Despite its natural potential as a vacation hot spot, Romania's tourism industry has seen a steady decline over the past decade. Decrepit hotels, poor transportation, and sub-standard service are cited among the main reasons behind the drop in foreign visitors. But the Romanian government is now trying to revive the ailing tourist industry, and some large Western tour operators say they are looking to expand operations in Romania.
Prague, 11 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- "Marvelous weather from spring to autumn and miles of golden sand make Romania's Black Sea resorts the ideal destination for beach holidays."
At least this is the boast from one of the countless English-language websites designed to attract foreign tourists to Romania.
Romania's 250-kilometer Black Sea coast is just one of the country's attractions. There are also its mountains, the Danube Delta, and the medieval towns of Transylvania. But more than a decade after the fall of communism, Southeast Europe's largest country is still struggling to catch up with its neighbors in attracting foreign visitors, especially those from wealthier Western nations.
While other former communist states like Bulgaria and Croatia have been earning billions of dollars in tourism profits each year, Romania is only now beginning to revive its tourism sector.
The country's new government, which came to power January 2001, has launched a campaign to lure back Western tourists scared off at the beginning of the 1990s by bad service, rising lawlessness, and a crumbling infrastructure. The new initiative has focused on the restoration of communist-era property and hospitality-related services, the creation of new resorts and parks, and the privatization of all remaining state-owned hotels.
Things now seem to be improving. The number of foreign tourists last year finally inched above 1990 levels, with some 4 million visitors.
Romania's tourism minister, Matei Agathon Dan, says 2001 was a good year, with a 25 percent increase in the overall number of foreign tourists and an almost 20 percent rise in visitors from European Union countries.
Dan told RFE/RL that last year's results -- the best in 17 years -- mark a boom in Romania's tourism.
"Romania is practically staging a comeback in tourism. One million EU visitors came to Romania last year for package holidays, with Germany -- which sent more than 350,000 people -- by far in the lead. All this was possible because of the special programs we initiated last year and are continuing this year."
Dan says the majority of tourists head to Romania's Black Sea resorts, which have undergone face-lifts under the new government plan.
In Mamaia, Romania's largest and most popular Black Sea resort, most communist-era hotels were sold off, beaches were cleaned up, and streets were once again illuminated.
Drab, gray hotels were repainted white, orange, and turquoise after the government refused to renew the licenses of hoteliers who hadn't recently renovated their property.
Outdoor clubs were told to turn down the music, and a new police unit was created to crack down on crime on the beaches. Dan says the new unit -- called the "Beach Police" and styled after the popular U.S. TV series "Baywatch" -- was very successful. He offers as an example a radical decline in the number of mobile phones stolen at a particular beach, from 800 items in 2000 to only eight last year.
Bolstered by the government measures, major Western tour operators, which sent tens of thousands of tourists to Romania in the 1970s and '80s, are now returning.
Tourism Minister Dan says German tour operator TUI Reisen has returned to Romania after a break of 17 years, signing up some 30,000 tourists for this summer.
Another German heavyweight, Neckermann Reisen-Thomas Cook AG, is also beefing up its Romanian operation. Neckermann prides itself on being the only Western operator never to suspend tours to Romania, even during the worst years of communism.
Neckermann's Jan Kreke says more people are showing interest in Romania, and adds his company hopes to double the number of tourists they send to that country each year.
"Yes, Romania for us is a strategic destination, actually. Today it is a very small destination compared to other destinations, like Spain or Bulgaria or Tunisia, but we have discovered that it is becoming more and more popular. When we are talking about an absolute figure, the number of guests we bring to Romania is quite small today, but we actually try to double it every year, so we are talking about a couple of thousand guests that we had last year and we try to double it this year, and strategically, we want to expand and we want to develop this destination, Romania."
But Kreke says Romania still has a long way to go compared to its Black Sea neighbor, Bulgaria, where Neckermann alone sent some 140,000 tourists last year.
Romania's tourism revenues remain modest. Last year they amounted to only some $500 million, while Bulgaria -- where tourism is thriving following the privatization of its Black Sea assets -- reaped revenues of more than $1 billion in 2000 alone. Landlocked Hungary earned more than $2 billion in tourism profits that same year.
Meanwhile, tourism powerhouse Croatia -- following several years of steep decline due to Balkan conflicts -- last year saw its tourism revenues from tourism grow to more than $4 billion -- some 20 percent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP).
Tourism Minister Dan says he hopes to see Romania's tourism profits grow to $1 billion by the time his term ends in 2004.
To that end, he recently announced a project to build a new Black Sea resort, the Europa, from scratch. He said the resort's location will remain secret for the time being, to fend off real estate speculators.
In November, Dan launched the "Dracula Park" project -- a $31 million theme park to be built near the central Transylvanian town of Sighisoara. Despite some criticism from environmentalists, the project is under way and is due to be completed in the next two years.
Kreke of Neckermann Reisen-Thomas Cook says Dracula Park has already stirred the curiosity of German tourists. He tells RFE/RL his company is looking into eventually selling combined tours that would include a visit to Dracula Park.
"People today, more and more, if they go on vacation they want more than just beach, they want entertainment. So this is something you can combine -- five days you make a beach vacation and then for a couple of days you look at the countryside and why not go into a theme park for two days?"
Dan points out that Romania's Carpathian Mountains also have great potential for winter sports. According to the tourism minister, a large-scale operation to upgrade ski slopes in Poiana Brasov, Sinaia, and Predeal -- the country's largest winter resorts -- has already attracted nine times more skiers than last year.
Other projects to boost cultural tourism in northeast Romania and the unique Danube Delta are also under consideration.
Dan credits an "aggressive" promotional campaign with reviving Romanian tourism, and says his top priority now is to complete the privatization of the tourism sector and stimulate foreign investment.
Last week, Dan announced what he called "a fast-track privatization procedure" to sell the remaining 27 state-owned businesses on the Black Sea coast -- including six hotels in Mamaia. He says all the assets will be sold on a single day in a public auction that he hopes will be broadcast live on TV.