By Rupert Wolfe Murray
Our understanding of tourism is out of date. Most people still think of tourism as a mass operation, when the workers down tools, board trains and head for resorts on the beach.
Like many things, it all started in Victorian Britain where the new railways made it possible to shift whole populations of people from city to beach. It spread across the modern world and even the Communist regimes followed suit, with resorts around the Black Sea becoming a magnet for tired socialist workers.
And then came the internet. Tourism is one of the biggest industries in the world, and it’s changing fast. New opportunities surround us, but not enough business people know how to take advantage. Until recently, most tourists were dependent on their local travel agency for offers of two weeks in the sun, or a ski holiday. Now anyone with a smartphone can book a cottage in the Carpathians with Airbnb and get a cheap flight, and hire a car, via Skyscanner. Now a small guesthouse in Moldavia, or a guide in Zărnești, can inform clients all over the world about the unspoilt, traditional scenes that surround most rural locations in Romania. Having seen most of Romania, as well as much of Europe, I can confirm that it is one of the most interesting countries to visit.
So what’s the problem? Despite having unspoilt villages, massive mountain ranges and friendly people Romania does worse in the tourism market than Bulgaria, Croatia and Hungary. This is because those neighbouring countries have better national strategies and manage the process of mass tourism better. When I lived in Romania and worked as an PR consultant to the Romanian government I used to despair at their consistent failure to take advantage of the greatest brand the world has ever seen – Dracula. But now I realise that it’s pointless lobbying government as they have other priorities. I also realise that not having mass tourism in Romania may be a blessing in disguise; if you go to counties like Vaslui or Caraș Severin you really can find villages where people still live as in ancient times.
This is how Arabella McIntyre Brown, an English writer living in Romania, describes her village in A Stake in Transylvania (a most compelling memoir): “Măgura is one of the most popular villages in the country… Măgura is a lodestone for nature lovers, hikers, climbers, birdwatchers, botanists and bear fans, and the guesthouses are rammed… In Măgura the proportion of guesthouses to family houses is pretty high compared to most Romanian villages, and they can soak up hundreds of incomers every night. During the day, you see very few of them around the village, as they are all dispersed amongst the forest, the meadows and the crags. The village is nothing like a resort, with only the eccentric bar La Ciocolata as an option for the nightly intake of alcohol. Romanians love a fire, a tent and a barbecue out under the stars, especially with a car boot clinking with beer bottles, so camping areas and enterprising villagers’ fields are studded with tents and smoking fires.”
I have a positive message for anyone in Romania with a guest house, a tourist business or even a village to promote – all the online tools are readily available for you to make an awesome website that could attract visitors from all over the world. All you have to do is try to understand how your target audience thinks and then create great material for your website. Easier said than done Although everyone can speak coherently and write properly, very few seem able to put together a decent website. There’s something about writing for websites that turns us into public officials or lawyers writing to other lawyers; we write cold and unfriendly words that fail to capture the spirit of the place. It’s not just individuals who have this problem — companies and institutions are just as bad and their websites tend to be either desperately boring or (if they’re paying an expensive ad agency in the capital) written in the supercilious tone of a surfer dude.
There is also a money problem. Businesses don’t seem to have a problem paying for advertising but they do have a problem paying for a website editor. This is a false economy as even Google makes it clear that what they’re looking for when ranking websites is good, clear copy, relevant images and evidence that someone is editing and updating it. That’s it. What’s the best way to seize this opportunity? For me it’s clear what small businesses and individual tourist operators need to do to compete in the global tourism market – create a decent website. Before even looking at images and technical solutions the most important person needed is a proper English writer. And I’ve already mentioned one writer – Arabella – who lives in the shadow of the staggering 27km Piatra Craiului ridge. If I had a tourism business in Romania I would be knocking on her door as I’m sure she’d charge less, and do far more, than any advertising agency. Once you’ve recruited your writer all you need to do is tell them who you want to communicate with.
In the extract above, Arabella mentions “nature lovers, hikers, climbers, birdwatchers, botanists,” and these niche groups are ideal target audiences as they’re small and easy to reach. As a tourism promotion strategy the best approach is to target small niche groups like these, as it’s now possible to address them directly via the internet. No longer must you be the poor man at the table with your little guest house, competing against a big hotel; maybe you’re the only B&B in a village where the forest and the wildlife are still undiscovered.
Rupert Wolfe Murray lived in Romania for 17 years and now lives on a houseboat on the River Thames. He would appreciate it if you followed him on Twitter @wolfemurray. You can read more on his website www.wolfemurray.com