Entrepreneurs are trying to leverage the special culture of Moldova’s autonomous southern region as a money-spinning proposition
Moldova holds the unenviable honor of having one of the highest rates of economic migration in the world. The economy’s inability to provide decent jobs and the desire to find a better situation abroad are the biggest drivers of the exodus, which drove the population down by 15 percent between 2004 and 2014.
Many migrants come from the countryside, an outflow that some entrepreneurs hope can be slowed through the development of the infant rural tourism sector, as word spreads of the range of cultures, traditions, and cuisines in one of Europe’s least visited countries.
Moldova’s Melting Pot
If rural tourism is just getting started in much of Moldova, it barely exists in the autonomous region of Gagauzia, a wedge of land sandwiched between Ukraine and Romania.
Ana Statova is one of the region’s rural tourism pioneers. The 55-year-old single mother of two from the town of Congaz launched herself into the hospitality business in 2009, when she opened a wedding hall as a kind of living museum of Gagauz traditions and cuisine.
Everywhere else, they serve sushi and European salads. My friends were pessimistic. They asked, who will eat our kaurma and bulguru?” Statova recalls. When traditional Gagauz lamb and other dishes proved to be popular with customers, Statova was inspired to start building in the local style.
“I traveled the region with historians and ethnographers and collected traditional motifs. Then I built four houses in Gagauz style, made of clay, straw, and mud, and a guesthouse with a capacity of 10,” she says.
These traditional dwellings do not have air conditioning or TVs. What they offer is a taste of life as the Gagauz lived it, a century and more ago.
The Gagauz trace their ancestry to Oghuz Turks who settled on the Balkan peninsula in the 12th century. When imperial Russia occupied the eastern part of the Principality of Moldova in 1812, Gagauz people, who had long since converted to Orthodoxy, migrated into the area, displacing Turks and Tatars, who were pushed into what is now southeastern Romania and eastern Bulgaria.
In 1994, three years after Moldova declared independence from the Soviet Union, the Moldovan parliament granted autonomy to Gagauzia, a territory of 135,000 people, more than four-fifths of whom declare Gagauz ethnicity. Many Gagauz speak their ancestral Turkic language, although Russian predominates in education and public life. Today, the Gagauz strive to keep their core identity alive and pass on their blend of Turkish, Bulgarian, and Romanian traditions in a Moldovan setting.
“We jumped into an ocean, without knowing how or where to swim,” Statova says, recalling the beginnings of her now flourishing business. Her business gradually started to generate income, create jobs in the local community, and help local producers market their wares.
“About 90 percent of guests prefer to stay in these small traditional houses; each one of them is like a museum,” she says, explaining that the reed construction helps keep them cool in summer.
The compact dwellings take up just 14 or so square meters, with a small bathroom.
“Inside we have a traditional hard wooden bed and a stove and there are carpets both on the floor and on the walls. This is our tradition,” Statova says.
Alongside the traditional-style cottages stands the guesthouse. Less than 18 months after opening, the Gagauz Sofrasi guesthouse has hosted hundreds of tourists from 35 countries. Many come from Russia and Turkey, with rising numbers from Western Europe and the United States.
European visitors typically stay from one to three days and take in the wedding show. The also like the tiny, elaborate local embroidery and the dances called hora and sarba, says Larisa, Ana’s 27-year-old daughter, who studied at hotel schools in Cyprus and Switzerland.
When Ana tried to convince other villagers to open similar businesses, they held back, citing the precarious level of support from national and local authorities. The mayor of Congaz, Mihail Esir, says although rural tourism has “great potential” in the area, city hall has no means to support it.
“We can only inform them about the opportunities for developing this field,” he says.
Scant resources aside, tourism experts say the state lacks an overall concept of the tourism industry.
“Tourism is not even included in the national development strategy of Moldova until 2030. Tourism is only tangential. This is precisely why one of our proposals to the Ministry of Economy and Infrastructure and to the Presidency is to include incoming tourism among the strategic development goals of the country,” says Natalia Turcanu, executive director of ANTRIM, a non-profit group representing private tourism operators.
Old Traditions in New Bottles
Gheorghe and Larisa Cerven used to make a few barrels of wine every year, like many families in the wine-growing parts of Moldova. In 2009, they opened the Kara Gani winery in their home in Vulcanesti, about 60 kilometers from Congaz.
Since then, aided by grants and loans, the winery has grown to encompass 10 hectares of vines with various European grape varieties, producing 10,000 bottles of wine a year.
Like Ana Statova, the Cervens made the choice to build a locally sourced tourism business with Gagauz flavoring. They hope to expand it by opening a pension. “Most visitors want to stay overnight with us. It's hard to leave after so many bottles of good wine,” Gheorghe says, laughing.
The winery now includes a tasting room for up to 30 people and a family museum.
Businesses such as Ana Statova’s guesthouse and the Cerven winery prompted last fall’s inauguration of a tourist information center in the Gagauz regional capital, Comrat, opened with the support of the European Union.
