Romania has a lot to offer touristically, experts say. This much is obvious to anyone traveling across the country, and experiencing firsthand the exotic setting of the Danube Delta area, the unequaled greatness and purity of the Bucovina monasteries, the breathtaking scenery of the Transfagarasan, the time capsules of the medieval fortresses of Transylvania and the vibrant atmosphere of the Black Sea Coast, among many other lesser known destinations. But much of this potential seems to be going to waste, as locals opt to holiday abroad, some in neighboring countries, which never fail to offer a better price-quality ratio for their services, while foreigners, although interested in the yet-to-be-discovered beauties of Romania, eventually give up on their quest for quality sightseeing, due to the organizational difficulties and poor value that they encounter.
When it comes to the current state of local tourism, both ministry officials and travel agency representatives agree that there is much room for improvement. The infrastructure is in as poor condition as the rumors suggest, making some destinations very hard to reach. The prices charged by Romanian hotels and restaurants compare with those in Bulgaria or Greece, but the services are of lower quality. The Ministry of Rural Development and Tourism, as well as the National Association of Tourism Agencies in Romania, are initiating several programs to encourage both domestic and international tourism to Romania, yet the results are still awaited.
In 2009, tourism’s direct contribution to the GDP was 2.1 percent, while its total contribution reached 5.7 percent, according to Ministry of Regional Development and Tourism officials. Representatives also say that Romania has great potential in a gamut of touristic areas, such as the mountains and seaside, spa and health, agricultural and ecotourism, cultural and active tourism. The global financial crisis is regarded as an opportunity to boost creativity and the ministry has the funds to facilitate this. Investments are planned in order to fix infrastructural issues, as well as to modernize degraded locations. The number of foreign tourists to Romania in 2009 was 1,275,600, 20.8 percent of the total of 6,141,000. Bucovina, Maramures, Transylvania and the Danube Delta are foreign travelers’ destinations of preference. The ministry makes Romania visible as a tourist destination through international fairs and expositions, as well as through outdoor and television campaigns.
In this vein the Ministry of Regional Development and Tourism will launch a new Romanian brand identity in Shanghai, on July 29, on the day dedicated to Romania at the World Exposition 2010. Minister Elena Udrea said at the end of June that the new brand would focus on pristine nature, the countryside and rural traditions. “Following research conducted in eight targeted countries, it was established that Romania is competitive abroad through its untamed nature,” said Udrea on a television show. The brand is being developed by the THR (Asesores en Turismo, Hoteleria y Recreacion SA), a Spanish company with 25 years of experience in the tourism market and TNS (Taylor Nelson Sofres), one of the world’s largest market research companies. The research was carried out in Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Hungary, Russia, the UK, USA and Romania.
In 2009, travel firms recorded a turnover of EUR 700 million, according to the National Association of Tourism Agencies in Romania, ANAT. The top destinations were fairly predictable: the seaside during the summer and Valea Prahovei in winter, as well as rural tourism during the holidays. Although at the start of 2010, ANAT launched a program of special offers to travel across Romania, which at first was a success, now, due to the new measures announced by the government, the initial enthusiasm is expected to wane. What’s more, local agencies’ 2010 turnover is likely to be hit, in spite of price reductions. But ANAT representatives agree that Romania has numerous unvalued locations with touristic potential, such as the Danube Delta and the Danube itself.
UltraTour agency’s administrative director, Alina Cristina Popescu, was more optimistic in her expectations for 2010. Although the profit will be less than in 2009, the UltraTour official expects a lot more interest from foreign tourists in Romania. “The profit may be lower,” Popescu says, “but the number of tourists is the same as last year. Some of them have chosen to cut costs and, instead of going on a EUR 1,000 per person holiday, they would rather go on two or three smaller holidays, of four to five days and with a budget of EUR 350-400. Therefore, we hope to have more tourists visiting Romania, but for shorter periods.” Infrastructure and the poor quality of overpriced services are highlighted as Romania’s main disadvantages. Asked for an itinerary that she would recommend to a tourist in Romania, Popescu outline a seven-day circuit taking in Bucharest – Sibiu – Sighisoara – Bistrita – Gura Humorului – Piatra Neamt – Brasov –Bran – Sinaia.
Judging by the competitive advantages that the new Romanian brand will focus on, it seems that ecotourism will gain some prominence, as it deals with a responsible form of travel to natural and rural areas, often in or in the vicinity of protected areas (e.g National Parks). Asked about the tourist destinations in Romania, Bogdan Papuc, of the Association of Ecotourism in Romania, responded frankly, “Right now, there are not coherent destinations as such, but simple areas where ecotourism activities, such as tours, accommodation and a local food supply can be found. However, the AER is helping to develop such ecotourism destinations and some of them are preparing to be launched on the national and international market (e.g. Calimani – Tara Dornelor, Retezat – Tara Hategului and Macin – Northern Dobrogea). Romania has a unique potential in Europe, from an ecotouristic standpoint, continues Papuc, as the country holds the largest number of biogeographic regions (five of a total of nine continent wide), the largest population of large carnivores in Europe, traditional cultural settings, geographical diversity and well preserved local traditions, to name just a few of its attractions.
At the end of 2009, the AER estimates that the total expenditure of ecotourists reached around EUR 2 million, 70 percent of which is, however, reinvested in the local communities in which ecotourism takes place. An ecotourist usually spends between EUR 70 and 100 daily. In total, such travelers spent 20,000 nights in Romania in 2009. Around 80 percent of these nature lovers came from Western Europe, from countries such as Germany, Great Britain, France and the Netherlands, are aged between 30 and 60, well educated and on medium or medium to high incomes. The remaining 20 percent are Romanian. The places preferred by these tourists, irrelevant of their country of origin, are found in the Danube Delta, Rucar – Bran lane, Tarnave Plateau, the Hateg-Retezat area, Apuseni Mountains, Bucovina and Maramures. They enjoy bird watching, cultural tours, observing animal tracks, wildlife and flora, as well as mountain biking, horseback riding, mountain hiking, kayaking and skiing. Of course, a big issue is the funding.
The Association of Ecotourism in Romania is very reliant on international forms of financing, as well its own resources, for its projects. Access to structural funds is regarded by the association’s officials as bureaucratic and discouraging. What’s more, from a legal standpoint, it seems that the process for establishing ecotouristic services is hindered by the time involved in necessary procedures and approvals. Although ecotourism has been more or less politically promoted, in reality, not too much has been done in its aid. Only recently, in the last two years, has the Ministry of Tourism made efforts such as the drawing up of a national strategy of ecotourism and a set of criteria for classifying touristic destinations. As a result, Papuc of the AER regards ecotourism in Romania as one of the most advanced in Europe, a fact also made possible by the association’s efforts to create an ecotouristic brand for Romania in the last five years.
All in all, it seems that Romania could finally be on the right path. Ecotourism is a branch that is sure to develop and the new brand that Romania will use to promote itself seems to fit it very well. Ministry officials were optimistic regarding the financial future and believe that in spite of all the difficulties, people will still be willing to spend money on an enjoyable holiday.
Only time will tell, however, if the government’s new strategy will put Romanian tourism properly on the international map or whether the country’s little known delights will continue in their relative obscurity.