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Rural tourism to the rescue of the countryside? Oltenia as a case study.

Introduction

During the last decades, tourism has become a very important economic sector for many countries, governments paying great attention to the promotion of the country's image on the international market in order to attract visitors and, thus, increase the sector's contribution to the GDP. There are many recent tourist destinations, not only in traditional tourism countries, but also in emerging destinations worldwide. Moreover, the forms of tourism are diversifying very rapidly, and each and every one of them is gaining popularity amongst tourists. This is also the case of rural tourism, which has a rather long history in some of the western European countries, with very good results so far. Romania, an emerging country on the map of international tourism destinations, is no exception to this trend. However, it does not have the tradition of the other EU member states with respect to rural tourism, nor does it have a coherent policy to promote this form of tourism on both domestic and international market, despite its huge potential.

From the tourism point of view, rurality reflects 'a lifestyle, a set of values and an environment desirable for its difference, relative isolation and pace of living, as well as for its special aesthetic qualities and its spirituality' (Oliver & Jenkins, 2005). Rural tourism (a term adopted by the European Commission to refer to all tourism activities in a rural area) is now considered a possible engine for the much needed diversification of the rural economy (European Commission, 1999) and a key opportunity for the potential economic growth of many rural areas (European Commission, 2009).

With a large population living in towns (more than 55% of the country's population, i.e. almost 12 million people), and a rural spirit still deeply rooted in the Romanian culture, the old Romanian villages, that are located in picturesque landscapes, possess great potential for the development of rural tourism and for the necessary revival and restoration of the rural economy. Oltenia, the former historical province of the country, which is located in its south-western part, and has been inhabited since ancient times, is no exception to that. Out of the five counties that currently make up the northern part of the region, only Mehedinti, Gorj and Valcea, due to a varied relief, a very old civilization, and rich traditional culture, are the most important for rural tourism development (see Fig. 1).

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

The mountains in the northern part of the region, that unfold like a curve, including the southern massifs of the Southern Carpathians, in the possession of a varied lithology and, consequently, different landscapes, have offered shelter for the Romanian people during difficult historical periods. These mountains form the only remaining place in the country where we can still come across all types of settlements spread on rather small areas. There are sheep-folds and scattered villages, as well as gathered settlements and even small or large towns. The mountainous area is somewhat particular since it presents an association of higher or lower massifs, valleys and depressions, spectacular gorges (the Jiu, the Olt gorges) which have favoured the occupation of the Carpathians since ancient times. The mountains were never an obstacle for the population process on the Romanian territory; on the contrary, these favoured the crystallisation and maintenance of Romanian human communities.

The Subcarpathians, and especially the depressions forming the so-called Oltenia de sub munte/Oltenia at the mountain feet, were among the first inhabited and most densely populated areas in Oltenia. By capitalizing the natural conditions offered by the mountains in the north, and the gentle relief in the south, by practicing animal breeding and plant cultivation, here have appeared some of the oldest villages in the region that still exist today. A 'wood civilization' has developed over there, which is mirrored throughout the entire region by the traditional architecture and people's skills to carve into wood. Undoubtedly, in Oltenia the most beautiful architecture of the peasants' houses can be found in Gorj and Valcea, where oak was used for building the houses, whilst the high basis were made of stones and bricks. Traditionally, the roof was made of tiles of wood.

Although the plateau and plain in the southern part of the region have a rather dull and monotonous landscape, the large valleys and floodplains of the main rivers (the Jiu, the Olt), and of the Danube, with specific vegetation and fishing possibilities, together with the traditional occupation of the locals (pottery, weaving), function to offer good premises for rural tourism.

Besides the beautiful and diversified landscape, the cultural heritage of the villages (religion, festivals, music, dance, folklore, literature, arts and crafts, local cuisine, as well as monuments and other constructions testifying for the people's history), and the cheerful spirit of the local people represents the local resources for rural tourism development.

