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First Base is the equivalent of an 'Editorial'. It is the opportunity for S & A to provide comment and provoke discussion on topical issues relating to leisure and tourism. This will be provided each month and we would welcome your feedback on the matters raised.

First Base 8: Competition from the Other Edge of Europe?

Date: 20/5/2004

Moldova is the latest European country to join in the battle to attract international tourists. And not before time either. Reckoned by The Financial Times to be Europe's poorest economy, it could do with a shot in the arm from somewhere.

Moldova is the latest European country to join in the battle to attract international tourists. And not before time either. Reckoned by The Financial Times to be Europe's poorest economy, it could do with a shot in the arm from somewhere.

Before I set out for Chisinau, and since I arrived here, the most frequent question I was asked was "Why should tourists come to Moldova?" I can see plenty of answers already. There is some dramatic landscape and countryside to explore and a fascinating heritage of rock monasteries, fortresses, and archaeological sites. The people of Moldova are welcoming and multicultural, with a distinctive folk culture and lifestyle. Maybe most significantly there is a proud winemaking tradition. The vaults at Cricova feature over 60km of underground streets which the visitor can explore by car. Maybe it is not entirely coincidental that the country's shape on a map of Europe clearly resembles a bunch of grapes!

So why were there less than 20,000 tourists to Moldova last year - most of them businessmen or development workers? Many factors are holding back tourism growth. There is little awareness of Moldova in Western Europe, especially positive awareness. The country has little quality accommodation, particularly in rural areas. There is a need to make the country's heritage more understandable and exciting. There is no structure for marketing and little experience in marketing incoming tourism. There is a shortage of information for the independent traveler.

These constraints are pretty typical of all former Soviet states and of the former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe. They are the inevitable legacy of a system where tourism was centrally planned and controlled. But Moldova will make quick advances in these areas, as have its more westerly neighbours which were earlier in the field.

Perhaps the most intransigent of the problems will be the need to provide the level of information and support for independent travellers which we have come to expect as normal in Western Europe. This is all the more challenging because of the ever-growing dominance of this segment in tourism worldwide. The problem is far from unique to Moldova or to newly emerging destinations. In the course of my work in the past year I have encountered it just as dramatically in established centres as far apart as St. Petersburg and Malaysia. The solutions mean working on the very basics like meaningful maps and directional signposting. Major investment is required in information literature which is really informative. The change requires not only training but also a complete change of mindset. In countries where travel, if it happened at all, was organised by 'Big Brother', just to understand the nature of the problem, let alone the solutions, is challenging in itself. Once the information deficit is addressed tourism interests can start taking more confident steps towards reaching out to the independent traveller, using tools like journalists familiarisation, international tourist guide books and perhaps most excitingly, the Internet.

Meanwhile it has to be said that Moldova is taking the task ahead seriously. The Government established a new National Tourism Agency in the autumn and has just initiated the project "Sustainable Tourism Development" already financed by the UNDP to the tune of $239,000. This project includes all the elements to create a balanced and integrated long-term strategy and to start the process of implementation. Key components of the project are:

• Target Market identification and marketing strategy
• Accommodation strategy
• Heritage Interpretation plan
• Rural Tourism plan
• Development of incentives for investment
• Human resource development
• A public awareness program
• Simplified visa regulations
• A Tourist Information Centre for Chisinau

This morning brings news that the communists swept to victory in yesterday's general election on a platform pledging economic revival. I have little doubt that the new Government will realise that the way to develop tourism as a driver of economic growth is to build upon the policies hammered out in recent months and to foster a climate of real competition in the industry. After all, the road back to Soviet style tourism is already closed.

Seán Browne

Seán Browne is currently advising the Government of Moldova on the work programme and structure of the new National Tourism Agency, under the aegis of UNDP/WTO.

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