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Vol 2, No 14
10 April 2000
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Catherine LovattJourney back through Time
Catherine Lovatt

For the tourist Romania offers a confused mixture of parochialism and modernity. History has left a visible imprint on the landscape marking with clarity the stages of development. Communist blocks and industrial wastelands contrast with cliffhanging Transylvanian castles, horse drawn carts, painted monasteries and an unspoilt wilderness. Beautiful yet ugly, Romanian tourism is living in the past with all the accessories of the present.

Arriving at Otopeni Airport on the outskirts of Buchareşti one steps off the plane to be confronted by armed guards who watch suspiciously as you bustle onto the bus and are driven off to passport control and customs. "Passport madam!" "Why are you here?" "Where are you staying?" The inquisition has begun. However, despite the coldness and disproportionate amount of armed police there is an atmospheric appeal, emitting positivity under the cloud of the Communist past. Otopeni has changed. The dirty, smelly, unorganised and bare airport is transforming into a modern, customer orientated service with café's, duty free, car rental, Bureau de Change, shops, a gallery overlooking the runway. Advancements have become visible identifying a new stage in Romanian history.

Every visit to Romania will reveal something new, something that has changed. Horse drawn carts piled high with hay collected from the fields will be driven by the same farmer only now he holds a mobile phone to his ear. In fashionable cities such as Timişoară those who were once happy to receive home-made clothes now feel uncomfortable if they do not wear designer clothes. The mentality and aspirations of the younger generations are challenging the perceptions of their elders, who find it more difficult to move away from all that had been drilled into them during the Ceauşescu era. Consequently, there is a stark contrast between rapid change and the mentality of those controlling it.

Communism has left its stamp on Romania. Monstrous blocks of flats are discovered on the outskirts of almost every major town and city - a relic of the past. The drive for transition from a predominantly agrarian nation to an industrial nation necessitated the need the housing within the towns and cities. Peasants were encouraged to move from the countryside to work in industry. Large industrial towns such as Ploieşti, south of Buchareşti, grew leaving vast industrial wastelands in their wake. Big was beautiful.

This philosophy was exemplifed by the construction of 'Ceauşescu's Palace' near the centre of Buchareşti. Still uncompleted today the palace is the largest in Europe, built to portray the power and wealth of Ceauşescu, feeding his cult of personality. Today much of the palace remains empty and desolate marking the passage of time.

During the Communist era restricted travel resulted in the cultivation of holiday resorts within Romania itself. Poina Braşov, known for its skiing is set in the Carpathian Mountains above the medieval town of Braşov. In summer many Romanians travelled, and still travel to the Black Sea Coast where resorts stretch along the Romanian beaches from Constanţa to the Bulgarian border at Vama Veche. The closer to Bulgaria the less unspoilt the coastline. Instead of the large bustling family resorts, a village with one shop and accommodation in villagers homes. For the tourist today, many of these places lack appeal or are unknown. Advertising is at a minimum and potential is lost.

Many relics from the Austro-Hungarian Empire remain in Transylvania. The influence of Central Europe is not only apparent in architecture and history but also in the culture of Transylvanian Romanians, which is in stark contrast with the Ottoman influenced Southern regions. Transylvania attracts the majority of tourists, drawn by the legend of Dracula: a fictional character supposedly based on the Medieval Wallachian Prince, Vlad Tepeş, famed for impaling Turkish invaders on stakes. The story of Dracula was created by the Western author, Bram Stoker. Ironically, Romanian tourist officials feel bound to use the legend of Dracula to encourage visitors to Romania.

Dracula is the most marketed of Romanian tourist attractions, and the most successful. However, Romania has a vivid, turbulent and exciting history with many more alluring features other than the legend of Dracula. Political, economic and social transformation has opened up Romania to foreign visitors wishing to experience what was once behind 'locked doors.' Unfortunately, the tourist industry in Romania is relatively new, small and inexperienced. The foreign visitor often finds themselves paying double the price for a hotel room or an arranged trip. There is little information concerning tourist attractions and they can be difficult to reach. Despite this, the Romanian tourist industry is undergoing transformation. An appealing and organised infrastructure is being developed to advertise and promote Romania as a distinct and pleasant holiday destination. Realising the potential of the Romanian tourist industry could reap dividends in the future and increase awareness of a country that, at present, relies on the legend of Dracula to lure its visitors.

Catherine Lovatt, 6 April 2000

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