Posted by: visitromania | November 30, 2008

Turning Bucharest into a tourist trap

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Bucharest by day and Bucharest by night. Two cities, different experiences. If this is the gateway to Romania, I must admit it’s an interesting spot devoid of tourist traps. Of course, there are museums and lakes and grandiose buildings, but what else? Can’t find a breakfast joint in the city centre that is open at 8 am. Unless it’s one of the 5-star hotels or McDonald’s… and which tourist in his or her right mind wants a Big Mac at 8 a.m.?

Bucharest is not a city devoid of its charms though. A walk down Piata Unirii should explain what I am trying to get at. And by night, it gets more interesting, thanks to the profusion of escort services and night clubs. Do these bring in more tourists? Not necessarily. What Bucharest needs is a number of tourist traps to increase footfalls. Hosting international conferences and conventions are one way of doing so; music festivals is another. But there is something more fundamental to tourism in Romania that Bucharest needs to do to promote tourist traffic. The city must use every opportunity to bring in more foreigners to showcase the rest of the country.

Posted by: visitromania | March 8, 2008

Anthony Bourdain goes to Romania

Anthony Bourdain is prime time television; his show No Reservations on the Travel Channel is prime time opportunity for free publicity. Bourdain has done more for Asia’s cuisine, and tourism, than any food writer, travel guide, celebrity chef or Michelin-rated restaurant. From street snack to pop culture and politics, Bourdain takes a tongue-in-cheek look at the food and the people of whichever country or city he is travelling in.

However, his recent episode on Romania turned out to be less-than-delectable television, drawing a barrage of righteous indignation and expletives from prickly patriotic types, who, I’m quite certain, have never seen his show before. Like all well-meaning Americans, Bourdain could not escape Romania’s Dracula cliché and ended up doing a farce of Transylvanian proportions, complete with costumes and pig slaughter. He says it is one the funniest shows he has hosted, but that’s high cynicism even by Bourdain’s standards.

I find the No Reservations: Romania episode quite entertaining from whatever I have seen so far on YouTube. Perhaps it could have done better with some good camera work and better scheduling, and a more knowledgeable local fixer rather than the one used in this episode, as the chef-turned-writer admits in his blog. Bourdain could have included the Danube Delta in his itinerary, specially its abundant supply of caviar and fish. But that is another story. Couple of problems with the episode though… the timing was completely off, and it looked like the filming had been scheduled in autumn when it’s raining.

The episode seems to revolve around the 50th birthday of the fixer and his own personal agenda rather than Bourdain’s. A lot of time was taken up by a tour of the Bran Castle, a national monument and museum often mistakenly referred to as Dracula’s Castle and now up for sale. The asking price – anywhere between 60 and 100 million euros. A trip to Maramures, the old country, steeped in tradition, seems to have been included, but a whole lot of other interesting places were left out for the lack of a better informed fixer. The train ride from Bucharest to Brasov is nothing short of breathtaking, but the camera seems to have stayed on headshots and the train’s interiors.

A trip to any one of Romania’s many vineyards would have made sense, since wine is such an integral part of the local culture. But you can’t get it right all the time. Sadly, Romania’s cuisine remains an undiscovered tourist attraction and any future opportunity to showcase it on international television must be given due attention from those in the business.

Posted by: visitromania | February 21, 2008

Branding Romania for the global tourist

Promoting tourism is big business. Branding is a big part of it. But does branding a country’s tourism potential always hit the intended target? Most countries want to sell their tourist attractions under a brand umbrella. So we have Armenia – Noah’s route, your route; China – Come, Discover China; Croatia – the Mediterranean as it once was; Greece – the true experience; Incredible India; Korea – Discover its hidden beauty; Malaysia Truly Asia; Visit Montenegro – Breathtaking beauty; Naturally Nepal; Poland – the natural choice; Portugal – unforgettable memories; Amazing Thailand, etc.

The crucial role that branding plays is to help countries differentiate themselves for travellers. For instance, Italy, the most successful country brand in 2005, sells itself as a destination offering almost every tourist attraction under the sun – art, authenticity, history, culture, architecture, sun, snow, food, wine, high street fashion, etc., etc. On the other hand, Australia, seen as the top country brand in 2007, is seen as a destination offering a wide variety of experiences. To quote the Country Brand Index 2007, “For brands to excel, they need not only to be targeted, but also fine-tuned to meet the needs of diverse audience segments, each with distinct brand adoption requirements. Research provides us with a considered viewpoint on where your customers may reside along the spectrum of awareness and advocacy, and what can trigger their decisions to visit, reside or invest.”

There’s no end to the branding efforts going on here. Romania – Fabulospirit! Romania – Always surprising! Romania – Simply surprising! And each slogan attempt costs more and more money. Reportedly, the Fabulospirit campaign cost €100,000… just the slogan. Eternal and Fascinating Romania cost around €6 million, and Romania – Always Surprising cost around €1.7 million. That’s a fairly big bundle of taxpayer’s money, but none of these campaigns have been particularly successful.

What is country branding all about? “Unravelling the complexity of countries and using their richness as an advantage rather than a hindrance is one of the powerful opportunities and unique aspects of country branding. This, however, must be done with great care and effort. It is not an excuse to simply be everything to everyone or to develop a brand without clear meaning, motivation and cohesiveness. Instead of using traditional marketing or business approaches established for consumer goods, financial services or technology products, countries should embrace their complexity and factor it into their entire brand-building efforts,” underscores the Country Brand Index 2007.

