Towards the end of its six day journey from Paris to Istanbul last month the Orient Express was first forced to slow to speeds close to those achieved on its very first journey some 135 years ago, and then stopped altogether as the Romanian locomotive pulling it across the country broke down. While the delay to the classic train isn’t something that happens regularly, it neatly encapsulated the twin problems of inadequate transport infrastructure and poor PR that have been holding back Romania’s tourist sector.
By Clare Nutall
In some ways, the old fashioned is part of Romania’s charm. In the isolated villages of Maramures, centuries old traditions are still part of daily life. Visit the citadel of Sighisoara — one of the seven fortresses built by the Saxons and a Unesco World Heritage site — out of season and it feels like stepping back to the middle ages. Even the gentle rolling motion of the older CFR trains is soothing (if you don’t have to be somewhere in a hurry).
The downside is that Romania’s poor transport infrastructure is limiting the gains it can make from its undoubted tourism potential. It takes nine to ten hours to get by train from Bucharest to the western cities of Cluj or Timisoara, for example. Despite ongoing investments, there are few motorways in Romania. Bucharest airport is operating close to its full capacity in the summer months, and its minority shareholder, Romania’s property restitution fund Fondul Proprietatea, is lobbying the state to agree to an expansion, pointing out that as the entry point for most visitors, the
airport is the public face of Romania.
This brings us to the other issue: promotion of Romania. In 2017, the tourism ministry announced it was shutting down the country’s tourism promotion offices abroad as part of a reorganisation. The explanation was that the ministry wanted to rethink the way Romania is promoted and also referred to spending irregularities — but it was still a puzzling move given that Romania already lags behind its regional peers in attracting tourists. A year later, the new Tourism Minister Bogdan Trif said the decision had been a “mistake”, and that a wider network of offices would be opened, with a new focus on the Asian market.
Small wonder then that Romania is consistently underperforming other countries in Central and Eastern Europe, not to mention the continent’s tourist hotspots. Data on nights spent by non- residents at tourist accommodation across the EU, compiled by European statistics office Eurostat, shows that Romania attracts some of the lowest numbers of foreign visitors of any country in the bloc with the exceptions of the tiny Baltic states and Luxembourg. In terms of nights spent by residents and non-residents at tourist accommodation establishments per inhabitant of the country, Romania performs the worst in the EU.
Relative to the size of Romania’s economy, the contribution from the travel and tourism sector is again very low compared to other states in Central and Eastern Europe. In 2017, the sector made a direct contribution of just 1.4% to GDP, according to the latest report from the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC). While the sector is growing, the figure is expected to only inch up to 1.5% of GDP by 2028. By comparison, in the EU the average contribution is 3.9%, while in Croatia and Greece it’s as high as 10.9% and 8% respectively. Among Romania’s neighbours, the figure is 2.4% for Hungary and 3.1% for Bulgaria.
The total contribution of the sector to GDP (including, for example, wider effects from investment, and on the supply chain) accounted for a somewhat larger 5.3%, but again this is very low in comparison to Romania’s regional peers. For the EU as a whole the figure is 10.3%, while Croatia (25%), Greece (19.7%), Bulgaria (11.5%) and Hungary (8%) are all well ahead of Romania.
It’s not all bad news. Romania hosts a growing number of diverse cultural events, from the Transylvania Film Festival, to the Sibiu International Theatre Festival to the annual electronic music festival Untold. Thinking creatively, Bucharest city hall put on the Experience Bucharest Conference last year, inviting 100 international bloggers, vloggers, Snapchatters, Instagrammers and other online opinion makers to raise the profile of the city. More initiatives like this would help raise Romania’s profile.
And Romania has undoubted tourism potential: the historic fortress cities of Transyvania, the wild beauties of the Carpathian mountains and the Danube Delta, the hair-raising Transfagarasan Highway, and the sunny Black Sea beaches to mention just a few.
This plethora of attractions brings up questions of its own. Is Romania a beach holiday destination? Is it a place to soak up culture in historic cities? Is it spectacular scenery and unspoiled nature? Is it Dracula’s somewhat kitsch homeland? The truth is it’s all of these. It’s just a question of spreading the word.