As a tourist destination, the Romanian capital Bucharest has something of an image problem, or more accurately a lack of image problem. It has never been able to attract the mass of tourists that flock to fellow CEE capitals such as Prague, and even travel professionals can be hard pressed to name something about Bucharest beyond arguably the most famous Romanian, Count Dracula.
Romania has also suffered in the past from not having an effective and coherent promotion strategy abroad - either for tourism or one more broadly targeted at businesspeople and investors. This is now being addressed on the investor side with the launch of InvestRomania in 2016, while the Bucharest Tourism Board is now targeting international bloggers and “influencers” with the aim of promoting the capital.
100 international bloggers, vloggers, instagrammers and snapchatters were invited to the Experience Bucharest conference on May 12. Organiser Tudor Maxim, a serial entrepreneur focussed on the travel industry, is hyper aware of the importance of social media - “people now choose hotels, restaurants, destinations based on what they read on social media, what reviews they have” he stressed to delegates.
“The aim of the conference is to position Bucharest as the preferred destination for tourists in Eastern Europe,” Maxim explains.
He admits that at the moment Bucharest - which is well served by budget airlines including WizzAir, Easyjet and Ryanair - is “more of a transit city for people to go on to Transylvania, the seaside or [the Bulgarian capital] Sofia”.
The latest data from Eurostat (from 2015) shows that Romania is one of the least visited countries in the EU, only beating much smaller countries such as the Baltic States. And Romania is bottom of the list when it comes to nights spent at tourist accommodation per inhabitant.
Meanwhile, Razvan Pirjol, president of the Bucharest Tourism Board, notes that Bucharest’s offering for tourists is growing, with about 11,700 rooms in 171 hotels, and around 4,000 restaurants — a number that is estimated to have grown by around 5% per year since 2011. The city has also aroused an increasing amount of interest on social media. “Two years ago Expedia got in touch to ask us what had caused the 60% growth of inquiries about Bucharest on their website,” he says.
Nonetheless, “Bucharest needs much more marketing,” adds Pirjol.
This point was made clearly when one delegate asked travel bloggers Kash Bhattacharya, Kat Von B and husband and wife team Dave and Deb of The Planet D adventure travel blog about their impressions about Bucharest before visiting.
“My first impression was Dracula,” said Deb, saying she had expected the country to be “very moody and epic”. Instead, on her arrival to Bucharest “I was amazed, I looked at the luxury hotels, at the construction … my impression is that it’s a city on the verge of becoming the next big thing.”
"In terms of Bucharest, I had pretty much no expectations. As with many post-communism countries I was aware corruption was an issue - I had seen news on this - and expected it to be a bit dilapidated and run down. And obviously there is Dracula," says Bhattacharya. “It’s always good to come with low expectations because I was pleasantly surprised by the cool new hip bars, seeing this process of regeneration with the whole of the city coming to life before my eyes.”
But while many visitors to Bucharest and Romania are pleasantly surprised on arrival, persuading people to holiday there in the first place is still an uphill struggle, not helped by moves like the tourism ministry’s recent decision to shut down its overseas offices after irregularities were uncovered in the spending of public money by some officials, as reported by Business Review. The ministry said at the beginning of May that it wants promotion of the country to be done “correctly, coherently and efficiently” in future, but closing the overseas tourism offices while it rethinks its strategy will not be helpful.