How to establish a serious national tourist agenda when the most famous person associated with your country is not only someone you'd rather not be associated with but furthermore is fictional? Duncan Light's entertaining but very serious book considers the ways in which tourism has been configured in Romania from the late 1950s to the present day.
The "dilemma" of the title is this - how do you deal with the fact that to those from outside the country, the most famous thing about Romania is Transylvania's finest, Count Dracula? Should the state engage with a mythos that has little or nothing to do with "actual" Romania, or disavow it and try to build tourism that genuinely reflects the country (while chancing that people will come along anyway)? Succeeding regimes and governments have struggled with this problem, and Light outlines their various strategies - and the consequences they have had for tourism in Romania.
Bram Stoker's original novel has had very little life in Romania - it was censored for most of the Communist period - and the filmic Dracula myth in general has not been particularly prevalent since 1989. Dracula, for most Romanians, refers to Vlad III (known for his cruelty as the Impaler), a relatively celebrated and interesting medieval ruler often associated in Romania with freedom and national identity.
Light provides a thorough and entertaining account of the various Dracula/Impaler myths and their manifestations in popular culture, academia and Romanian communist-nationalist historiography. The continuing association, with little or no credence, between Vlad III and the fictional Dracula, has led to the conceptualisation of Transylvania as the location of the vampire, even as somewhere physically evil. This has fed a sense of the region as a borderland area witnessing a dynamic engagement between East and West, civilised and barbarous. At times the Romanian reading of the Dracula myth has seen it as an attack on national identity or as an attempt to characterise the country as supernatural and irrational, outside civilisation.
This account of how the Dracula myth permeated the West, and how it gained traction through association with academic work on Vlad III, is good but not particularly new. The innovation of this book is found in its concern with the consequences of this odd literary phenomenon on the Romanian tourist industry over several decades. Light outlines the peculiarities of literary tourism in socialist Romania through the 1960s and 1970s, although it seems to have been barely tolerated in the main. He recounts the relatively perfunctory efforts since the fall of the Communist regime in 1989 to use the Dracula effect to boost tourism in a very poor country. He also looks at sites in the country and how they have been figured (particularly the various locations known erroneously as "Castle Dracula"). A final, thoughtful chapter looks at the ill-fated proposals for the world's only "horror park" (named, inevitably, Dracula Land).
At present, we have few historically wide-ranging accounts of the effects of literary tourism, and this is a great example of what might be done with a case study in terms of conceptualising the complex interplay of national identity, tourism and culture. The Dracula Dilemma, though, also demonstrates - notwithstanding the unique quality of the phenomenon - how such an approach can enrich and complicate our understanding of tourism itself.
The Dracula Dilemma: Tourism, Identity and the State in Romania
By Duncan Light
Ashgate, 208pp, £55.00
Published 1 July 2012