Ecotourism in Romania
Romania is special — an extraordinary country, a place of challenges and contradictions. More than 40% of the entire European population of wolves, bears, and lynx live here. The highest peaks in the long Carpathian-Vatra Mountain chain, vast tracts of (as yet) de-fragmented forest, great biodiversity of species, endemic species of plants found nowhere else in the world, and a rich heritage of rural culture and tradition. At the same time Romania is still one of the poorest European countries — still struggling to escape the constraints imposed by 42 years of oppressive dictatorships, hidden under the guise of communism.
The pioneer Carpathian Large Carnivore Project
It was here that German biologist and wildlife researcher, Christoph Promberger, came in 1993 to research the lives of wolves in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania. Christoph and his colleagues set up the now well-known WWF-supported Carpathian Large Carnivore Project, which later extended its research brief to studying the bears and lynx in the region.
In 2003 the project's research work came to a planned end. The project had innumerable successes, having helped in the setting up of the Piatra Craiului National Park, worked to ensure the legal and effective practical protection of wolves, and participated in a number of important television documentaries about wolves, large carnivores, and the conflicts between animal predators and humans.
Christoph Promberger was aware of the often-quoted maxim: "In Romania anything is possible, yet at the same time everything is impossible — and nothing is ever as it seems!”
The rapid change from a totalitarian economy to a free market enterprise, forced on Romania in the early 1990s after the dramatic events of the December 1989 Revolution, was never going to be easy. Doubly so in Romania, with its severe economic depression, Latin temperament, and potential for corruptibility. Christoph and his colleagues thought long and hard about the problems of nature conservation in such a poor economic climate — how to convince the people to respect their wildlife, when for so long they had been taught to reject or abuse it?
The Carpathian Large Carnivore Project team soon realized that such respect is only possible when the local population have sound financial reasons to conserve nature. Early on in the life of the project, it was understood that ecotourism would need to be developed if the biodiversity were to be protected long term. The sheer existence of ecotourism in Romania now is largely due to the efforts of Christoph, his dedicated team, and a whole series of spin-off projects and organizations.
Conservation by ecotourism
In December 2001, a number people from all over the country with an interest in nature tourism — from the Large Carnivore Project, National Parks, the National Forestry Administration, tour operators and travel agents, guesthouse owners, etc. — met in Zarnesti to discuss the problems of ecotourism development in Romania.
High on the agenda was the urgent need to gain the support of government bodies — especially the relevant ministries — to ensure the long-term protection of nature and the environment. This meeting evolved into the "Grup de Initiativa pentru Ecoturism" (GIE). Later, in 2003, GIE became a national body called the Association of Ecotourism in Romania (AER).
The association has gained ground rapidly, focusing on relaxation, winter sports, and the "Dracula" myth. Yet many proponents of tourism in Romania have realized the potential of Romania's extraordinary natural heritage and biodiversity, coupled with the country's well-preserved rural culture.
The Association of Ecotourism is now working on a system of accreditation for true ecotourism products, services, and destinations, which will encourage their owners and providers to improve the ways in which these products truly respect nature and wildlife, and offer support and funding for conservation.
From industrial town to ecotourism paradise
The small town of Zarnesti is a good example of radical changes. An ex-industrial town of some 25,000 people, Zarnesti's paper and armaments factories were hit by the economic recession of the 1990s. Now both factories — which used to employ about 80% of the town's workforce — are effectively closed.
Romania cannot afford to offer good unemployment and social benefits, so the local population will take anything on offer in terms of income. From selling off inherited land for unplanned urban and industrial development, forest clearance for timber, and rock quarrying, to hunting and poaching, and picking the rare Edelweiss (protected by law) for illegal sale to foreign tourists ignorant of the implications — all have happened here in recent years.
On the other hand, Zarnesti is situated at the northeast end of the spectacular limestone ridge of Piatra Craiului — with its surrounding forests, home to bears wolves, lynx, chamois, endemic plants, and a wide range of rare or endangered species. Moreover it was the birthplace of the Large Carnivore Project.