Challenges and opportunities for the development of rural tourism in Oltenia Although governments generally acknowledge the role of rural tourism for the economic development of countryside, few European countries actually have an explicit rural tourism policy at national or regional level (Hall, Kirkpatrick & Mitchell, 2005). Romania is no exception to that.

For more than a decade, the Romanian legislation states that tourism is a priority domain for the national economy (Government Decision no. 58/1998), and stipulates various agreements for the development of rural tourism (Law no. 187/1998, published in the Official Gazette, no. 394/ October 1998). Despite the fact that during the last years, various strategies for the development of rural tourism were proposed and included in the National Program for Rural Development 2007-2013, in line with the CE regulation regarding the policy for rural development at the European level, as well as the Master Plan for the Development of National Tourism for 2007-2026, little progress has been done.

In order to get financial support, some projects should be drawn up and submitted to proper agencies; since the development of rural tourism relies mainly on the local authorities and rural entrepreneurs that do not have specific training and experience for this type of projects, it is very likely that these measures will not boost the economic development of rural areas, and in particular, rural tourism in Oltenia.

Having the proper legislation and support from the authorities, whether national, regional or local, although highly necessary, are not guarantees for the success of rural tourism, which does not have the same political impact as agriculture in order to attract subsidies or other financial support (Hall C.M., 2004). Also the characteristics of rural businesses, the structure of rural population (age, sex and education), the share of rural population in the total population of the region, economy diversification, and the average area of agricultural farm are also important factors.

In many picturesque villages that are not positioned near larger towns and are characterized by poor road networks, the population is ageing; similar to this ageing process, the financial challenges these people are facing, are gradually leading to the destruction of traditional occupations and farm structures.

Human resources are a valuable development tool for any area. Unfortunately, most of the people running a tourism business in the countryside of Oltenia lack proper training and distinctive competencies in supporting this activity. At present, the National Association for Rural, Ecologic and Cultural Tourism (ANTREC) and other organizations are conducting training courses for rural tourism within the framework of the project Human resource, valuable investment in the Romanian rural tourism (ID 36694) Invest in people!, co financed by the European Social Fund (Development of Human Resources 2007-2013). This project aims at increasing competencies and employment of people in rural areas (targeted at administrators of tourist boarding houses, chefs, waiters, chambermaids). Still, these training courses will take place in only five development regions in the Romania, and Oltenia is not part of them. Thus, potential candidates from Oltenia counties will not have the possibility of gaining practical knowledge for specific jobs in rural tourism in a short period of time.

The lack of local facilities and amenities in many rural settlements, as well as ineffective marketing, characterised by: the lack of proper strategies and skills for marketing; non-existing promotion of domestic activities, not to mention the international market; the low use of opportunities offered by IT for the communication and distribution of information to potential tourists, are other aspects that are worth to be taken into consideration when establishing specific goals and objectives for rural tourism policies.

Rural tourism in Oltenia--main indicators

In order to have a clear picture of the current state of tourism in Oltenia, and particularly of rural tourism, several tourism indicators were analysed: accommodation capacity, nights spent by over by locals and non-residents.

Accommodation capacity

Oltenia holds just a small share of the total accommodation capacity in Romania--5%, with almost 4200 places out of 59,188 in the country. Moreover, the accommodation capacity of rural boarding houses is even smaller--just 3% in 2008. For Oltenia, the accommodation facilities include almost entirely only rural boarding houses, with a share of 98% in 2010, while holiday villages account for just 2%, due to the fact that there are only three such holiday villages in Oltenia: Fratii Jderi in Valcea, Mraconia in Mehedinti, and A piece of heaven at Bulzesti, in Dolj County. The aim declared for these holiday villages is to 'offer simple life as experience', promoting the idea of living in a natural milieu in order to rebound man with nature. They cover large green areas (more than 15,000 km2) and have complex landscape (water surfaces, woods, hayfields, traditional buildings--houses, huts, stable).

