Reinventing tourism in Transylvania. Three stories of drive and courage.

Codruţa Simina @ 07 January 2014 in EAST SIDE STORIES

This post is also available in: Romanian

When it comes to promoting the tourism potential of Romania, especially Transylvania, many institutions declared it as an assumed mission; nevertheless none of them seem to come through as well as prince Charles of Great Britain. For his part, his Royal Highness, is merely approaching the performance of a certain Scottish writer, Bram Stoker, who published in 1897 the novel “Dracula”, thus changing forever the way in which Transylvania would be perceived.

We spoke with young entrepreneurs involved in tourism activities: some as a hobby, some as a business. Everyone agrees it’s a field in which you can escape and reinvent yourself, along with the services you provide to other people. And all would agree that tourism could be a success story for Transylvania, as long as it’s done passionately and with reliability. A great deal of importance lies also in the understanding and celebration of cultural differences between us and the rest; even when these start with jars of pickles or vegetable stew, neatly arranged in the pantry.

“We decided to focus on the most beautiful thing we have, Transylvania”
A few years ago, Tudor Răvoiu used to spend a lot of time in court. Back then he was an investigative journalist and time had a different texture for him. After being also involved in broadcast journalism, he decided to completely change the field.

Hence, Tudor works in IT, at the same time, along with his colleague Ladislau Ciocan, organizing flash trips for foreign tourists in Transylvania under the brand of “Tourist in Transylvania”. Together, they explained for iEst.ro how they managed to attain this kind of tourism formula.

“I’ve always noticed that in the area of Medias-Sighişoara-Sibiu one may find many places, and especially customs, little known, yet very interesting. We thought, ok, there’s the Grand Square in Sibiu, the medieval citadel of Sighisoara, the Biertan fortress that everyone heard of, but there are also dozens of interesting places that nobody took into consideration. For example, the fortified citadels and churches from Moşna, Richiş, Pelişor, Alma Vii, wine making habits on the Târnave Rivers, animal fairs, Christmas and Easter related traditions, but especially the way of life and let’s not forget about the cuisine in this part of Transylvania. While the majority of our travel agencies center on Greece, Italy, Spain and many others, we decided to focus on the most beautiful thing we have, Transylvania.”, tell the two entrepreneurs.

The town of Medias is situated in the Central Transylvania

Although the steps they needed to take in order to make the idea happen were not necessarily complicated, the young entrepreneurs came up against the bureaucracy imposed by the Romanian state.

“Cost-efficiency put us through some troubles indeed, because we had to conceive cost-effective tours, but also comprehensive, so that throughout a whole day our tourists get the opportunity to understand Transylvania and even fall in love with it. On the other hand, we have encountered difficulties while dealing with drawing up all necessary documents. We thought if you’re young and have initiative, you will be helped by the state, but it was not the case. I even feel like laughing when hearing “funding for young entrepreneurs”, says Tudor.

“All inclusive” tour
“Our offer relies on five thematic tours, each lasting one day, in which the tourist can see some of the most beautiful places and customs of southern Transylvania (Sibiu – Medias – Sighișoara). We begin in the morning with cheese tastings, then we visit some of the citadels from the surroundings of Mediaș, where we taste jams and chamomile and linden teas in the Bacon Tower from Moşna, next we go on a carriage ride along the quiet alleys of Zlagna, we have a 100% traditional lunch at a household in Alma Vii and finally discover the legends of Medias Citadel and the painting gallery on a spider’s web, where we taste several white and red varieties of wine from the Târnave Rivers.

mosna-bio-cascaval

mosna-gospodaria-bio

mosna-sibiu

What are foreign tourists seeking in Transylvania?
“I think it’s best if I answer through an example. At some point, a tourist from France confessed that when coming to Transylvania his children saw for the very first time a real cow, walking down the street. This is something that we might consider common, yet for others it becomes the one thing that makes them fall in love with life in Transylvania.

Briefly, they seek what they had lost: hundreds-years-old traditions, life at the country side, carriages and animals walking slowly down the street, the serenity, but mostly the warmth of people who are ready to welcome them into their homes and treat them kindly without any claim.

