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Romania: Dracula Park Expected To Pump Fresh Blood Into Ailing Tourism Industry

Romania has launched a multimillion-dollar project to build an amusement park centered on the legendary character of Count Dracula. Officials say the park, to be completed over the next two years, will attract millions of tourists and revive a region plagued by chronic poverty and unemployment. But the park, which is being built near a medieval town on UNESCO's world heritage list, has already attracted criticism from environmentalists and architects.

Prague, 8 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Romanian Tourism Minister Matei Agathon Dan on 5 November launched the "Dracula Park" project -- a $31-million theme park to be built in central Transylvania over the next two years.

The park, based on the half-real, half-fictitious Dracula character, will feature amusement rides, a castle wired with spooky effects, a maze garden, restaurants, shops, and hotels -- all encircled by a miniature train line. It will also host a more-or-less-serious international center for vampirology.

Tourism Minister Dan says that despite being based on a vampire character, the project will not be a horror show, but rather a tongue-in-cheek theme park meant for family entertainment.

Dracula Park, which will occupy a hilly 130-hectare plot near the town of Sighisoara, will be built by the German company Westernstadt Pullman City, which operates an American Wild West theme park in Germany.

Dan told RFE/RL that funding will come from the budget as well as from an initial public offering of shares (IPO) expected to raise some $5 million. He says the first phase of the project will be completed as soon the fall of 2002: "With the money from the shares, we will begin work on the project. By the fall of next year, at least two objectives will be completed: the Dracula Castle and the vampirology institute. The foundation will also be completed for the remainder of the park."

The project marks a turn in the way Romania is viewing the Dracula character popularized by Irish author Bram Stoker in his 19th-century bestseller and later depicted in hundreds of horror movies.

For decades, Romanian communist officials tried to counter the Western image of Count Dracula -- the Transylvanian vampire whose blood-covered fangs have become a Hollywood trademark -- with their own homegrown hero: cruel-but-brave Prince Vlad Draculea, the terror of Turkish invaders.

Bram Stoker was indeed inspired by the real-life Romanian prince when he wrote his novel. But Stoker himself never set foot in Transylvania, and his book is a melange of fantasy and more-or-less accurate historical fact.

Known to Romanians as Vlad the Impaler because of his penchant for impaling invaders and personal enemies, the real Draculea was born in Sighisoara in 1431 and ruled the principality of Wallachia on three separate occasions.

Vlad fought against Turkish invaders and distinguished himself through acts of both bravery and gruesome cruelty. He is said to have impaled an entire Turkish army on one occasion, and to have driven nails through the heads of Turkish messengers.

His defenders, however, point to Vlad's success in ridding the country of thieves and intruders and say cruelty was the norm rather than the exception during the Middle Ages. Vlad, in fact, was reputed to have acquired a taste for cruelty at the Turkish Sultan's court.

According to Romanian historians, Vlad's surname, Draculea, meant "son of the dragon" -- a reference to his father, Vlad Dracul, who had been invested with the knightly Order of the Dragon. But "drac," the old Romanian word for dragon, also means devil, and some say Vlad got his name in recognition of his devilish cruelty.

Dracula was turned into a Western pop-culture icon in the 1930s in a series of Hollywood movies loosely based on Stoker's book and starring Transylvanian-born actor Bela Lugosi.

Romanian communist officials, irked by what they perceived as Western defamation of one of the country's heroes, tried to counterbalance the Dracula myth with books and movies of their own depicting a patriotic Vlad defending Europe from Turkish invaders. After the fall of communism, however, Romanians were quick to realize that Dracula the Vampire was a potential gold mine, while Vlad the Impaler was better relegated to the history books.

Despite considerable tourism potential, postcommunist Romania failed to attract foreigners in large numbers due to a lack of promotion and Western-standard infrastructure. Only 3 million foreigners visited Romania last year -- compared to 15 million visitors to the much-smaller neighboring Hungary.

A whole tourist industry based on the Hollywood-style Dracula began to grow in Romania, bolstered by director Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 Hollywood blockbuster, which for the first time attempted to bring more accurate historical background to Stoker's story.

But Romanians soon learned that the U.S.-based Universal Studios, which produced the original vampire movies, had the copyright on Dracula's image.

To avoid paying royalties, Tourism Minister Dan says Dracula Park will not use the traditional image of the vampire, but will create another, more original one. Dan says advertising experts have already come up with a slogan for the park: "I do not agree with depicting Dracula's classic image in the park -- with black cloak, bloody long teeth, and a powdered face, as his image is generally perceived. We have architects [and] designers, who are already working on a different image. But we have already launched the park's slogan, which is simple and suggestive: 'Welcome Forever.'"

The project is expected to create some 3,000 jobs in Sighisoara, a town of 38,000 where the unemployment rate reaches as high as 50 percent. Already, property prices have soared and new hotels are being built.

But in Sighisoara, Dracula Park has met unexpected opposition from the very locals supposed to benefit most from it.

A 200-strong civil rights group consisting of environmentalists, artists, and even priests from Sighisoara is protesting the creation of the park, which they say will be built on the site of one of the country's oldest oak forests and will place huge pressure on the old town, whose 13th-century center is on UNESCO's world heritage list.

Alexandru Gota, the leader of the group, says the forest, consisting of 120 oaks, is protected by law. Gota tells RFE/RL that the park's impact on the environment needs to be more carefully assessed: "If the park will prove viable and will attract the number of tourists which the feasibility studies envisage, the pressure on the environment in the whole Sighisoara area will be very tough. I personally believe that environmental NGOs should request a detailed study on the effects of such a park on the Breite Plateau [oak forest] and its surroundings."

Romanian officials say the oaks will not be destroyed and will actually be part of the park's attractions. But Gota says that infrastructure work such as plumbing and road building will inevitably affect the trees.

Some architects are also against the park -- which is expected to bring more than 1 million visitors per year. They say its location near Sighisoara will put the historic site in great danger.

Romanian-born British architect Serban Cantacuzino, head of the Pro Patrimonio charity, told RFE/RL that an influx of thousands of tourists per day will harm the whole area: "This is going to be mass tourism and will inevitably devastate Sighisoara and its surroundings. The site which is on the [UNESCO] list of world heritage will be devastated and the Old Town itself will be damaged."

But Tourism Minister Dan says in many similar tourist areas of Europe and even Romania, the daily number of tourists is larger that the 3,000 people expected to visit Dracula Park on any given day. He tells RFE/RL the park is sufficiently far from Sighisoara's Old Town: "The idea that such an amusement park would in any way harm the fortress is absurd. The park is 6 kilometers from the historical center of Sighisoara. I am not building a new Chernobyl or a steel works there which could harm the environment."

Dan also says that a large share of the profits from the park -- estimated at almost $3 million a year -- will go to the local budget and will fund the restoration of the old town.

But critics say profit expectations are overly optimistic. In a country where the average monthly income is about $100, not many people are likely to pay the $5 admission to visit Dracula Park.

Furthermore, since the legend of Dracula the Vampire remains a foreign concept for many Romanians, the success of the project will most likely rely on whether it can attract Western tourists.