During the last 2000-2010, the accommodation capacity in the region increased considerably, from just 38 places in 2000 (20 of them in Gorj county and 18 in Valcea), to more than 1000 places in 2010. The highest increase was registered after 2008, when it almost doubled mostly as a result of a highly increasing trend in Gorj and Mehedinti County (see Fig. 2).

[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]

The largest accommodation capacity is in Gorj (mainly in Ranca, Polovragi, Pestisani, Baia de Fier, Tismana) and Valcea (Voineasa, Malaia, Bradisor, Valea Macesului) where it almost doubled during the last few years. But even in these counties the share of rural boarding houses out of the total number of accommodation facilities is low - just 5% for Valcea, around 10% for Mehedinti, the best situation registering Gorj - with approximately 20%. A particular situation can be found in Olt county--with no registration, and Dolj--having the lowest values. In the three northern counties in Oltenia, the first steps for the development of rural tourism have been made. Still, the number of the accommodation capacity in rural boarding houses in Oltenia is far beyond the other regions of the county, as a result of a lack of investments in this sector, disregard towards this tertiary economic activity (the local and regional policies focusing rather on primary and secondary activities, rather than tertiary ones), but also poor marketing and tourist branding.

Number of tourists

As a result of the above-mentioned situation, the number of tourists is quite low (just 8% of the total number of tourists in Romania) when compared to other regions of the country. If in the year 2000, in Oltenia, were registered more than 327,000 tourists, just 0.2% of them were in villages, and all of them were Romanians. Foreign tourists in rural boarding houses, in Oltenia, are reported to have started coming only since 2006, and their number and share in the total number of tourists is very low - 245 persons, accounting for just 3.5% (42% of which having as main destination villages in Gorj County). A decade later, the number of tourists in rural boarding houses increased considerably, exceeding 14,000 people (4% of the total number of tourists in Oltenia), while the proportion of foreign tourists, although following an ascendant trend, remained very low (just 2%). Valcea, Mehedinti, and especially Gorj had the highest increase in the number of tourists, but at a different pace; consequently, the share of tourists in counties at the beginning and end of the analysed period varies: if in 2000, Valcea accounted for more than 90% of the tourists, whilst the remaining visited Gorj; in 2009 almost half of them visited the villages in Gorj, 27% of them Valcea villages, and less than a quarter those in Mehedinti (see Fig. 3).

[FIGURE 3 OMITTED]

The spectacular increase in the number of tourists accommodated in Gorj boarding houses, from less than 100--in 2000, to over 7,000--in 2009, is the result of a more active promotion and, most of all, of the great increase in accommodation capacity throughout Gorj, the emergence and development of a new resort in the Parang Mountians--Ranca, which draws tourists from Gorj as well as the neighbouring counties, and especially from Craiova, since it is the closest resort that offers ski possibilities.

In illustrating foreign tourists preferences when choosing to spend their vacation in Oltenias' villages, more than half (62%) were accommodated in Gorj rural boarding houses, approximately a quarter in Mehedinti, and just 12% in Valcea, this might be explained by a better promotion of the rural boarding houses in Gorj by mainly using publicity means offered by ANTREC, as well as a richer and more diverse tourist offer for these villages (various entertainment possibilities--horseback-riding, fishing, camping, trekking, paint-ball, ATV rides etc, numerous feasts and local festivals that are promoted by ANTREC and not only).

Nights spent by tourists

Apart from the number of tourists in an area, the number of nights spent over by tourists is of particular economic interest; in the case of Oltenian villages it is very modest--just 2.5% of the total nights spent. If at the beginning of the analysed period, the villages in Valcea county hosted almost all rural tourists in the region (87%), the remaining being in Gorj, nowadays there are significant changes: the proportion of nights spent over by tourists in Gorj villages out passed that in Valcea (51% and 29%, respectively), whilst villages from Mehedinti also had an important share (20%). When analysing the nights spent over by foreign tourists, almost three quarters were registered in Gorj villages, as a result of a better offer in terms of accommodation facilities and entertainment possibilities.

