Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Romania Squanders Tourism Potential

Despite the country’s promise as a holiday destination, it still fails to compete with its neighbours.
By Floriana Scanteie

Every year, at the start of the tourist season, officials announce another major push to attract foreign visitors to Romania’s beaches, mountains, medieval towns and virgin forests.


Some of the figures would suggest the drive is working: last year 6.6 million people visited Romania, an 18 per cent increase on 2003, according to figures from the World Trade Organisation.


But the reality is a lot different, with Romanians preferring to go abroad if they can afford it, and foreign tourists deterred by crumbling infrastructure and poor service.


Socialist Romania developed a tourist industry in the Sixties and Seventies, and was able to encourage Westerners to come and enjoy its Black Sea beaches, as well as receiving Communist-bloc tourists who had fewer travel options.


But almost 16 years after Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu was toppled, the country is still struggling to shake off its image of being grey, dull and poverty-stricken.


Data for this year’s summer season are not yet available, but reports from hoteliers and tourism officials suggest the results will be no better than last year’s disappointing figures.


According to the Institute of Statistics in Constanta, just 2,000 foreign tourists checked into hotels in Mamaia, the main resort on the Black Sea, between January and September 2004.


The 60,000 foreigners who visited Black Sea beaches last year represented about the same number who came in 1996.


Romanians, too, are staying away from the Black Sea resorts which were favoured destinations for most families in the Communist era.


As prices rise relentlessly while incomes remain static or even fall in real terms, Romanians are increasingly visiting the coast only for short weekend breaks. They take their own food with them when they go, and most stay in cheap one- or two-star hotels, or make do with tents on the beach or rooms rented from local farmers.


Lucia Morariu, the owner of Eximtur tourism agency, says his business has sold 30 per cent fewer bookings this year than last year.


“Less and less people are coming,” Morariu said. “The number of bookings made by trade unions is falling owing to their poor resources, while the cost of the food is up by 20 per cent on last year.”


High-season prices average 20 euro per day for a bed in a two-star hotel. That may not be much for many foreign visitors, but it is by no means cheap for Romanians, who earn on average only about 150 euro a month.


Foreigners are not rushing to take advantage of such deals, either, since the service is often poor and the beaches are not always clean.


Lavinia Popescu, who works for an insurance firm in Bucharest, says holidays at home don’t match up to going abroad.


“I have holidayed in Greece and Turkey for three years now and everything there is as it should be - beautiful, tidy and relaxing,” she said. “I’m very disappointed by the lack of diversity in Romania.”


Experts say one problem is that privatisation has resulted in hotels being milked for profits by new owners, without any investment in infrastructure or personnel to compensate.


Although there are media reports of millions of dollars being invested in seaside hotels, this money has gone on a few four- and five- star establishments at the top of the range.


For most of the 300 odd hotels on the Black Sea coast, there is no sign of even a superficial facelift. Many are over 30 years old and in need of major investment after years of neglect.


In that context, it is not surprising that wealthier Romanians choose to spend their holiday money abroad.


The preferred options are Spain, Greece and Croatia, where prices are similar to those at home while the quality of service is much higher.


Tourist industry chiefs try to paint a more cheerful picture.


“If we take into consideration additional expenses like as airport taxes or the price of a dinner for two at a restaurant, it’s cheaper to spend a week’s holiday in Romania than abroad,” said Marius Crivtonescu, president of the National Tourism Authority.


But while operators talk up the potential of Romanian holidays, most experts concede that the country is still failing to compete on the international market.


When the country’s performance is measured against that of its regional competitors, the results are less than uplifting.


Romania’s total income last year from tourism amounted to 768 million US dollars, for example. In comparison, tourists brought 800 million dollars to neighbouring Bulgaria, which is far smaller and less populous.


Successive post-communist governments have promised to develop Romania’s north-eastern Bucovina region, home to numerous 15th and 16th century monasteries, whose frescoes have made them a world heritage site.


Other potentials draws are the medieval towns and fortified churches of Transylvania, the outdoor sports on offer in the Carpathian mountains, and the wildlife of the Danube delta, home to Europe’s largest colony of pelicans as well as countless other water birds.


But muddles over privatisation legislation and the failure of successive governments to resolve problems and develop a coordinated strategy for the industry have kept the foreigners at bay.


“In recent years there has been a constant increase in demand for tickets to health resorts or rural tourism,” said Marcel Badescu, director of the successful Nova Touring Eurolines agency. “But many problems still remain, because Romania has not come up with a strategy to promote its beauties.


“The infrastructure is poor, many employees lack professionalism and corruption is a kind of national trade-mark.”


Floriana Scanteie is a freelance journalist in Bucharest.