If there is a center of Moldova’s budding rural tourism industry, it is to be found in the Orhei area in the middle of the country. The museum complex Orheiul Vechi some 50 kilometers north of Chisinau, with its churches, monastery, ancient fortress, and ruins of other historic structures, perched on bluffs overlooking the Raut river, was a natural magnet for a handful of tourism entrepreneurs like Anatol Botnaru, who opened the first pensions in the area in 2004.
“I started chaotically, without any plan, because I had no money,” Botnaru recalls. He now owns 10 guesthouses. He’s convinced that only authentic local tradition can attract visitors. “In the beginning, I had a French guest in a room with insulated windows. He told me he would rather stay in a house with local color, regardless of comfort.”
Apart from tasting traditional cuisine, the main tourist attractions here are visits to the archaeological sites and the winding canyons of the Raut. The village of Butuceni even hosts an annual opera festival, the only one of its kind in Moldova, Botnaru boasts.
Tiny as the rural tourism sector is, it’s made a noticeable impact on the villages where visitors stay. Local tourism operators hire people from the locality, and guesthouses are sales points for the products of nearby farmers.
Tourism can also be a booster for high-quality local products. Ana Statova sources agricultural products from nearby villages, and insists on organic produce.
“My mother receives a pension of 1,300 lei [$68]. I pay her to bake bread after an old recipe, without yeast. Our neighbor Matriona makes our cow cheese. A shepherd, Vanea, rears lambs just for me, someone else raises my hens,” she says.
For his part, Anatol Botnaru initially ran several livestock farms to supply his guesthouses, but later gave up in favor of purchasing from local farms, because it is “difficult to do it all.”
“It is much more soulful and better to work with the villagers. Sometimes we even buy products we don’t need, to encourage peasants to sell their produce. But we don't take products from random people. We have our suppliers, food security matters,” he says.
Tourism on a Budget
The former director of the state Tourism Agency, Stanislav Rusu, backs up the complaints of rural tourism entrepreneurs about the lack of state support.
The situation today is that rural pensions are “just startups for enthusiasts,” he says. “As long as we do not have a systematic approach by which businesses can receive support from the central authorities, local authorities, the banking system, there will be no development in this segment.”
Before the agency ceased operations in 2018, it successfully lobbied for rural tourism with some success, as when it drafted a legal amendment a few years ago to simplify the procedure for rural homeowners to begin offering accommodation services.
ANTRIM director Turcanu says that beyond subsidies, the state has other options to help rural tourism businesses.
“For example, maybe a tax amnesty for the first few years, provided that the owners reinvest the money they save on taxes into the development of the business,” she says.
Ana Statova had to rely almost completely on her own resources to develop her guest complex in Congaz. She was able to access a $19,000 grant from USAID, amounting to about 5 percent of her total investment. She received nothing from the central or local authorities.
Some state resources are available. The Ministry of Agriculture and Regional Development administers a 20 million lei ($1.1 million) fund to boost the tourist attractiveness of the country.
There is also funding earmarked to support rural tourism directly. Lilia Dumitras, a consultant to the ministry, told us the state made 450 million lei available for the program in 2017. It is meant to work by offering farmers 50 percent of the cost of a project, up to 1 million lei. To date, no money has been disbursed to applicants.
Employees Report Satisfaction, Despite Low Pay
Ana Statova’s Gagauz Sofrasi guesthouse employs 40 people year-round, reinforced by a dozen or more students from Congaz during the holidays.
According to her daughter, this local job opportunity helped persuade some not to go abroad for work.
“We have employees who came back from Turkey, where they stayed for many years. The Turkish economy has had some problems in recent years, and the U.S. dollar has depreciated a lot. They came back and realized that, comparatively, they can earn about the same by staying here at home,” Larisa Statova says.
The staff earn from 2,500 to 3,000 lei a month, well below the national average.
Kira, 50, tells us she wants to be with her loved ones at home.
“I worked in Turkey for about five years. I babysat for a family. For a while it was worth it, but now wages have fallen a lot after the depreciation of the Turkish lira. I'd rather stay at home. I feel very good here and the pay is decent,” she says.
Another employee, Matriona, returned home from Russia when Western sanctions imposed after the annexation of Crimea pushed the economy into a downturn.
“We can't manage to clean the place, even with three of us in the house. We have a lot of guests. I like it here, it's interesting work. Working with young people, I feel younger,” she remarks, without stopping to rest.
Jobs at the guesthouse may have other benefits, but wages are on the low side: monthly salaries in the Moldovan tourism sector average 4,700 lei, while the average gross salary rose to 6,900 lei in mid-2019.
Anatol Botnaru says he makes every effort to retain his staff summer and winter. He employs 30 people at his enterprise in Butuceni, hard by the Old Orhei archaeological complex.
“I want to keep everyone here working instead of going abroad. We are all a big family here,” he says.