Main features of the rural tourism in Oltenia

Although the first attempts to exploit the tourist potential of the Romanian villages dates back to the late 60's, little has actually been done for the proper development of rural tourism in Romania, and Oltenia as well. In 1973, the Ministry of Tourism promoted a project with fourteen Romanian villages of tourist interest, called 'tourist villages', which are spread throughout the mountainous and Subcarpathian region, as well as in the Danube Delta. Two of them were in Olteni: Tismana in Gorj, and Vaideeni, in Valcea. However, the following year, it became illegal to accommodate foreign tourists in private dwellings. Moreover, for the two villages in Oltenia, there was no certification for the households offering accommodation, and there wasn't registered any tourist activity at all (Nistoreanu, 1999).

Only after the fall of communism and the establishment of the National ANTREC, in 1994, as member of EuroGites--European Federation for Farm and Village Tourism, there were favourable conditions to enter the rural tourism market of the Romanian villages. In Oltenia, however, unlike the other regions in the country, the first rural boarding houses appeared quite late, in 2000 (in Gorj and Valcea, the counties that were somewhat familiar with it, already considering the previous experience with villages of tourist interest), despite the tourist potential of the region, and the existence of many beautiful houses in the Subcarpathians that could accommodate tourists.

In order to have a successful rural tourism business, people providing with tourism facilities and recreation activities in the rural area should follow an integrated quality management approach, following the main priorities and actions needed to succeed, i.e. marketing and communication; welcome, orientation and information; accommodation; local produce and gastronomy; attractions and events; countryside recreation; environment and infrastructure (European Commission, 1999).

Marketing and promotion

Marketing is one of the four major challenges for rural tourism, along with competition, cooperation and networking, and globalisation (Hall, Kirkpatrick & Mitchell, 2005). The strategic management of tourism corresponds to choices and actions, which trigger a competitive advantage following procedural, material and human resources (Lozato-Giotart & Balfet, 2004). In order to have a proper management strategy, the people involved should first understand the market they are addressing, a market which has become more sophisticated and started discriminating in the recent years (European Commission, 1999), and not least have the proper training and skills to cope with these demands. Unfortunately, quite often, the rural entrepreneurs and local officials, on whom the development of rural tourism depends, may not have specific training for the appropriate skills, which are not easy to develop or attain (Hall, Kirkpatrick & Mitchell, 2005).

Entrepreneurs for rural tourism should have a clear picture of the market segment they are addressing. After evaluating the local material and the available cultural resources, they can establish what is their target group--what type of tourists do they want to attract (from the neighbouring towns, throughout the country, from abroad); which age category, because depending on age, preferences and needs differ; married or single people, families with children; income level of potential tourists, etc. All this information is highly necessary to be able to select the market segments and address these properly.

The promotion of services and facilities offered is of utmost importance. Rarely, boarding houses in the Oltenia villages have flyers or brochures to disseminate information about their services and facilities, which include the contact details. In this sense, a very good means for promotion is the magazine edited by ANTREC, called Holidays in the countryside, which presents different boarding houses, holidays and events that take place in the Romanian villages in every issue. Unfortunately, providers of rural tourism in Oltenia are rather absent from the pages of this important and popular magazine. During the last two years, out of all twenty four issues of this magazine, only four presented rural boarding houses that exist in the three northern counties of Oltenia (three of them in Gorj, one in Valcea and none in Mehedinti), and three other issues detailed the local festivals or craftsmanship of the local people (a local gastronomy festival, that takes place in the Gorj villages, and the potters in Horezu, Valcea).

