From the coast of the Black Sea, to the Carpathian Mountains, Romania is a country rich in beauty, history, and economic opportunity. A patchwork quilt of empires have ruled over these lands of Wallachia, Transylvania and Moldavia for thousands of years, leaving their legacies scattered across the country in the form of castles, churches, and genetics. Romania’s admission into NATO in 2004, the European Union in 2007, and its potential adoption of the Euro zone currency in 2015, position it to be an integral part of the international community.
As the home of Vlad the Impaler, or the figure Bram Stoker’s Dracula was modeled upon, Transylvania is a prime candidate for a comprehensive place promotion campaign. The Bran Castle, rumored to be the haunt of Dracula in the 1400s, is primed to become the epicenter of a regional tourism boom and the corollary economic benefits it would bring. Plush bed and breakfast establishments nearby and the authentic Romanian cuisine that they offer can be reserved for pennies on the dollar.
Other regional gems remain to be discovered, from the 900-year-old city of Sighişoara to Brașov and Sibiu, where homes are decorated with hints of the owner’s idiosyncrasies. Western European tourists, particularly Germans, already flock to the sun-baked beaches of the Black Sea, and are invariably ready to open up their pocketbooks to see some of Romania’s undiscovered treasures.
Romania’s challenge in attracting further tourists lies in the intangible realm of aesthetics and what appeals to the travelers’ senses. While my wife and I were insulated by our Romanian hosts from the challenges of logistics and communication, we were able to participate in the world around us as a pair of detached observers. The conclusion we continuously reached was that the legacies of over 40 years of communism and those of the dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, have saddled urban Romania with a deficiency of aesthetics that must be overcome before a critical mass of tourism is reached.
One of the key disasters that Ceaușescu inflicted upon the people of Romania and helped to ultimately lead to his demise before a firing squad on Christmas Day in1989, was the construction of the world’s largest parliament building in Bucharest. Nearly bankrupting the country during its 5 years of construction, this mammoth structure required the razing of several hundred-year-old neighborhoods and the construction of massive, bland and utilitarian apartment blocks that would be used to house the displaced citizens.
One heart-wrenching tragedy of this construction was the forced abandonment of thousands of animals into the streets of Bucharest since the new apartment blocks would not permit animals. As a result, the stray dog population in Romania has swelled to an estimated high of 50,000-100,000. These dogs often coalesce into packs and roam the city at all hours in search of food and shelter. However, after a reported 10,000 dog bites per year and a Japanese tourist who was mauled to death in 2006, there has been a strong, concerted effort to euthanize these animals en-masse.
In recent years, several non-profit agencies and animal rights activists have descended upon Romania in an effort to save the dogs. While their efforts are noble, they have so far been unable to muster enough support to either find homes for the animals, or to ensure that the animals are spayed and neutered and can no longer multiply. Efforts to actually make the dogs a tourist attraction in their own right also seem to be waning.
Communism’s utilitarian approach to infrastructure also contributes to extreme urban blight in the form of factories, block housing, and visible bundles of electricity and telephone wires. Compounded by extreme traffic and an inadequate road system that leaves drivers white-knuckled, and it isn’t too long before a trip to Romania’s extraordinarily green and expansive countryside becomes a necessity.
Lastly, there has been a major backlash against the Roma people, or Gypsies, throughout Europe. France recently deported thousands of them back to Romania where over 1 million of them live. Believed to have descended from a tribe in Northeastern India in the 11thcentury, the Roma are widely criticized as being beggars and thieves who refuse to assimilate into the countries in which they reside. They are accused of erecting shantytowns and living in squalor conditions while collecting government handouts or resorting to petty crime.
Seeing these shantytowns, the hordes of beggars, and constantly guarding against pickpockets left me disconcerted and pondering solutions. At one point on our trip, we stopped by the side of the road to have a fantastic picnic and take in the beautiful Romanian countryside, only to be flummoxed by a car full of gypsies who pulled up along side of us, began sorting through their recently acquired clothes from someone’s outdoor clothesline, dumping their trash out in the open, and then attempting to sell us some of their wares.
Romania is an extraordinary country with boundless possibilities. The people are friendly and intelligent and eager to welcome outsiders to experience their customs and offerings. However, the tourism sector is encumbered by a lack of aesthetics, and will need to dedicate more resources towards improving what visitors see and feel before it becomes a must-see destination. I look forward to returning to this ancient and fascinating country someday to learn more and to witness its progress.