As a tour guide and travel blogger writing mainly about Romania and tourism in Romania, I do get to travel this country a lot with or without tourists. After a year of intense travel from one corner to another, it’s become clear to me that, if we want to grow on the international tourist map, we need to invest in rural tourism. Leaving Dracula and communism aside, people come here for the natural scenery, traditions and generally everything about country side life.
They want to be accommodated in traditional village houses, eat slow cooked food, watch peasants work the land,connect with nature and enjoy the slow-paced life that is missing in Western countries.
Without a steady governmental plan of development, right now, rural tourism in Romania consists mainly of individual effort. People venturing into entrepreneurship out of love for the land and folklore or to carry on millennia old traditions.
Last week I had the chance to meet some of these people at an event called `Impreuna punem tara in valoare!` (rough translation: Together we bring out the best of Romania!) hosted by Asociatia Femeilor si Familiilor din Mediul Rural (English: Association for Women and Families from Rural Areas), AFFMR in short.
As I travel with tourists I am often at the other end of the line, looking for the end product for my customers. This event proved to be quite the educational experience for it helped me have a more rounded image of what it means to invest in rural tourism.
The AFFMR is a non governmental organization run by Cristina Chinole. They plan to train people for different jobs specific to tourism and offer training and guidance for people who want to start up non agricultural business in rural areas. Initiatives like these are very important for the development of rural tourism because you may have the beautiful land, the interesting traditions and people who are willing to work but if they are not properly trained you loose in the quality of your services.
The importance of putting together a well-trained team was brought forth also by Gelu Palmaru, manager of Casa Comana where the event took place. The story of Gelu Palmaru and Casa Comana is an exemple of a succes story, of a person who preferred to invest in `dirt rather than gamble my money in casino’s`. He built Casa Comana in his childhood village of Comana and basically put on the touristic map a highly underrated area, about an hour drive South from Bucharest.
Not only that he invested in building a rural resort with accommodation, several restaurants, an adventure park and kayaking and boating activities but also invested in training his people. He sent his cooks to Turkey to learn how to serve a meal. He hires only local people and prefers to spend money on his business to keep Casa Comana open during winter too, just to be able to keep his employees. He chose the loyalty of his employees over profit. We need more business examples as this one around here. More on Casa Comana soon on www.roaringromania.com
Good business attracts more business and Casa Comana is no exception. Asociatia Moara de Hartie (Paper Mill Association) and the still-under-development project Satul Mestesugarilor (English: Craftsmen village) are two of such examples. Ion Georgescu, manager for both projects talked about the importance of revitalizing craftmanship and make it accessible for customers. While at the paper mill people can learn how to craft paper, calligraphy or how to engrave paper manually, the craftsmen village aims to open workshops on 7-almost-forgotten crafts: weaving and embroidery, woodcraft, pottery, smithery, bulrush braiding, herb processing and bread making. We will be able to take a break from our highly artificial urban life, go to the craftsmen village and either look at the craftsmen do their work or actively participate in workshops.
And since we are on the topic of craftsmanship I need to mention Maria Tiru, a popular artist from the village of Gostinu, Giurgiu county who makes traditional Romanian blouses, the `ie`. Did you know that it can take several months to seam an `ia` with a complicated pattern like the one you will see in the picture below? sadly, there’s only a handful of women left in the country that still know how to seam an `ie`. Belive it or not, most of the blouses that are sold as traditional and handmade in most of the souvenir shops in the country are actually mass manufactured in China.
In this world where everyone wants to cut the costs of production, one might understand why the made in China Romanian `ia` might be appealing to souvenir merchants but one needs to know that the `ia` is much more than a blouse.
There’s an entire ritual to making the `ia` from songs that women sing while they spin and weave the wool for the fabric to the prayers that they say while they sew the patterns. The pattern is the key element: crosses and x’s are sewn on the blouse not only for decorations but also to protect the person wearing it from bad luck.
Last but not least, we discussed what is grossly lacking in rural tourism in Romania (or Romanian tourism in general): good marketing. There was the example of the pumpkin given by Mihai Radulescu, journalist for the national television: when we were children we used to go to our grandparents, carve pumpkins, put a candle inside and scare old ladies (evil, I know). Somehow this childhood autumn ritual vanished in the course of the years and it was replaced by the Halloween pumpkin. We borrowed a tradition that was similar to ours just because it had the advantage of a better marketing.
I do hope Romanian authorities will snap out of their slumber and give more attention to rural tourism. Until then it’s good that we have organizations like the AFFMR to take the lead and invest in people.