Romania: Europe’s Undiscovered Bargain Treasure

Romania is a microcosm of traditional European splendor with fairy tale castles and a lush, charming countryside with quaint, relatively unexplored villages – all complemented by a unique history and culture making it a ripe, experiential vacation plum, eager to be plucked by bargain-seeking travelers in 2010.

It’s that very charm and bargain pricing that’s garnered the attention of Kensington Tours and its clients, says Kathleen Doheny, the tour company’s director of marketing. “What we find most exciting about Romania is its combination of authentic ‘Old Europe’ feel, with Old Europe prices—and it’s also a great place to avoid the tourist crowds that descend on western Europe, especially in summer,” she points out. “Romania offers great diversity—from the vibrant cafes, cobblestone streets, museums and monuments of Bucharest, to the medieval castles, stunning mountains and traditional villages of the countryside.”

Dana Toma, Kensington’s eastern Europe region manager, is equally enthusiastic about the destination or maybe even more so because she herself is Romanian. “When I’m talking about Romania, I’m talking about landscapes, castles, fortresses, history, culture and tradition—everything is there, but few people know about it,” she laments.

“Too few agencies promote Romania,” Toma says, “but the good thing about Kensington, we have all the knowledge to promote Romania and each itinerary is completely customized. I’ve been selling Romania at Kensington Tours for two years and I can tell you each itinerary is 100 percent customized; I didn’t sell the same tour twice.”

Toma points out Kensington’s Romanian program offers private tours with 24-hour guide where “…they go together with clients to the restaurants where they pick traditional meals and do everything they can to make our clients feel like they’re Romanian.”

Toma often starts building the customized tours off of the company’s 7-day Transylvania Explorer that kicks off in Bucharest and moves on to Brasov, Sighisoara and Sibiu, customizing it to fit client’s needs and interests and putting them in boutique-style hotels throughout the tour.

In Bucharest, for example, clients might want to visit Parliament Palace, the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon; the Cotroceni Palace, the former royal residence of King Ferdinand II, and then discover the traditional Romanian villages with old houses, churches, and water and wind mills. In Sinaia, they visit Peles Castle before crossing the mountains into Transylvania and Dracula’s Castle, as well as discovering nearby Brasov, a medieval city founded by Saxons. Next, it’s on to Sighisoara, Dracula’s birthplace and a well-preserved medieval town. Finally, there’s Sibiu, the European Capital of Culture in 2007 and the home of Brukental Museum, the oldest museum in Romania (1817).

“It has all the benefits of western Europe,” emphasizes Doheny. “That Old World charm—everything—it’s just more reasonable and undiscovered. It’s something new and exciting.”

Simion Alb, director of the Romanian National Tourist Office in New York, couldn’t agree more. “The feedback we get from travelers is fantastic. People are amazed at how friendly the Romanians are. Many U.S. travelers expect a rude welcome from people in Europe.”

While the country’s tourism numbers in 2009 took a hit after steady increases since 2000, Alb says Romania has some big advantages for 2010 business. “We still have a slight advantage in that we’re still new for many travelers and we’re looking at a very special market segment of sophisticated travelers who have been to Europe quite a few times before. So they’re going to be looking at eastern Europe—these kinds of new destinations and new experiences.”

At the same time, he says, “I’ve got to tell you…we’re not getting that much business from tour operators and travel agents basically for two reasons. First, Romania is not very well known by travel agents because we’ve done a poor job of educating them about Romania’s attractions and travel offers.” Alb also points out that the lack of enthusiasm on the part of tour operators has more to do with logistics than a lack of appeal for the destination itself. “These small countries—Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic—most of their attractions are concentrated in a small area so you can reach them easily within three days. But that’s not the case in Romania. Romania is more than twice the size of Hungary or Austria and our attractions are spread all over. The Danube is in the southeast, the monasteries are in the northeast, the beautiful medieval churches and traditional villages are in the northwest, Bucharest is south and Transylvania is center. So it takes a little time to travel in between these attractions.”