Internet promotion and use of ICT means are highly recommended, because they can support rural tourism initiatives by improving business practices and reach the consumer (Clarke, 2005). Just 7 out of 72 rural boarding houses in Oltenia (10.3%), which are registered on ANTREC web-site, have their own homepage for promoting their accommodation facilities, almost all of which are in Gorj county, one in Valcea and none in Mehedinti. Less than half of them have indicated an e-mail address as their contact details. Beside ANTREC's web-site, there are few others, like: www.turistinfo.ro, www.infopensiuni.ro, www.pensiuni-vile.ro, www.agroturism.ro, that promote the rural boarding houses. But here too the information about the villages in Oltenia is rather scarce. Booking a domain name and setting up a proper web-site may be quite challenging for the rural entrepreneurs and local officials, even though to post the information and contact details about any boarding house on a specialized web site is not that expensive and does not require much ICT knowledge.

The presentation of boarding houses on the web site of ANTREC is, quite often, very poor. For Mehedinti county, no contact details of the owners or administrators of the accommodation units can be found whatsoever, just the e-mail and phone of the ANTREC office in Mehedinti, and there is no description at all about the units (no information regarding the number and type of rooms, accommodation capacity, bathrooms, restaurant etc.). For Valcea county, the contact details are also missing, the only possibility being the ANTREC representative in the county. For those in Gorj county, despite the fact that compared to the other two counties, the situation is better, not all the rural boarding houses indicate their comfort category according to the grading scheme of ANTREC, the description is sometimes missing. It can also be mentioned the fact that the section Other information contains illegible information as instead of Romanian characters having all sorts of symbols, making the text rather difficult to read.

Collaborating with travel agencies is another effective means for a good marketing strategy. Usually, some of the three and four flowers boarding houses have signed contracts with travel agencies, but in the analyzed counties, less than 5% of the units in Oltenia have adopted such a strategy.

Building and extending networks may also be a good marketing strategy, since the very essence of rural tourism is local cooperation and community involvement (Hall, Kirkpatrick & Mitchell, 2005). For rural tourism, networks offer two main advantages: they help increase visitors lengths of stay, offering additional activities or attractions, which in turn would increase visitors' spending, maximizing the multiplier effect in the local economy (Clarke, 2005). After all, one of tourism objectives is to support economic development by promoting economic consumption out of the environment of permanent residence (Hall, C.M. 2004). ANTREC is one of these networks, but since the involvement of boarding houses and local authorities in Oltenia is very low, it is not very helpful. The town hall web site in Horezu, a town which has been designated as a European destination of Excellence, tries to establish this network, by presenting locations for overnight stay, for eating, for having recreational activities, souvenirs shopping, and not least, for the tourist attractions in the area. Thus, by having a complete picture of the destination and the things it has to offer, the chances that potential tourists will choose such a particular destination over others, would increase.

Orientation and information

The existence of information centres, or info points is vital for guiding tourists to the main interest points of villages and their surroundings, offer a comprehensive picture of the things to do and see for the time they plan to spend in a particular location. Maps of the villages showing all the facilities would also be helpful to point to: host properties, where to walk, where to shop, tourist attractions etc. But since they imply some costs, these are always postponed by local authorities, despite the fact that these are highly necessary and are a common practice in almost all the European countries.

Accommodation

Accommodation services are the most important feature for the current state of rural tourism in Oltenia, as most of the tourist activities are related to rural boarding houses, other activities like: recreation, local food, attractions and events being so far, of secondary importance for this region.

According to ANTREC, there are seventy one rural boarding houses in the three northern counties of Oltenia, which are classified according to the National Association grading scheme. There predominate the two and three flowers boarding houses which are located in some of the most picturesque villages of the Subcarpathians, and that offer a wide range of conditions and facilities. Some of the houses are newly built especially for this purpose, whilst others have been transformed, restoring and capitalizing the old beautiful houses. This is particularly valid for some of the houses in Vaideeni, Malaia, of the shepherds that used their capital to build fine houses suitable for tourist use (Ploaie & Turnok, 1999).