They mostly appreciate the customs and traditions that have been preserved in this part of Transylvania, as well as the interaction between man and nature, which is no longer found this way in Europe.

Another unique experience, highly valued by tourists, is direct contact with the local people, the villagers who invite them in their houses and show them the way of living in Transylvania.”

What can the Romanian state do for tourism?
“I don’t think it’s a question of favoring tourism, but more of not being held back by the state. Laws in Romania are made so that the more they confuse and discourage you, rather than helping you.

For example, to get a license from the Ministry of Tourism, you must have an insolvency indemnity insurance policy, issued with an insurer. The problem arises because the insurers will only issue this policy for big and experienced companies (besides the fact that it’s very expensive), thus if you’re a small firm you’re completely blocked and even if you have all patents and licenses, the Ministry forces you to also get this one. It’s similar to the situation when in a certain field, they are looking only for people with at least five years of experience and the freshly graduated don’t stand any chance. ”

“We were astonished to see tourists taking photos with the jars filled with pickles, vegetable stew and plum jam.”
“Unfortunately, tourists know very little things about Romania when they get here. However, we should thank Dracula and Price Charles for having done more than any other minister, Member of Parliament or politician. Nevertheless, we are very pleased that people head back home feeling very excited. The way we advertise our country relies and spreads by word of mouth. Many tell us that Transylvania needs to be promoted much better because we have far more advantages than any other better known areas in Europe.

The church in Densuş, Transylvania, is one of the oldest places in Romania where liturgical services were held over time/ FOTO (c) Turist in Transilvania

We had a group of German tourists who asked us to design a program until 14:00 o’clock. After having completed the tour, at that time they were so excited about what they had seen, such as to ask us to take them somewhere again. We took them in a typical traditional house for the villages of Transylvania and we thought to show them the cellar (a completely normal one, as our grandparents in the country side have). We were astonished to see the tourists taking photos with the jars filled with pickles, vegetable stew and plum jam, from that particular cellar. They had never seen such thing before!”

Transylvania is worth a visit even on two wheels at full speed, and the clients, although shy at the beginning, end up loving what some of us loathe: the lack of highways and unpaved roads, particularly the ones in mountain areas.

The “Bad Guys” on motorcycles Guide
Andi is a HRD expert, A-category and graduated from two universities, Law and European Studies. By the spring of 2013, Andi wrote and copied hundreds of reports, his work taking the shape of thousands of pages and copies of these in two, three samples, each of them stamped three times and having two signatures.
This until, inspired by his hobby, motorcycling, he decided to give up the office work and start organizing tours for foreign tourists wishing to cross Romania and Transylvania on two wheels. Therefore, he completely “retrained” as a tourist guide in 2012, after a course of 6 months.

The Voroneţ Monastery is one of the favourites for the foreign visitors

“I’ve been in several tours, for my own “portfolio”, so I thought I should start putting together tours for others. In 2006 I went across the country, Round Romania (5000 km in 30 days), in 2007 I rode along the Black Sea (Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Russia, Ukraine, 8000 km in 3 weeks), followed by a tour in 2008 in Uzbekistan and Central Asia (13.500 km in 5 weeks). After taking a break, in 2011 I carried on and went across Greece (5000 km in three weeks), and finally the last tour was across the Mediterranean, until Algeria, covering a total of 10.000 km in three weeks”, he says. A summary video of the tour can be viewed here.
“I only organize tours I’ve been on 2-3 weeks ahead, so I’m familiar with the road, the accommodation possibilities and all the necessary. Nevertheless, every tourist who joins will receive a list of required items which he must imperatively have with him: a description of Romania, facts about the roads and streets on the way”, explains the guide.

In February 2013, he finally plucked up his courage, packed the promotional flyers in his backpack and headed to the International Motorcycle Exhibition in Munich where he managed to get a few customers, although he shared the stand with other guides. Thus, he organized already three tours in the summer of 2013, one of which was noticed in a German specialized magazine.

