How Romania Is Embracing Bear Tourism
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
It’s a choose-your-own-adventure holiday in the Carpathians.
The snow is deep at an altitude of 1,700 meters (5,577 feet) in the Carpathian Mountains. There is no sign of a hiking path, but Radu Zaharie knows his way around. The sun is shining, and the moment is perfect. He points to the clear view to the north, and to the Depression of Sibiu to the northwest, and even the eastern Carpathians. “On really good days, especially in the winter, when we have these really cold days, there is a chance to see the entire Carpathian Mountain range all the way to the Ukraine, a vista of over 600 kilometers,” he explains.
Zaharie knows this area inside out, including the two 1,000-meter-high peaks far off in the distance. As a mountain guide, he organizes one- and two-week hikes, going from hut to hut. In the winter, he also does skiing tours: “This niche is still relatively small, but yes, an increasing number of guests are discovering going to the Carpathians in winter.” Zaharie, like many in Romania, is trying to promote tourism, or more precisely soft tourism, which involves activities like hikes close to nature. As one of the poorest countries in the European Union, Romania needs this income from tourism all the more.
Encountering bears while on a hike is a distinct possibility.
For crossing the Carpathians, some prefer a ridge walk in the Fagaras Mountains, “which means hiking from hut to hut in the Piatra Craiului Mountains National Park,” Zaharie says. But there also are packages designed for guests who want a bit more comfort — “and where they can watch wild animals like bears and more.”
Encountering bears while on a hike is a distinct possibility, but tourists should not be scared of them, says Zaharie: “For brown bears, humans are of no interest whatsoever. Humans would have to do a lot of silly things for a bear to pose a threat to them. Remember we are talking about European brown bears. These are not to be confused with grizzly bears.”
Compared to the Alps, alpine tourism here is still in its infancy, but Zaharie is trying to revive the SKV Transylvanian Alpine Club “Asociația Carpatină Ardeleană a Turiștilor.”
He also supports the restoration of historical mountain huts. Some of the most beautiful ones can be found in and around Păltiniş — which means high channel — Romania’s highest mountain resort. “These huts are some of the oldest in the Carpathians. They were built by the SKV alpine club,” Zaharie explains. Sadly, in Păltiniş you also find slab buildings from the Ceausescu era. “Here you can see how easy it is to disfigure a charming mountain resort,” he adds.
Zaharie says things are attractive when they aren’t perfect and developed. Hence the Carpathians offering lots of untouched nature: “Sometimes I feel like a small helpless child who is trying to open its eyes and orientate itself.” This is especially true when it comes to tourism, he adds. “It feels as if we are really learning like little children.”
And speaking of children: When the brown bears have their young, it can be dangerous for hikers, who should then keep their distance. Fortunately, during that time the bears hide very well, so you might only see their footprints in the snow.