Some of them still preserve the unique architectural style particular for the region, the main construction materials used being stone and wood, both for indoors and outdoors cons. Some of the boarding houses in Gorj villages have been awarded the Golden Daisy prize in 2009 for maintaining the local tradition for various categories: the interior design of boarding house, collection of objects presented in the house, and combination of traditional and modern architecture elements. However, many rural boarding houses that were built during the last year have a modern architecture and an interior design that do not fit into the village landscape. On the presentation on the web-site the administrators even mention that each room has modern furniture and design', despite the fact that 'visitors of rural areas are looking for [...] accommodation in an attractive setting, and buildings which reflect the authentic rural heritage of an area in design and decor' (European Commission, 1999).

Another important aspect that must be taken into account refers to the facilities and endowment of the boarding houses. Since there was a lack of some utilities such as: running water and sewage system in rural settlements for many years, and because only recently such infrastructures have been built, this is considered by many rural entrepreneurs as a great facility for tourists. While in western countries facilities include central heating system, fireplaces, well-equipped kitchens, and barbeques etc., almost all of the accommodation units in the Oltenia villages mention as a prime facility only running water. Nevertheless, the running water and sewage system is now a must for any sustainable tourist activity and settlement, and it is not considered something out of the extraordinary.

Local cuisine

Each historical province in the country, depending on the local resources and the cultural influences acquired throughout history, has its own specific food apart from the traditional dishes that are cooked in the whole country. Oltenia is no exception to that, and although there are not so many food festivals as in other parts of the country, local cuisine should not be neglected from the tourism point of view, as it is part of the local culture. From the very beginning of the tourism phenomenon, food and wine were places in the background of the tourist experience as part of the overall hospitality service for travellers, more and more food and wine especially becoming the hallmark attraction for various destinations worldwide (Hall, Kirkpatrick & Mitchell, 2005).

Many rural boarding houses classified by ANTREC offer traditional food to both lodged tourists and to those that just come for a short visit. Two of them received the Golden Daisy Award in for gastronomy (traditional breakfast or traditional recipes) in 2009, while some boarding houses, although very few, offer different traditional foods depending on season (e.g. Casa Brancusi, from Pestisani, Gorj). In order to help promote the rural boarding houses in Gorj county, but not only, in 2009 took place the first edition of the Pig's trotters festival (at Tismana, and the next year at Pestisani), as part of the food festivals organized by ANTREC, where a dozen of boarding houses and restaurants participated.

Attractions and events

Rural tourism offers the advantage for personal contact, authenticity and heritage (Hall, Roberts & Mitchell, 2005). Apart from offering a warm welcome and insight into the tranquillity and pace of life in the countryside, promoters of rural tourism should also know how to use the elements of the natural environment and the cultural legacy to their own advantage, by providing and presenting sufficient attractions to retain the visitor interest (European Commission, 1999).

Generally, together with local museums, traditional architecture, handicrafts etc., various morphometric elements and water bodies are the main attraction points for the natural environment of a rural settlement. Within the three northern counties of Oltenia, there are 104 protected natural areas (National Spatial Plan, Section VI) (39 in Gorj, 34 in Mehedinti and 31 in Valcea), all of them with great potential for tourism, these include: national parks, (such as Retezat); gorges, caves well equipped and open to tourists; phossiliferous points (5 such points only in Gorj county), karst springs (the Cerna and the Jales karst springs, both of them being protected by law); glacial relief forms, vegetation elements, etc. It is worth noting that most of the rural settlements with great natural potential (those given the maximum score for the natural tourist resources, according to the National Spatial Plan), have already began to capitalize this potential, not only by offering accommodation and catering services to tourists, but also by promoting the natural attractions in the area, and making reference to them in the description of their boarding houses as possible short-trip destinations.

