of enthusiasm, ANT has started a campaign to promote and assign status to the ski-paths in Romania. At this moment the country has 100 paths, only 18 with authorisation.
The association hopes to boost access to slopes. “Part of our strategy is uniting Sinaia and Predeal's ski resorts, together with the whole Prahova Valley,” says Crivtonencu. “It is not right for a skier to climb up and down ten times per day on the same path.”
ESCAPE TO THE SEA
Romanians are also proud of their small piece of seaside. Although the resorts have seen an upsurge in interest from Scandinavian tourists in particular, westerners have preferred to take advantage of Croatia and Greece, rather than take a risk on Romania. Turkey also offers package tours to Romanians that can often be cheaper, with airline ticket included, than one week excursions to their own coastline.
“Other countries have better sea-side with cleaner water, better sand, nicer people, and lower cost,” says Burke. “Vama Veche is still great but that may soon change as well.”
But some are pleasantly, or should that be simply, surprised.
“We had to choose between a holiday in Italy, Spain or Romania,” says Rainer Riebel, a German tourist from Speyer. “We went to [Black Sea resort] Saturn and paid, for seven days, 275 Euro at a three-star hotel with breakfast included. Really it was a nice place which we enjoyed. It was not my first visit in Romania, and certainly will not be my last. Maybe next time we will take a rest cure at a spa.”
Unfortunately Romania does not yet have a beach which has the label of 'blue flag': a symbol with an international recognition available to beaches which accomplish criteria regarding the clarity of the water, the cleanliness of the beaches and public information about the resort. A pilot programme was started in 2002 and, initially, five beaches obtained the symbol. But then they lost it.
Today, along with the Ministry of Environment, ANT has started a development plan for the whole coast to turn the beaches blue.
“Although we have museums, aquariums, an amusement park in Mamaia and holiday villages, at this moment we have to invest in the seaside. We have to have better resorts and more amusement parks,” says Crivtonencu.
Variety is the theme that hopes to seduce the tourists. Not just sun, sea, sand and whatever else money can buy. Therefore ANT is asking hoteliers to vary tourist activity, such as concerts and tours of historical monuments and wine cellars in Constanta, as well as organising fireworks and a parade.
PRICE IS RIGHT ?
Romania has cheap labour, cheap infrastructure and Bucharest is the cheapest capital city in Europe. Yet prices for tourists are not that cost-effective.
“Since most tourists don't travel in order to learn new things or to meet different cultures, but look for bargains,” says Poal, “Romania should improve the services it is offering. Remember, beauty alone is not enough.”
Travelling in Romania is more affordable than other countries, argues Burke. “However the value one gets for money is often substandard. Let me give you an example, yes you can stay in a decent hotel for 30 Euro a night, but what kind of toilet paper will you have?”
ANT states that prices in Romania are competitive for three and four star accommodation, with three star hotels the same as Bulgaria and cheaper than Greece and Turkey.
“We want to improve the services, this way hotel associations may become a real partner and eliminate the so-called interpretation which says tourism in Romania is more expensive than abroad,” says Crivtonencu.
PEOPLE: NICE OR NASTY?
Debate rages over the hospitality of people. In guest houses, most visitors agree the staff are helpful, almost too helpful. But in budget and three star hotels and restaurants, there is a near-consensus that staff are unfriendly.
“Romanians are hospitable once you are in their homes but rarely before,” says Burke. “After one shot of tuica, they may completely open up to you.”
Poal says that Romanians need more pride and confidence in their country. “They are not good ambassadors for their land,” she says. “More than half of the Romanians I've talked to about my travels or have asked advice on visiting such and such place have tried to dissuade me of doing so.”
She says service in hotels and restaurants is “very poor” in most cases. “Somebody should teach the people with whom the tourist comes in contact that a client is somebody that you have to please, not to make him feel like he is a nuisance.”
ANT and the hotel associations have started to train staff from the hotel industry in restaurant, reception-desk and accommodation.
“We will have a correct industry because the hoteliers understand the necessity of investment in hotel renovation and quality of service now the season is open for five months from May to September, as they will have more income,” he says.
But with Turkey and Greece's grand tradition in hospitality to compete with, along with Croatia re-flowering as a tourist paradise, another angle may be necessary to really pull in the tourist dollar.