Since I first came to Romania in 1986, it’s been clear to me that Romanians don’t understand the full potential of the tourism business.
Over the 17 years I lived in Romania I’ve had countless conversations with people who own pensions, hotels and restaurants; village and city mayors and even a minister of tourism. All these people reacted in the same way to my advice on the tourism business: they get defensive and offer rationalisations about the unchanging nature of tourism.
I’ve never met anyone in Romanian tourism who is interested in my perspective – an individual traveller who wants to tour by bicycle, hitchhike, camp and stay in hostels, or with ordinary families in traditional houses that haven’t been homogenised with mass produced paint and furnishings.
It’s clear that the type of “individual” tourism that I do simply does not register with people in Romania’s tourism sector. They tend to see the business as in terms of “mass tourism”: huge resorts like Mamaia and Poiana Brasov.
Mass tourism certainly does exist in Romania and it’s done rather well. I’ve just been soaking in a sulphur pool in Calimanesti and love the old-Communist-era vibe to the place. A large number of low-income Romanians, such as pensioners, as well as the sick, get free tickets to these spas and that really is excellent. In my country (UK) I don’t think anyone gets a free holiday and, as a result, those who need one most – the poor, elderly and sick – don’t get them.
The missing opportunity
Tourism is one of the biggest business sectors in the world, accounting for about 10% of global GDP. The UN’s World Tourism Organization says “the business volume of tourism equals or even surpasses that of oil exports, food products or automobiles…This growth goes hand in hand with an increasing diversification…”
By not understanding the industry, and focusing exclusively on mass tourism, Romania is missing out on this huge business opportunity. By dismissing the sort of individual tourism I love – staying in traditional houses in the Moldavian countryside for example – thousands of potential micro-business ideas are dismissed by “experts” and never get off the ground. Imagine if every village had at least one traditional guest house and one campsite – all of which could be promoted on Google Maps and other free online services.
But people who own houses in beautiful locations are told they must tear it down and build a modern hotel if they want tourists – because we all (apparently) want standard modern buildings, cable TV, air conditioning and a bar. But from the business point of view why invest in a huge new building when all you need to do is tidy up the spare room and share the meals that you’re already making? We want to eat sarmale, ciorba, fresh veg from the market and tea from the garden; not frozen food and fizzy drinks from Kaufland.
About campsites: whenever I’ve suggested to village mayors, or rural householders, that they should organise a campsite they always think of reasons why it wouldn’t work. The most common rebuttal is that “nobody would come,” and if I say “I would,” they laugh dismissively. Then they say they’d need to build a “bloc sanitar” which is basically a toilet and washroom. I say they don’t need to build anything as travellers like me are used to “wild camping” — when you just put your tent up in a forest or somewhere out of sight — and having a designated location would be great.
Very few Romanian villages have campsites and those which exist are massive, noisy, smoky, crowded and horrible. The campsites could be set up in a simple field by a family that is willing to share their toilet and offer water and catering services. If nobody came then there would be no losses but if the site was registered on Google Maps and other (free) online services I think they’d get plenty of visitors. Thousands of bums like me are criss-crossing their beautiful land every summer.
Introducing the hostel
The other business opportunity that is appearing in Romania is the hostel – almost a century after they were common in west European cities. A hostel is an apartment (or house) with bunk beds in the rooms, shared bathrooms and an open kitchen. The cost is usually around 10 Euro a night, security is good (I’ve never heard about a robbery in a hostel) and I actually prefer hostels to hotels as the chances of meeting people are much higher.
The west European hostels I’ve stayed in tend to be massive, and sometimes very stylish, but many of the Romanian ones are in single apartments – which is fine. Every town and city in the land should have at least one as they are a useful low-cost option for visitors (as is Airbnb, but that’s a different kettle of fish I’m not going to discuss here).
I’ve stayed in two hostels in Bucharest, one of which (Midlands Hostel) has a great atmosphere and is very central; and one of which behaved towards me with an arrogance I found surprising (Umbrella Hostel). The other guests were foreign “backpackers” who like to party at night and sleep during the day – which was ideal for me as I would get up early and use the empty kitchen as my temporary writing office.
In Iasi I stayed in Andrei Hostel which is just behind the hospital on Copou, and is what we Brits call “Cheap and cheerful”. The guests were Romanian villagers coming to town for some nasty medical operation and Arab students using it as a temporary base before they rented a flat. We all got on fine and what I liked best was the owners had an “honesty box” for your registration form and 50 RON-a-night fee. What a great way to save money on personnel costs!
My hope is that Romanians can stop thinking of the tourism business as requiring millions of Euros, backed up by major strategic investments in infrastructure, and realise that there are many people who would love to stay in a traditional village house, or camp in a forest meadow, and take the opportunity that we in the west lost many generations ago – to get closer to nature.
What do you think? I’d be really grateful if you added a comment below — even negative comments are inspiring as we can debate the issue.
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