Tur mit Kultur
One of the tours designed for the riders by Andi, Tur mit Kultur (cultural tour, editor’s note) came to be praised in specialized magazine from Germany, GS Motorrad Magazin. We’re talking about eight days, in which the tourists visit seven citadels in Transylvania, seeking the Saxon history and heritage found in the areas through which they pass.
“Those who come are generally interested in learning more about our ancient history, then the medieval one, and finally their questions revolve around the Revolution, Ceausescu and the time immediately after 1990. Many of them are in awe: Wow, how cool it is! Very few have heard of, for example, the Greek Catholics or the Unitarians and they want to see orthodox churches and monasteries, because they have never seen before. “said Andi.

Motorcycle tours in Romania
“Tur mit Kultur” passes through the Transfagarasan, Transalpina, also country roads the village of Viscri and the seven citadels. Along the way, tourists can opt for traditional food, local beverages, especially plum brandy, and many other cultural objectives. “For example, in Sighisoara we’re accommodated in a sixteenth century house turned into a hotel. These are the small details that make the difference for tourists”, Andi explains.

Plans for 2014
For 2014, the offer for biker tourists grew more consistent. “I already have three 12 days street tours scheduled, two 10 days off-road tours on mountain and forest roads, as well as a week of enduro in the Apuseni Mountains, plus another edition of Tur mit Kultur in the fall”, said Andi.
Furthermore, he will again participate at the International Motorcycle Exhibition in Munich this spring, only this time he will lease an entire stand by himself. For 2014, Andi doesn’t wish for anything out of the ordinary: it would be enough for him if the Romanian state will not get in his way and if the business will continue to grow healthy and sustained as it did so far.

Experience Transylvania – via Sweden
Experience Transylvania is a travel agency from Sweden, who sells travel packages for those interested in Transylvania and Romania. It was founded by Gloria (native of Transylvania) and her Swedish husband, Peter. After getting married and because they were so passionate about tourism, they decided to bring to light the “darker” side of local mythology in Transylvania.

Hiking on Transylvanian hills and mountains

“We actually promote Transylvania, if you think of it as a marketing strategy. Yet, this does not originate in absurd local pride, neither in contempt for Romania, not at all. We still sell trips from Maramures and Bucovina to the Danube Delta. However, because Romania is poorly exploited and known from a touristic point of view, it’s very difficult for Scandinavian, European, American or Asian tourists to connect. How can they establish associations? Therefore, we used the reduction method to…well, Transylvania: a mystical land, so famed, yet full of questions. Many of our customers didn’t even know exactly where Transylvania is located. Or they knew vaguely of Romania, Dracula, but they couldn’t figure exactly where all these connected. Our challenge is to show them there is indeed a “land beyond the forests” and to prove this country means more than Dracula, Ceausescu and the beggars who invaded the European Capitals”, said Gloria Andersson, born in Transylvania.

Because their main focus is nevertheless Transylvania, most proposals are gathered here. Hence, the agency offers from classical tours, which lead the traveler through the most important boroughs, to thematic tours revolving around the myth of Dracula, hunting trips, golf, hiking in the Carpathians, wine tastings and sky holidays combined with castles visits…

“We wish to give them something truly genuine. We want to bring out the real beauty of Transylvania and Romania, without embellishment or hiding something, but at the same time we avoid complaining about what perhaps is not so nice. Let’s not forget these people come on holiday.

Most of them are surprised by what Transylvania and Romania in general have to offer. They appreciate the warmth and hospitality with which they are welcomed and the fact that everybody is very committed in making them feel great. At the same time, they find all the existing contrasts very charming: the way in which poverty and wealth, ugliness and beauty, joy and sadness coexist seems more discordant here than in any other place.”

Transylvania vs. Narnia

Medieval

Transylvania has been a constant source of wonder for Europeans. It became even more interesting along with the vampire fantasy series-mania, popular for several years. Of course, sometimes it seems so legendary that some people don’t think it really exists.

“At a party in Stockholm, when I was asked where I come from, I replied I come from Transylvania. Their reaction was: “Does Transylvania really exist? I thought it’s an invented land, such as Narnia. How cool must be someone that actually lives there”
Most people know few things about Dracula, vampires – especially now, after the teen series wave like Vampire Diaries -, about Ceausescu, maybe Nadia Comaneci and also the beggars. Yet very little. Yes, I can say they are truly amazed at what they find out.”