Also, local handcrafts and man-built patrimony, may have a great impact on tourist flows if properly advertised. Due to its ethnical homogeneity, the rural community in Oltenia has preserved much of the cultural specificity of Romania (Popescu et al., 2010) that can be used by locals to promote their villages on the rural tourism market. Seventeen settlements in northern Oltenia possess historical monuments such as monasteries (Fig. 4), local museums (the one at Bujoreni, in Valcea (The Village museum), "cule" at Maldaresti (fortified landowner residences, built in the form of a square tower, characteristic for the Balkan Peninsula, which are found only in Oltenia, and partially Muntenia). The most important cultural patrimony can be found in Horezu, including the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in Oltenia, Hurezi Monastery, built in the beautiful Brancovesc architectural style.

There are also various pottery centres like: Sisesti (in Mehedinti county), Oboga which is peculiar for the diverse range of sculptural elements that illustrate old customs, and Vadastra (in Olt county), where tourists can watch the potters at work and even try to model piece of clay themselves to test their abilities. All pottery centres have local shops that sell the pottery products made here, as well as all sorts of souvenirs, some of which are not made by the villagers. The highest number of such souvenirs shops can be found in Horezu, where people have a richer experience in this type of business.

In the majority of Subcarpathians villages, and not only, there are a lot of local festivals, that are very popular among the local people, and which can have a great tourist impact if properly advertised. Since traditions are still alive in Romanian villages, the festivals are worth participating to because they are not just performances put on for tourists (Popescu et al., 2010).

[FIGURE 4 OMITTED]

Such festivals and local feasts take place in 28 settlements throughout the three counties, with 32 events; in Mehedinti county being held only three such events. Most of them are folkloric representations, few of them, however a well-known. Moreover, local authorities and organizers take little or no advantage of the publicity opportunities offered by ANTREC. On the web-site of the National Association and in the magazine it published each month, the events that take place during the entire year in different villages, are advertised. Unfortunately, in 2010, out of sixty five events listed on the web-site just two of them were taking place in Oltenia.

In order to capitalize the local heritage, both local authorities and rural entrepreneurs should develop heritage trails and theme routes, focusing, for instance, on pottery in Valcea county or pilgrimage to main monasteries. Taking into consideration that many rural areas still preserve old traditions, tools and means of transport, these themed routes can be used to revive the local older forms of transport (horse and cart, sleight) and to lure tourists out of their cars (Clarke, 2005).

Recreation in the countryside

Recreation possibilities are an important part of any tourist package, as leisure activities have a central role for most tourism activities. The offers in Oltenia include both relaxing activities such as: walks, picnics, fishing, as well as more active and modern activities like: off-road motor vehicle driving, paint-ball (this is the case for some of the rural boarding houses in Gorj county). According to the presentation of rural boarding houses on the ANTREC web-site, the most frequent recreation activities are trekking, courtyard activities and fishing, while other activities, such as cycle-tourism and skiing are possible just in a few settlements in Gorj and Valcea counties.

Recreational development in rural areas also includes second-homes (Hall, Roberts & Mitchell, 2005), which have become ever more popular among town dwellers. Most often, picturesque villages, that are situated about thirty minutes to one hour drive from the county residencies; or the native villages of town dwellers (in order to maintain family ties to the region), have been chosen for building purpose or for transforming an old house into a vacation home. Thus, the economic potential of second-home ownership should not be neglected for the development of rural and peripheral areas (Hall, 2004).

Infrastructure

For rural tourism to be an important means for the economic revival of the countryside, a good infrastructure is a must. 'A well furbished individual establishment is insufficient; [....] rural road networks, walking paths, hiking trails, bicycle lanes, attractive inns, benches, shops and evening entertainment, as well as a cultivated rural landscape' must also exist to meet tourists' expectations (Hall D.R. et al., 2006).

Many of the countryside roads in Oltenia have been repaired, facilitating, thus access to the main rural tourism destinations (Popescu et al., 2010). However, there are still many areas in the countryside with great tourism potential that lack proper infrastructure (both technical infrastructure, which is mainly related to road networks, and specific tourism infrastructure). One example is Vaideeni--a commune with high concentration of natural and anthropogenic tourism resources, but with great deficiencies in the tourist and technical infrastructure.