Today Zarnesti — in spite of its industrial past — has become home to Romania's rapidly growing ecotourism industry. Many ecotourism projects and developments elsewhere in Romania had their origins here, or at least their protagonists started in conjunction with the Large Carnivore Project.
Here, and in many other parts of the country, you can find nature tourism products and services that are striving to meet the definitions of true ecotourism. There are teams of ecoguides, travel companies specializing in small-group ecotours, rural guesthouses, craft shops, horse-riding centers, bicycle hire shops, adapted horse-drawn carts for transport, camp sites, ecotourism consultants, ecotourism information centers, and more.
All understand the importance of showing nature, wildlife and the rural culture to visitors in a way that respects nature and ploughs money and support straight back into conservation projects and organizations.
My initial inspiration had come from a visit to some of the more remote islands of the South Pacific 10 years previously. I came to live and work in Romania in 1994, and traveled widely in my spare time, by public transport and on foot. I soon realized that this country has vast potential for small group, tailor-made travel in the fields of nature, wildlife, rural culture and local history. In the last seven years I was running tours and expeditions for groups of 1–5 people who really want to explore Romania in detail.
In the last two years I have noticed a rapid growth in demand for this kind of travel — especially from Britain, the US, Canada, Scandinavia, Holland, Austria, and even as far away as Costa Rica, Australia, and New Zealand.
These are discerning travelers and adventurers who want to discover new destinations and to explore Romania's true wildlife and rural culture. They want to be in control of their travel activities, yet they recognize that their limited knowledge of Romania and its language, and the difficulty in finding good quality maps and guidebooks, means they need a skilled local guide.
Many of these people are "professional" travelers: writers, journalists, photographers, filmmakers, and artists. However many more are simply enthusiasts of nature, who want to see wildlife in its natural habitat.
Which future for ecotourism?
However we must all be on our guard — there are many threats to these fragile ecosystems. New EU road building plans for Romania begin to fragment the forests. Agricultural developments are rapidly bringing complex chemical fertilizers and pesticides within reach of Romanian farmers, and genetic modification is now widely practiced — especially by Western producers that are not permitted to experiment in their own countries.
The number of vehicles on Romania's roads has increased tenfold in ten years and atmospheric pollution is rising. Plastic packaging — especially PET bottles — was introduced 10 years ago, yet very little is recycled and some streams, rivers, and woodlands are now flooded with plastic bottles, disposed of by people who hold no value for the countryside other than as a waste tip.
Hunting is still disturbingly popular in Romania — mainly foreign hunters who pay very high prices for Romanian trophies. It is often argued that if it were not for extensive hunting during the communist period — which meant artificially raising the numbers of "wild" bears and other species beyond naturally sustainable levels — the European brown bear would be extinct by now in Romania. This could still happen in several years time, if the means for annual quota setting for bear hunting is not urgently reviewed and regulated by an organization independent of that which receives the financial profit from hunting.
Yet ecotourism development can help. At local, regional, national, and international levels, we must demonstrate the importance of keeping Romania's forest habitats intact, of controlling pollution, of recycling waste products, of careful planning for new housing and industry.
If genetic modification experimentation is restricted abroad, why do we allow it in Romania? And what is the point of a country being a signatory to international conventions concerning the protection of rare species, if it continues to encourage the shooting of the same rare species for sport?
Past mistakes and current hope
My own personal commitment to these issues has changed over time, as I have realized my past mistakes and adapted accordingly.
I used to enjoy driving my clients on rough roads through spectacular limestone gorges to see wall creepers on sheer rock faces. Now we walk. I used to drive up forest tracks into the heart of the forest so we could listen to the sounds of nature at work, forgetting in the process that the noise and pollution generated by my land rover would disturb the very same nature. Now we travel by horse and cart. Many pensions and guesthouses now restock their supplies from cash-and-carry supermarkets. I search out the pensions that still offer locally grown natural produce, and offer mineral water in recyclable glass bottles rather than plastic.
But I don't want to suggest I have all the answers. This is a learning process for us all. We have a long way to go, and Romania is still very much a beginner in the ecotourism field. Then again Romania has so much to offer — and of course so much to lose if we get it wrong.