Romania should thank Bram Stoker for placing the action of his novel in Transylvania.
“Romania shouldn’t pose so much on “We don’t promote Dracula, it’s tacky!”.Dracula along with the myths about Transylvania create an excellent incentive for the curious mind of the Scandinavian, European, American and even Asian tourist. Of course, it’s an almost shocking and outrageous simplified reality. Transylvania and Romania have to offer a complex beauty, which those who come looking for Dracula are open to understand and seize. However, we can’t tell them all the history or describe all the nature in order to convince them to come here. Moreover, one may find rich culture and history and beautiful nature in at least 150 countries around the world.

Yes, Transylvania is in Romania and Dracula, whoever he was, lived here. If you want to know more, come here! In fact, Romania should thank Bram Stoker for placing the action of his novel in Transylvania. Without that novel, it would have been even harder for us to promote tourism here.”

What are the travelers taking home from Transylvania
They take the experiences that somewhere else they couldn’t have, or at least not to this degree. Gloria Andersson recalls the best evening she ever offered to foreign tourists in Transylvania, which was the result of…well, spontaneity.
„I was with a group of Swedish and Finnish tourists at a reastaurant near Bran Castle, on the evening of Halloween. It all started with a spontaneous wheat-cake tasting in an orthodox church, a common custom around All Soul’s Day. Next, the Romanian guides have created for the tourists some random costumes for the Halloween party in „Dracula’s Castle”. One of them had vampire teeth and the hat of Vlad Tepes, a lady had a hat in the shape of a wolf’s head, another tourist had devil horns with red feathers and they were all sitting around the table, which was actually the last supper before the flight back home. Because the restaurant had a medieval theme, they started taking photos with various shields and battle helmets. The vibe was completely cheerful and pleasant.

Then, in the middle of my thanksgiving speech, we perfectly saw fireworks through the window besides our table, as if everything was planned. As it happened, it was a Saturday and the fireworks were probably from a wedding. Afterwards, our very thoughtful Romanian guides and the restaurant staff remembered it was the birthday of one of the tourists and surprised us with a cake.

In the end, a „stolen” bride, accidentally taken to our restaurant, started a memorable traditional dance around her. All guests were caught in the dance and there were about 100 of them, this without counting our group. Some shy, some bolder, yet our Swedish and Finnish danced until they dropped. It was excellent! They all filmed and photographed everything and this seemed for them the greatest experience from the whole trip. And it wasn’t even planned!”

Romania and tourism, a strategy story
Romania changes its strategies to attract foreign tourists every few years, when these actually exist. The launch of the famous leaflet invinting foreigners in the „Carpathian Garden” in July 2010, thus linking the image of Romania with nature, was financed by EU. At that time, Elena Udrea announced that promoting the country’s tourism brand would last until the end of 2013 and would cost 74 millions euros.

When taking the mandate for tourism, the current Minister for Business, SME and Tourism, Maria Grapini, announced the establishment of an advisory council focused on changing the means and modes of Elena Udrea’s strategy.
„(…)the strategy we found aimed an increase in the number of tourists in Romania and promoting Romania. We didn’t have any result. We’ll try something else. We have some very specific elements. We found nine tourist offices of Romania worldwide. Personally, I was not satisfied with what, how and how much they do. We want to change their operating strategy, from the country they are located in to what they actually do. In terms of course of action, you can’t go other way than by what you have that is authentic, because a tourist is considered, as I said before, a curious man.” she said, quoted by Agerpress

Curious or not, the fact is that, according to a report quoted by econtext.ro, over 7 million tourists had visited Romania, in 2010. Among these, less than a quarter were foreign tourists. Meanwhile, according to the National Institute of Statistics, their number decreased in 2011 and then grew slowly in 2012. This is a sign that the strategies are likely to change again, and increasingly more often in the future.

***

Translation by Alexandra Scoarţă (c) iEst.ro.

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