New Deal Europe Update on Tourism to the Balkan Region
Our visit to Moldova and Romania
New Deal Europe Co-Director, Robert Dee, visited Moldova and Romania in April to report on the impact of the war in Ukraine on these destinations, as well as to open the NDE Virtual Marketplace and Forum from Moldova’s capital, Chisinau in a gesture of support for their tourism industry. Here you can find his assessment of the tourism offering in both destinations and really find out if the refugee situation should deter anyone from travelling there.
I was recently in Moldova and Romania, two countries whose tourism has been adversely affected by the situation in neighbouring Ukraine. Having heard stories from incoming agents out there of cancellations as a result of the war I vowed to show solidarity and support; and having seen news reports of Iasi Airport crowded with refugees, I wanted to check the situation for myself and report back to the agents and any potential travellers.
At the New Deal Europe Forum event live in London in April, Virgina Longu of Romanian incoming agency Rotours, spoke poignantly of the cancellations she had received from international operators and agents, and the reasons people gave for cancelling or postponing their trips. Fear of the proximity of the war was chief amongst them, but so too was the feeling that travellers would encounter refugees everywhere, sleeping rough in the streets, and that in these circumstances it would be impossible to enjoy a holiday surrounded by other people’s misery. She made it clear that this impression was not the reality in Romania and that Ukrainian people fleeing the conflict were welcomed at the border, housed in centres specially created for the purpose of collecting their data and assessing their situation and were then assisted on to their final destination elsewhere in Europe.
On my travels I met with a journalist who had travelled the length of the border between Ukraine and Moldova, Poland, Hungary and Romania, and he confirmed that this was the case, with centres on both sides of the border working together to assist refugees to journey on to friends, families and others who would host them.
In my four days in the region I never saw any refugees on the streets, and only encountered one Ukrainian family crossing the border between Moldova and Romania - and I was at that border for best part of two hours! Iasi airport in Romania was not crowded with refugees. In fact I never saw any and it took all of ten minutes to get through security before boarding my plane which was two thirds full. The bus station in the Moldovan capital, Chisinau, was equally quiet, giving the impression of a standard day. I think that the journalist and I were the only two non Moldovans and Romanians there.
From speaking to key players and from my own observations, it is clear that Virginia was right and that the situation in this region is being well managed and not having an impact on the life of the local inhabitants or of any visitors.
In my four days in the region I never saw any refugees on the streets, and only encountered one Ukrainian family crossing the border between Moldova and Romania, and I was at that border for best part of two hours!
So having established that we have nothing to fear but fear itself, what is there to do in Moldova and the Iasi area of Romania?
I confess — this was not my first visit to Moldova, so I did not revisit the gorges of Orhei and the ancient cave dwellings there, nor nearby Butuceni, a perfectly preserved Moldovan village where one can feast like a king on typical Moldovan specialities, all home cooked in traditional restaurants. I did not revisit the orthodox monasteries with their amazing choral singing nor go again to Cricova Winery, probably the most famous vineyard in the former Soviet Union, with a wine cellar so large you need to board a tourist train to travel through it…and it’s not even the biggest wine cellar in Moldova. That honour belongs to Milesti Mici, which has 200km or 120 miles of wine cellars.
Moldova has created a number of tourist routes, and given how important wine is to the economy, I wanted to sample a part of the wine route. So after completing the formalities of broadcasting from Chisniau City Hall to open New Deal Europe Virtual Marketplace and Forum and meeting with Sergiu Prodan, the Minister of Culture, who has responsibility for tourism, I joined my guide for the day, Natalia Turcanu, Executive Director at the National Inbound and Domestic Tourism Association and headed for Asconi Winery.
The winery boasts state of the art wine production on a huge scale, but also has accommodation units and a fantastic restaurant serving local specialities. Having toured the complex with two extremely informative guides I was treated to the most amazing meal with superb wine pairings, all from their own vineyard. The local cheeses were a particular delight and highlighted the sustainable nature of much of the rural tourism in Moldova. The Minister had earlier advised me that this is how they want their tourism to develop - sustainably and with a focus on the rural offering - and if Asconi is anything to go by, it is heading in the right direction.
The Minister had advised me that this is how they want their tourism to develop — sustainably and with a focus on the rural offering.
After lunch it was time to move on to Castel Mimi, a winery created in 1901 by the last governor of Bessarabia, Constantin Mimi. The castle was inspired by classical French chateaux, but is built entirely of reinforced concrete, so it was never a home but a wine factory with a capacity to store 300,000 gallons of wine. It fell into disrepair following the collapse of the Soviet Union but has been lovingly restored at a cost of millions and was reopened in 2016. The complex includes a conference hall, spa, outdoor pool, accommodation studios and the Castel gardens, which host music events and festivals throughout the year. I’ve made a personal note to return for the Rosé Wine Festival which this year took place on 11th June.
After returning to Chisinau to do the closing broadcast for New Deal Europe 2022, I had time to explore the city by night and take in all the city’s main sites fully illuminated. You’re never far from wine here and I was recommended a small but very well stocked wine shop and bar, Plincuvin, in the city centre, but down a small side street which you had to know about otherwise you would probably never find it. It was worth the treasure hunt, and my education in Moldovan wine continued at around £2 a glass. Moldova definitely offers value for money.
My last day began with a trip to the bus station to pick up my transfer to Iasi in Romania. This was a time when I was so glad to have a guide since the station was populated by identical looking, and to my mind, unsigned, white minibuses, but, as mentioned previously, no sign of any refugees. The bus was only half full so I had plenty of space from which I could take in the Moldovan countryside on the way to the border.
The venue for today was Iasi, the capital of Romanian Moldavia, and for a few years in the twentieth century, the capital of Romania itself. It lays claim to being the cultural capital of Romania, and as a city with 60,000 students and no less than five universities, including the oldest in the country, it has a great vibe. It was here that the modern state of Romania was founded in 1859 through the union of the principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia, which led to independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1877. Little wonder then that the city is steeped in history with churches of every denomination, museums, theatres, including the National Theatre named by the BBC as one of the ten best opera houses in the world, and, the jewel in the crown — the former palace of the Princes of Moldavia, now a colossal museum complex. But it’s not all neo-classical Romanian style architecture, and fans of the post war communist brutalist architecture, like me, will not be disappointed, as the area around the civic centre is littered with buildings from this period.
I was lucky enough to be guided around the city by Mihai Bulai, President of Destination Iasi, and Nicu Apostol, owner of inbound agency, Rolandia and Vice President of the Incoming Romania Association, who also guided me around the local food and wine at Trai Restaurant . My Pork with polenta and local aged goat’s cheese in a red wine demi glace was one of the more expensive items on the menu yet came in at under £13. Wine averaged around £12 a bottle. The whole gastronomic experience was exquisite.
There is no doubt that Iasi has all the ingredients to make it a great city break and with direct connections from the UK courtesy of Blue Air and Wizzair, it is easily accessible too. The same can be said of Chisinau, serviced by Wizzair from Luton and by Flyone and Air Moldova from Dublin.
These destinations have really stepped up to offer all assistance to the refugees fleeing conflict in Ukraine, and after two years of Covid, they desperately need tourists. Going there this year will mean you will avoid crowds and can be guaranteed a warm welcome. Without doubt they have a fantastic tourist offering and offer great value for money. I cannot recommend them highly enough.
New Deal Europe is the only travel market platform dedicated to generating business to the Balkan region of Europe, www.newdealeurope.com. Next event: Global Travel Week Marketplace 28–29 September 2022.