Just a few years ago, Moldova was considered one of the least traveled countries in Europe. Today, experts see Moldova as a must do destination. The reasons: Wine, food, nature, a professional tourist strategy, and a frozen conflict.
#BeOurGuest is one of the first things you read when arriving in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova. This hashtag already welcomes guests at the airport, directly at the border control. It is obvious that Moldova is trying to beat the image of one of the least travelled countries in Europe. On the contrary, the post-soviet country has recognised the tourism potential.
However, this is still quite a new development. The tourist information centre in Chisinau just opened about two years ago, and has since then helped around 12,000 tourists, explains Natalia Țurcanu, the centre’s executive director. “Our main aim was to promote Moldova as a travel destination, to increase the awareness in international markets”. The main target markets are Germany, where the country is represented at the ITB tourism trade fair in Berlin; the United Kingdom, Italy, and Poland.
Looking at the statistics, Natalia Țurcanu can be happy with the results of the centre’s work as a part of the national inbound tourism association of Moldova. The number of tourists is increasing by about 20 percent each year, she explains.
The country does not want to be perceived as cheap
How come? The country, jammed between Ukraine and Romania, with no access to the Black Sea, used to be one of the least visited places in Europe. Now, experts such as the American ‘1,000 Places To See Before You Die’ author, Patricia Schultz, names it as one of the hot-spots, Moldova being mentioned in the same breath with Zimbabwe, Greenland, or Bolivia.
Moldova seems to offer exactly what tourists are seeking nowadays. “People are now looking for something that you do not see every day in a European city, they are looking for something different”, Natalia Țurcanu says. “Moldova is offering this something different”. Of course, Chisinau is not Paris, or Rome, or Barcelona, and Moldova is not Italy or Spain. It still has the taste of something exotic, something new, fresh, untouched – pristine. The fact that there is no public transportation map is part of the experience.
Moreover, compared to many other destinations, Moldova is affordable, not to say cheap. However, Natalia Țurcanu emphasises that this is not the image Moldova wants to have. When promoting Moldova, wine, gastronomy, local traditions and activities are the keywords. Mass tourism is not the goal. “We are looking at tourists who are well-educated with a higher income.” The Scandinavian market is on the agenda for the national tourism association next year.
Fantastic wine with a thousand-year-long tradition, unexpectedly good food, friendly locals: Yes, Moldova does offer all this. However, what also comes to mind when thinking about the country is Transnistria.
Transnistria, the ‘soft adventure’
Transnistria is the Eastern part of Moldova which declared its independency before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but is not recognised by any other state. Officially, Transnistria is a part of Moldova, however, in reality, it functions as an own country with an administrative apparatus. The conflict is frozen, and both sides seem to have managed to achieve a pragmatic dealing with each other.
Natalia Țurcanu knows that many tourists are fascinated about Transnistria. It is part of the tourism offer, she says. “We see a big interest from their so-called government in promoting this region as a travel destination. It is another experience. It’s a soft adventure, it is safe to visit – you travel back in time when you go there”.
This, of course, makes it especially interesting for young and solo travellers. It is less than two hours from Chisinau to Tiraspol, and buses run frequently. Yes, there is a border, but the border officials seem to be friendly, and smile while scanning the passport to give you a little piece of paper instead of a stamp.
“It’s not selling itself too well though”
Tiraspol, Transnistria’s capital, makes a very tidy, clean and good first impression. Yes, there is a Lenin statue in front of the parliament, and there is a T-34 tank as part of a monument. There is also the Red star, as well as the hammer and sickle here and there, Transnistria being the last territory to bear these symbols in its flag.
“The majority of tourists come here because they think this is back to the USSR”, explains Tatiana Yaskova, chairwoman of Tiraspol’s tourist information centre which, like Chisinau’s, opened about two years ago. However, she emphasises that this is not all the region has to offer. “We are okay with this reason to come, we are super welcoming to everyone, but we also want people to know that there is another picture of Pridnestrovia”. Tatiana Yaskova uses the region’s own description, Pridnestrovia, and talks about the other offers: What wine is in Moldova, for example, is cognac and vodka by the Kvint brand or caviar by Aquatir.
Lili Balogh has not been to Tiraspol. The 28-year-old Hungarian is one of the few recognisable tourists on the streets of Chisinau on this October day. She is working for an NGO which held a project meeting in Chisinau for a day, but she and her colleague had decided to extend their stay in Moldova as both had never been there. They had just been on part of a walking tour through Chisinau.
Lili Balogh is really impressed with Chisinau, especially at its cleanliness. “It’s not selling itself very well though”, she says, and starts to enthuse over Moldovan wine soon after. “I think Moldova is like a hidden gem. I would totally recommend it. Not too much, because I wouldn’t wish for Moldovans to have mass tourism because it has ruined Budapest and other places too, but I do wish them to be known for what they are, and not to be mistaken for elsewhere” – this sort of corresponds with the goals of Natalia Țurcanu and her tourist information centre.