Romania Bares Its Teeth over Dracula

Countering many critics, Tourism Minister Matei Agathon Dan insists that a theme park based on the legendary Count will be a smash

For years, Romanians have wrestled with how to handle the international fame -- or infamy -- of Count Dracula. Hoping to pump some lifeblood into its tourist industry, the country now plans to build a theme park that would capitalize on foreigners' fascination with the neck-biting Transylvanian.

Dracula Park, to be built in the medieval Transylvanian town of Sighisoara, has stirred controversy for a variety of reasons, not least of which is Romanians' long-standing resentment of their country being associated with vampirism. Prince Vlad Dracula, on whom the Count Dracula character was loosely based, was nicknamed Vlad Tepes (the Impaler) because his favorite -- although by no means only -- method of punishing enemies and the poor alike was to impale them on stakes. The number of victims was estimated at 30,000 to 100,000. The bloody tales of his cruelty were the loose link to vampirism exploited by Irish author Bram Stoker in his novel Dracula, published in 1897.

So why is Romania now trying to reinforce an idea it has long tried to live down? "The Dracula legend exists whether you like it or not," says Matei Agathon Dan, Romania's Tourism Minister. He's confident the park will be a boon to the country's economy and that Romanians, rather than resenting it, will be willing to help finance it through a public offering.

However, the idea of having an amusement park in a medieval town like Sighisoara has some people worried that it'll be impossible to preserve the area's 14th-century architecture or that it'll help give a distorted view of Romanian history. The Evangelic Church in nearby Timisoara launched a protest against the park, fearing it might transform Sighisoara into a "satanic place."

Dan recently spoke with BusinessWeek Online contributing correspondent Raluca Topliceanu about Dracula Park. Edited excerpts from their conversation follow:

Q: How much is the Romanian government involved in Dracula Park?


The Dracula Park partnership has three main players: the state [the Ministries of Tourism, Public Works, Industries, and Culture], the local public administration, and the private sector. The state launched the plan with legislation that formed Romania's first tourism project, the Sighisoara Development Area. Dracula Park is part of that project. The Sighisoara Local Public Administration is making the land -- 121 hectares -- available. The private sector will finance, build, and manage the park.

Q: What's the total value of park?


We are talking about $35 million for this stage. It's possible that in this stage we might only develop 34 of the 121 hectares and develop the rest later, depending on the interest that the investors are showing.

Q: What's the timetable for construction?


On Mar. 15, we'll start the preliminary work, such as rebuilding the roads and preserving the oak trees. [The latter has been a major source of controversy.] The actual construction should start this year, and it should be completed by the end of 2003.

Q: Can you tell me about the initial public offering that was launched toward the end of last year?


In my opinion, Dracula Park should be listed on the stock exchange. But for this to happen, you need two things: more than 3,500 shareholders and to have sold at least 60% of the issues. As of now, there are almost 9,000 shareholders, and we have raised more than $2 million. The goal is $4 million, and I am confident we will reach that figure by Apr. 3 [the deadline for the IPO]. We have exceeded our expectations regarding funds coming from the public. Now we're negotiating with important investors -- companies from Romania and abroad.

Q: Why Sighisoara and not another location in Romania?


The decision was based not on sentimental criteria but after analysis by specialists of six locations. There are two airports located nearby, and a major new highway is being built. Also, the Sighisoara City Hall made the 121 hectares of land available for free.

Q: You recently said you thought many of the tourists would come from the U.S. and Japan. Why is this? What will be the strategy to attract tourists from elsewhere?


In both Japan and the U.S. there is great interest in the Dracula story. I don't have any fear about the park's ability to attract tourists in general after it is open. Already, representatives from TUI [the biggest international tourism operator in the world] in Bucharest said it would be ready to sell [trips to] the park as soon as it was open.

Q: What can you say about the foundations and organizations that are against Dracula Park for various reasons, ranging from ecology to religion?


It is normal that a project of this size would create disputes. I would have been shocked otherwise.

That said, there are ecological foundations, for example, that didn't take any measures during the many years when the Sighisoara Medieval Festival was turning the city into a Romanian Woodstock and you had 40,000 young people changing the city into something that cannot be described. None of the foundations took any measures at that time. But now, distinguished medical doctors are changing into ecological experts and bringing childish arguments to this project.

I'm getting tired of repeating that we are not going to cut down any of the oak trees from the protected area, but on the contrary we will protect them, and we will plant 1,000 more. To all of the arguments we will respond with studies done by professionals, by experts. Not a single day goes by without a new attack, a new argument against building the park.

I can understand that there are disputes, but I can not accept a dirty press campaign.... I'm not building a Chernobyl on Sighisoara. We will obtain all the legal approvals according to the European standards. What is good for Europe is good also for Romania, and for all the foundations, organizations, and so on.

Q: How is Dracula Park going to improve Romania's economic situation?


It will bring 3,000 job for the people of Sighisoara and tourists who will spend tens of millions of dollars in Sighisoara and elsewhere in Romania.

Q: The Sighisoara Development Fund already signed contracts with Coca-Cola and [Austrian beer producer] Brau Union to invest in the park in return for exclusive distribution rights. Brau Union has invested $500,000 so far. Who else are you negotiating with?


I'm not going to say until we sign other contracts.

Q: How much will it be about the character, and how much about the real person?


It is a theme park about Dracula. It will have a horror area, which will include a castle and labyrinth garden, for the tourists interested in this, and the rest follows the concept of an entertainment park where children and adults can walk and find [the same kinds of tourist attractions] as anywhere else in the world. The whole thing will be built in a medieval style, with a restaurant and an art gallery.

Q: A lot of people are claiming that Romanians shouldn't be promoting Dracula because the character distorts history and is really only a creation of books and movies.


This controversy about myth, legend, reality doesn't impress me. But I have to say that some of the intellectuals who make this claim are the same intellectuals who have removed Vlad Tepes from Romanian history and have replaced him with Count Dracula in school books.

I can show you Dracula promotional products from Switzerland, from China. There is a whole Dracula industry that brings a lot of money to a lot of countries except Romania. Like it or not, Romania is where the legend of Count Dracula belongs.

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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