Meet Leif Pettersen, an American freelance writer from Minneapolis, Minnesota. You might have already read some of his work, as he has written many articles for Lonely Planet. Leif has traveled the world a lot ( 55 countries!)and has also lived for a while in Romania, Spain, and Italy. He has also written guidebooks for Tuscany, Romania, and Moldova. Recently he has written a new book called “ Backpacking with Dracula”, a travel book that mixes humour, history, and travel and focuses on… you guessed! Dracula. I have interviewed Leif Pettersen in order to find out more about what he thinks about Romania and to find out why he wrote a book about Dracula.
You can buy the book from Amazon.
1.So, a book about Dracula surely would make people think that it would be a serious/horror book. However, you have used humour in your book. Why did you take a more humorous approach?
It’s been my experience that humor is the best tool to keep readers engaged. Being that the book is so heavy with history and depictions of torture and violence, I felt this was the best way to strike a balance, so people wouldn’t get too bored – or nauseated. Also, the personal anecdotes would have definitely been less engaging without humor.
- You said that Romania is an excellent value destination and has some of Europe’s best natural attractions but suffers from near-anonymity. Why do you think that? Why do you think Romania is less popular with tourists? Or let’s say basically unknown?
I think it mainly boils down to a marketing problem. The Romanian tourism ministry is simply ineffective through a combination of ill-conceived campaigns and, according to some, complete lack of effort. Even the most popular travel destinations have to do a certain amount of marketing to attract visitors. To compete in this industry, Romania should theoretically be working especially hard to raise their profile in Europe and beyond. Without some kind of newfound, superhuman dedication to marketing, I’m afraid Romania will remain a wonderful, but obscure destination forever, only appealing to people who have already seen-that-done-that across the rest of Europe and are looking for new experiences. The only clever Romania campaign that comes to mind is the 2013 “Why don’t you come over” campaign from the Gandul newspaper – which, of course, the tourism ministry had nothing to do with.
- You’ve mentioned Anthony Bourdain’s episode which also made some Romanians angry. It seemed a bit odd that authorities would get involved into guiding him around, given that most of his trips are quite informal. Why do you think he even agreed to let authorities guide him? Do you think you would be able to offer him a different view of Romania if you had the chance?
I don’t know for sure that Bourdain’s crew was being guided by Romanian authorities. If that’s true, I don’t recall them ever mentioning it. I got the impression that their pal Zamir was doing the guiding (and his producers clearly made some arrangements beforehand, like that costume party) and they were just carrying letters of permission to shoot video at tourist attractions from some government entity. It seems clear in the episode that the crew encountered some bad apple authorities along the way, as everyone does in their daily lives in Romania, who delight in ruining people’s days. Bourdain was a younger, less patient man back then and he clearly was already having a bad time before the Princely Court incident. Unfortunately, judging by how the show was edited, his trip never improved. And yes, I’m certain that I, or pretty much anyone, could lead Bourdain on a much more enjoyable Romania visit now. And I think he’d be more mentally prepared for inconveniences and bad behavior by authorities, since he has gone to many tricky destinations since Romania, like Burma and Libya.
- I know you said that tourism in Romania is not quite promoted. Although Sighisoara is quite popular with Romanian tourists and with people that decide to visit Romania. Do you think there are other areas of Romania that are not quite popular with tourists but they deserve attention ( like they are underrated)?
If the tourism ministry were doing their jobs effectively, the mountain trekking would be famous throughout Europe. As far as I know, there’s nothing like the cultural tours and churches of Maramures and Moldavia on the continent. Vineyard tours and wine tasting are, of course, common across Europe, but why doesn’t Romania organize and promote their wine tours, being that it’s “undiscovered” for so many wine aficionados who are looking for new experiences and so much less expensive than France or Italy?
5.And which areas would you say are overrated?
The Black Sea Coast has a lot of work to do to make their region less expensive and more appealing. Even Romanians go to Bulgaria for their Black Sea vacations. It’s so disappointing. I hear that the skiing conditions have improved greatly, but only after years of big promises, big prices and poor delivery. Perhaps with a little more work and A LOT more marketing they can start a comeback campaign?
6.You said that in Romania things change quite fast in a span of 2 years. Why do you think that happens? Compared to other countries do changes happen here faster?
I can’t say with authority that things change faster in Romania than other countries in the region, but yes, compared to places with more stable incoming tourism (France, Italy, England), things change alarmingly fast. Tourism and hospitality are difficult industries, even in optimal conditions. Businesses open then fail for innumerable reasons. With fewer tourism numbers, Romanians trying to make a living in tourism have an even bigger challenge than most. If a business fails, it’s not necessarily that the business was a bad idea or the owners didn’t know what they were doing (but this is often true), they just don’t have the market in Romania (yet) to survive without doing something truly extraordinary. Luck is a major factor, as always. Romania can do many things to organize and improve their tourism industry and make this market more lucrative for both prospective travelers and business owners. I could talk about this all day. Maybe the ministry will call me for a few ideas? 🙂
7.You have written books about different countries. What did you find particularly interesting about Romania?
I may be biased, because I lived and traveled there for so long, but I feel Romania has an excellent catalogue of worthwhile tourist attractions contained in a good value environment. In addition to that, like I said above, there’s nothing like Maramures in all of Europe (that I know of) and few places can compete with Romania’s mountain activities. And, it’s sad to say, in a way the under-the-radar state of Romanian tourism is also a factor. You have all these wonderful attractions, without having to deal with insane crowds everywhere. It’s a blessing and a curse.
8.What would you say are the qualities of Romanian people?
This is difficult to answer. The generational differences in Romania right now are quite stark. Communist-era survivors have VERY different outlooks on life than younger generations. I do enjoy that younger generations are so welcoming, not to mention pretty much everyone speaks SOME English (and Spanish and Italian and French), which makes life easier on travelers.
9.Romania is well known for being rich in wildlife- bears, wolves, foxes. Have you had any encounters with them?
No! Thank goodness. But one time a giant flock of sheep stampeded around my car for like five minutes. That was memorable.
10.Have you had anything funny or crazy happening on the road while traveling in Romania?
Oh my. I could write a whole book on this topic. Especially the traveling I did before EU membership.
11.What do you think about Romanians’ opinion on Dracula?
I think it’s understandable they would be protective of a national hero who has been transformed, for most people in the world, into a fictional character. I don’t necessarily disapprove of people trying to make a living on the vampire connection, though. “Work with what you’ve got” is an important element of tourism.
12.So you have lived for a while in Romania. Can you tell me several things that you loved in our country?
I lived there between 2004 and 2006. So, it was a very different time. Honestly, I kind of loved SOME of the lawlessness, if no one was being hurt or taken advantage of. It was liberating for someone who comes from a place where there are rules for EVERYTHING.
13.You have traveled the world extensively can you tell me what you have found that people have in common?
Most people are like you. They have lives and are trying to live them as best they can. There are assholes everywhere, but there are also kind people. You just have to hope you encounter more of the latter.
- What are your plans for the future? Are you planning a new book or a new exciting travel destination?
I need to get back to Romania soon. It’s been too long and I miss it very much.