In Mehedinti county, most of the communes that are characterised by high tourism potential, actually lack proper tourism infrastructure. For instance, Horezu and Polovragi are two settlements with such potential, but facing the same problem. On the other hand, communes that have developed their tourism infrastructure, have to cope with the lack of proper technical infrastructure. The long distances between some villages and the main towns, especially those situated in the Mehedinti Plateau, may be an advantage for promoting agri-tourism to individuals who value remoteness, as long as they are accessible in terms of transport and communication links (OECD, 2010).

Additionally, shops selling souvenirs, like: handcrafts and local food, should also be taken into consideration when planning the development of rural tourism infrastructure, since these trigger two main benefits for the local community: on one hand, by selling products made by the locals, they help increase tourism spending in the local economy, as the Romanian peasants are in great need for income sources, other than agriculture; on the other, these help maintain traditions, the typical rural landscape with orchards, vineyards and hayfields characteristic of the Subcarpathians area, and, not less important, helps in increasing the self-esteem of the host community is increasing, as people are proud of their own culture (Popescu et al., 2010).

Concluding points

During the last years, Romania has been trying to promote its tourism resources on both the national and international market by emphasizing its potential for rural tourism. Still, apart from some well-known destinations like Bran, part of the Apuseni Mountains, and some areas in Bucovina, rural tourism is not an important activity for Romanian villages. Oltenia, one of the Romanian regions that has become recently more industrialized than other parts of the country, possesses predominantly agricultural activities and a low level of urbanization. It can be said, thus, that it has a great potential for the rural tourism development, in view of the fact that it has had important health tourism functions for decades due to its mineral springs in the Valcea county.

Local people and authorities seem well aware of these possibilities and claim that the development of rural tourism is one of the best possible options for boosting the rural economy in Oltenia. It is beyond doubt that the natural milieu, in combination with the cultural patrimony of the Oltenian villages, forms a very valuable tourist offer. But the frequency and intensity of tourist flows greatly depend on the material infrastructure that includes: accommodation facilities, restaurants and catering services, transportation, recreation activities etc., as well as on the abilities of those involved in rural tourism to exploit what is specific to offer, in order to give unique experiences to tourists.

Lastly, the examples of well practiced rural tourism in the western European countries may not be the most suitable for the villages in Oltenia due to the peculiarities of the Romanian countryside. Given that it is struggling to cope with more and more challenges, such as ageing population, lack of finance and technology, subsistence agriculture, lesser ownership property. Rural tourism, then, may be the solution for just a few rural settlements in Oltenia. Overall, rural tourism is expected to be closely linked with the traditional activities of the inhabitants, and in time, it may become the dominant occupation for some of the dwellers.

Received February 19, 2011. Resubmitted May 5, 2011

REFERENCES

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Liliana POPESCU *, Amalia BADITA *

* University of Craiova, Geography Department, 13 A. I. Cuza Str., Craiova, Romania; popescu_liliana25@yahoo.com
Table 1 Recreation activities in rural boarding houses in Oltenia

Recreation activities             Gorj           Valcea

                         Number of    %     Number of    %
                         boarding           boarding
                          houses             houses

Horseback riding            12       37,5       0        0
Fishing                     16        50       13       72
Trekking                    18        56       18       100
Courtyard activities        24        75       17       94
Children playground         24        75       14       78
Ski                          1        3         1        6
Cycle-tourism                4       12,5       2       11

Recreation activities       Mehedinti

                         Number of   %
                         boarding
                          houses

Horseback riding             1       5
Fishing                     21       95
Trekking                    21       95
Courtyard activities        11       50
Children playground         --       --
Ski                         --       --
Cycle-tourism                        --

(Data source: own calculations, using the information provided on
www.antrec.ro)
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Author:Popescu, Liliana; Badita, Amalia
Publication:Journal of Tourism Challenges and Trends
Article Type:Case study
Geographic Code:4EXRO
Date:Jun 1, 2011
Words:6482
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