Rural development specialist Jim Turnbull is chairman of Slow Food Tarnava Mare and investor and CEO of Pivnita Bunicii, a social enterprise producing range of jams, chutney and syrups in Transylvania. Here he looks at the challenges faced by a charming country on the brink of mass tourism.
In Transylvania we have a mismatch created by tourism development in an area of outstanding beauty. Fifteen years ago, a few adventurous travellers had discovered the area, but there were no tourists – outside dry closet toilets and bad roads kept them away. Now we have growing mass tourism with all the associated problems – such as 100 year old trees being felled to make way for a new road suitable for coaches and the need for parking.
National and regional government tourism strategies favour mass tourism, which provide little benefit to local rural communities, and while local government may be interested to develop tourism, they have no strategy and no interest in a coordinated approach. Their tourist information centres are frequently closed and rarely have any information. Sadly, it will be many years before a practical and meaningful strategy from government produces any benefit for rural communities.
Alongside this, very few local people have travelled or been tourists themselves, so there is no understanding of why travellers might visit the area. Locals think that developing tourism is about opening a guest house and then waiting for tourists to arrive, without thought of promotion. Although we have four UNESCO World Heritage Sites, very few local people have any concept of what this means, and only see the status as something negative that imposes costly restrictions on their building improvements. Despite nearly 30 years since the revolution, the legacy of communism has also left people unwilling to share information and scared to make a recommendation.
All of this makes it very difficult for the community to promote their activities – but from my experience, one or two can be encouraged to take the lead, and others will soon follow. To the locals, much of what might be interesting to visitors is just another everyday event, yet it’s these everyday events, from the use of horses and carts to traditional bread making unique to the area, that can provide a magical experience for anyone willing to be a bit more adventurous and meet real local people going about their daily lives.
So what can be done? Travellers can support these rural activities by visiting, spending time, buying produce and paying a small fee to locals for taking their time to explain their activity. Without this support, rural skills such as cheese making, charcoal making, bee keeping, the hand milking of sheep and the traditional weaving of wool carpets may not be sustainable and will disappear, only to be rediscovered by future generations many decades later.
By way of example, a wonderful barrel maker in our area has given up his trade because there is no longer demand for his 400 litre wine barrels, having failed to grasp a potential demand for a 10 litre barrel more suited to modern homes. Perhaps with more encouragement he would have persevered.
Most visitors will spend more on a bottle of wine than would be required to radically sustain these artisans – so the challenge is to get responsible tourism embracing the sustainability of the very attractions they hope to see while on holiday.
As well as experiencing such art forms, people can come to Transylvania to walk or cycle between villages using ancient tracks while enjoying the last medieval wildflower meadows in Europe and wild deciduous woodland, and to taste local specialities and seasonal food, wine and spirits with local people. I encourage travellers to search out these activities and enthusiastically support those involved, helping them to continue and flourish – not just to visit the area as tourists and photograph a few monuments. A world class travel experience awaits you – but don’t delay.
Read why we’re loving Transylvania here.