The Romanian government is denying that its plan to build a Dracula theme park is under threat, despite reports that the park's location near a medieval town on UNESCO's World Heritage list will be changed. Tourism officials say a Western study has declared the project feasible and are vowing to go ahead with plan. But as RFE/RL reports, critics in Romania and abroad say the project has been doomed from the beginning because of bad planning and excessive secrecy.
Prague, 23 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- "Dracula Park Will Be Built Here" proclaims a Tourism Ministry billboard, hanging from two stakes in the middle of an oak-covered plateau near the ancient Transylvanian town of Sighisoara. But the sign doesn't disclose when construction of the park will be completed. Nor does it say when it will begin.
The Romanian government is vowing to go ahead with the $30 million theme-park project despite considerable resistance from domestic and foreign heritage and environmental groups.
Tourism Minister Matei Agathon Dan told RFE/RL that a study by consultancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) found the project feasible. But Dan said the final location of the park is to be determined in a second feasibility study by the same company. "The conclusions of the pre-feasibility study are excellent for us: the Dracula Park project is financially viable and sustainable. The second part of the contract provides for the completion of a feasibility study, in which Pricewaterhouse has taken into account three locations for the park, [among which] Sighisoara is also included. For me, the best location for the park is the one that brings the most tourists and, of course, the highest revenues," Dan said.
Dan, who would not reveal the other two locations, said the contract with PWC also provides for the Western company to attract the necessary investment for the project.
Romania's Tourism Ministry in 2001 announced plans to build the park near Sighisoara, birthplace of 15th-century Romanian Count Vlad Draculea, who inspired Irish author Bram Stoker's novel "Dracula."
Vlad Draculea is known to Romanians as Vlad Tepes, or the Impaler, because of his proclivity for impaling Turkish invaders and personal enemies alike.
But since the fall of communism, Romanians have been trying to cash in more on Vlad's made-in-Hollywood image as a bloodthirsty vampire rather than his local fame as a patriot.
The theme park would feature amusement rides, a horror-show-style castle, an open-air amphitheater, restaurants, shops and hotels, water ponds, and horseback-riding facilities. It also boasts a tongue-in-cheek international center for vampirology.
But the project, which was supposed to have been started early last year and completed in 2004, has been stalled by repeated protests from numerous Romanian and international organizations, which say the park would destroy one of the country's oldest oak forests and threaten Sighisoara's 13th-century center, which is on the UN cultural body UNESCO's list of World Heritage sites. UNESCO Secretary-General Koichiro Matsuura, who visited Sighisoara last year, also expressed concern about the ecological pressure that the estimated 1 million tourists per year would place on the medieval town.
Alexandru Gota, the leader of a local civil-rights group that opposes the project, told RFE/RL that after domestic and foreign protests, the government backpedaled on the project and commissioned the feasibility study.
But Gota expressed dissatisfaction at what he called the secrecy in which the authorities are shrouding the results of the pre-feasibility study. "This is very strange. [Tourism] Minister Agathon [Dan] once again says on TV and in newspapers that the project is sustainable, it is feasible, it is I-don't-know-what. But this pre-feasibility study has not been published. They keep on veiling this project in the same excessive secrecy as they have done up until now," he said.
Gota said the authorities should have done a feasibility study before announcing the location of the park.
He said that more than $1 million of the $3 million raised by the project's developer, the Fund for Touristic Development Sighisoara through the public offer of stocks, has already been spent on the feasibility study, fund members' salaries, and useless construction projects.
Furthermore, he said, the government's rush to announce that the park will create some 3,000 jobs in an area badly affected by unemployment has generated unfounded enthusiasm among locals. Gota said that after such intense publicity, inhabitants of Sighisoara will feel let down if PWC chooses another location for the park.
Contacted by RFE/RL, a PricewaterhouseCoopers representative in London declined to say whether the pre-feasibility study eliminates Sighisoara from the list of contenders.
But international media reports say the study discourages the government from building the park near the town, which is located almost 300 kilometers north of Bucharest -- a five-hour car ride on a narrow mountain highway.
The Romanian government is said to favor moving the project closer to Bucharest or to a Black Sea resort, mainly because of better infrastructure.
But Tourism Minister Dan says the park must be built in a location that has historical connections with Dracula. Dan told RFE/RL the location will be decided in less than two months. "We will hold the preliminary discussions at the beginning of February and will probably present the feasibility study to the stockholders around 15 March. By then, we will know the location of the park and we will immediately take the necessary measures to effectively launch the project."
Dan decried what he called the constant pressures on the project, which he says could have already been half completed if construction had started on time. But he says he is optimistic that the contract with PWC can be fulfilled.
Meanwhile, civil activist Gota said he is satisfied that the huge media interest in the Dracula Park project has brought Sighisoara into the international spotlight. "There never has been such a media campaign and such a promotion for Sighisoara in its entire existence. And we, who have opposed the project, who have given interviews for the international mass media, we have always tried to promote the true image of our town," he said.
Gota said Sighisoara has attracted record numbers of foreign tourists ever since the Dracula Park story broke in the international media. But, he says, those who come to visit are more attracted by the region's cultural heritage than by the stories of Dracula's bloody exploits.