Ironically enough, Romania’s branding opportunity probably lies in showcasing the country as a picturesque holiday destination offering something for everybody – art, adventure, history, culture, beaches, mountains, wildlife, and the romance of the Old World.

Posted by: visitromania | February 12, 2008

Low-cost airlines: Cheaper travel, more choices

The best thing to have happened to Romania’s tourism industry is the entry of low-cost carriers. These airlines not only bring more tourists from the rest of the continent but also make foreign vacations more affordable for domestic tourists. There are nine low-cost carriers already operating in Romania, besides 47 international carriers, and their passenger traffic is expected to increase considerably this year. According to tourism industry projections, low-cost operators expect to see an average 25 percent growth in flights this year. Many low-cost operators believe the growth in passenger traffic is likely to be somewhere between 50 and 100 percent. Compare this to the 10 percent increase in traffic projected by the regular international carriers.

Needless to say, this has a direct impact on the tourism sector. Outbound traffic increased by 23 percent in 2007 against the previous year, while inbound traffic rose by over 12 percent, according to official figures. But the ripple effect of increased air traffic can also be seen in other business sectors. Inward business travel is growing by an annual 20 percent. British investment in Romanian properties witnessed a sharp increase because of better air connectivity in 2007. As low-cost carriers provide more connections between the United Kingdom and Romania, more British investment is expected to flow into the tourism sector. As one of the cheapest winter holiday destinations in Europe, Romania should be able to attract more ski tourists to its Carpathian resorts this year.

Foreign tourist inflow to Romania comes largely from other European countries (as much as 95 percent). But the challenge here is to bring in more tourists from outside the continent and this is where the low-cost carriers can offer a huge incentive by offering cheaper connectivity from one European destination to another. This can be made possible through flexible travel packages and ticket bookings. Targeting low-cost carriers to offer cheap group bookings to travel agencies that bring in foreign tourists to Western Europe should be a priority for Romania’s tourism authorities and travel agencies.

Of course, there is a downside to this scenario – aviation fuel prices. If fuel prices keep rising, as they have been over the last three years, low-cost carriers are going to find it increasingly difficult to operate in low-traffic routes. Obviously, there is a shakeout waiting to happen in the EU skies. Some of the smaller low-cost operators are likely to go out of business; a few may be bought out by the bigger players. And fewer low-cost carriers would prompt an increase in fares. That’s bad news for budget travellers and the tourism industry. But at least for now, low-cost carriers are helping stretch the business season in every market they operate.

Posted by: visitromania | February 6, 2008

The Golden Riviera is doing fine… could it do better?

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The jury has returned and the verdict is in. Once again, in spite of being pitted against a mountain of evidence of insufficient infrastructure and various other odds, Constanta has emerged a winner by attracting more tourists this summer than at any other time in the recent past. What makes this even sweeter is the fact that this summer, more local vacationers spent their vacation euros on the beaches of Balchik and Varna across the border in Bulgaria and returned home feeling morally justified for having given Mamaia or Eforie the slip.

Most of these vacationers came back with stories of what the Bulgarians were doing right… better accommodation, better service, better food and lower prices. Perhaps local tourists are beginning to resent the fact that their spend on a beach vacation at home is now almost as much as a holiday in Bulgaria. Thanks to low-cost carriers and wider air connectivity, residents of Timisoara or Cluj, and not only those of Bucharest, may be spending their holiday euros in Valencia or Milan next summer.They would be right in doing so. And the beaches of Mamaia, Olimp, Neptune and Costinesti will only get the Bucharest weekend crowd.

Personally, I find Constanta and all the nearby vacation resorts on the Romanian Riviera refreshing. Something about the ozone-rich breeze always keeps me going back to the seaside. But the tourist is a different proposition… it wants fun, it wants to take back some good memories, it wants to forget the mindless job and obnoxious boss back home. And it wants value for money.

I was recently talking to some hoteliers, both entrepreneurs and professionals, and taking stock of the issues that bottleneck stronger tourist inflow to the Riviera. There were several points of convergence in the opinions that came forth – more information, more transportation, more marketing, etc., etc. For instance, the A2 Sun Motorway connecting Bucharest and the coast is a spectacular piece of modern engineering that brings heavy four-lane weekend traffic and unloads it on a two-lane highway just outside Cernavoda. Since the Cernavoda-Constanta connector isn’t supposed to be operational till early 2009, next summer there will be more traffic jams and unhappy tourists.

Work on the rail track between Bucharest and Constanta needs to be speeded up because it’s beginning to look like the deadline on this one could be stretchable and since nearly 60 percent of the tourists take a train to the seaside, there may not be enough time to have it running by next summer. Few people have the patience to undertake a six-hour train ride from Bucharest when others are doing the same distance by car in just over three hours. If the number and diversity of the tourists who disembark at Constanta railway station every summer are any indication, the station seems inadequate to handle the traffic.

Of course some renovation is going on at this very moment and I’m told there are plans of turning the station into a model station, but the evidence on the ground doesn’t seem to support such hearsay. Perhaps it’s also time for Constanta to have a new long-distance bus terminus, closer to the beach, and a couple of tourist information and assistance booths.Sometimes, the little details that get overlooked are the ones that make the difference between a once-in-lifetime experience and disappointment.

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