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Dracula Park

On an icy winter morning in Transylvania, there are more queues than usual in Sighisoara's post office. This is a big day in a quiet place: in the shadow of the Unesco World Heritage Site that is Sighisoara's medieval citadel, citizens are about to buy into Romania's biggest and loudest tourist project for decades, perhaps ever. Dracula Park is coming to town, and $ 5m (pounds 3.5m) of shares are now officially on sale.

In one corner of the room, a huddle of well- insulated townsfolk stand on the slushy floor. Dorin Danesan, mayor of Sighisoara and a member of the management team of Dracula Park, is watching the dozen-strong queue of share-buyers intently, as are a couple of local journalists. It's difficult to tell who is here for the shares and who is just paying their gas bill (that's a much bigger queue).

I pounce on Adrian Spanu, who's filling in a form to buy 100 shares in the park; they're worth pounds 20, or a third of the average monthly wage. "I think it's great," he says. Adrian studies engineering in Bucharest but would rather come home. "Dracula Park could turn Sighisoara into somewhere I want to work. This town needs some life." Beside him, a woman in a fur coat won't give her name but says she's buying shares for her daughter's Christmas present: "I can't be 100 per cent sure that this will succeed but I hope that it will." So does much of Sighisoara's 40,000-strong population: unemployment stands at 17 per cent, since most of the heavy industry disappeared with former dictator Ceausescu's subsidies. "Everyone else makes money from Dracula," says the mayor. "Why shouldn't we?"

Dracula Park was first announced in April by Romanian tourist minister Dan Matei Agathon. Foreigners were obsessed with Dracula, he reasoned, so why not build them a theme park? In a beautiful office in Bucharest - Ceausescu was fond of marble halls - Agathon's deputy, Alin Burcea, elaborates with ebullience. Sitting beneath large glossy posters of the park's proposed layout, he says Dracula is a tourist ministry's dream. "We can't compete with Austria's ski resorts, for example - they have 800 ski lifts and we have 40. But Dracula is unique to us. We don't even have to explain what it means so we save money with advertising."

The project was launched in fifth gear and hasn't slowed down since. Within only a few months, legislation had been hurtled through parliament, confirming that the Special Programme would be run by a for-profit company, Fondul Pentru Dezvoltare Turistica Sighisoara (FPDTS), 99 per cent of which would be owned by the Sighisoara municipality. Slick television ads urged Romanians to invest in this patriotic project, and programmes were interrupted to show Prime Minister Adrian Nastase buying pounds 700 worth of shares. Glossy feasibility studies in black and blood-red colours were produced, wishing readers a "welcome forever" and listing the park's proposed attractions in apparently professional detail.

Dracula Park's blood-curdling centrepiece will be Castle Dracula. It will house a judgement chamber, vampire den and alchemy laboratory. The Institute of  Vampirology, the second-biggest draw, will have conference rooms addressing "all the strange, mysterious and inexplicable cases that occur both in the country and worldwide" and a Dracula's secret library of vampire annals. There will be a mock-up of a torture room, with stakes and knives. There will be a Dracula Lake (for no apparent vampiristic reasons), folk workshops "for teeth sharpening, making armours that can protect vampires from silver bullets", tailoring from the Eccentric Vampire fashion house, with "the launch of the spring collection featuring clothes for sun block". Even the rides will have a vampire theme, featuring mechanical devices "closely following the specific architecture of the respective age" - a Dracula carousel, a rollercoaster, a house of terror.

Visitors will be able to snack on "blood pudding, dish of brains and fright -jellied meat" in the theme restaurants, and will sleep in on-site motels. Roads and infrastructure will be created and magic figures will abound. The park will create 3,000 jobs! It will bring in $ 21m a year! It will "propel Romania to stardom," writes Agathon in his preface. It will bring tourists and be a solution to all problems.

And the choice of location will bring the tourists rolling in. Transylvania, land beyond the forests, is the most enigmatic and resonant of regions - so mysterious that most Americans don't believe it exists - and made globally famous by an Irish novelist. Dracula Park would be set in its heartland, near the glorious medieval citadel of Sighisoara.

No matter that Bram Stoker never set foot there. Dracula was originally titled The Undead. It featured Count Wampyr and was based in Austria. But the book was too close to Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla, an Austrian vampire tale. Stoker switched to Transylvania, and the 15th-century Romanian prince Vlad Dracula. His father, Vlad Dracul, got the name from his membership of the Order of the Dragon (drachen in German). "In Romanian," wrote British consul William Wilkinson, "Dracul means devil"; from this sentence, Count Dracula was born. That Dracula was better known as Vlad Tepes (the Impaler) for his favourite method of dispatching Ottoman invaders, and was Prince of neighbouring Wallachia, not Transylvania, was of no importance.

In the 1960s, US tourists began arriving in Transylvania looking for Dracula castles that didn't actually exist. The bemused Romanians knew only of Vlad Tepes. Though his cruelty was renowned — he once impaled 1,000 Turks at once — he didn't drink blood, or sleep in coffins, or have sharp teeth. In 1973, the government offered a "Dracula: Truth and Legend" tour. But when tourists turned


up for fangs and capes, they got a week trailing the footsteps of a medieval king they couldn't care less about. Only in 1985, when the Romanians built Hotel Castle Dracula in the Borgo Pass (the access road to Count Dracula's castle in the novel) did vampire tourism officially begin.

Even so, Ceausescu forbade any association of vampires with Prince Vlad, especially in his final years, when Western papers took to comparing the dictator to Dracula. Dracula films weren't legal until the 1989 revolution (sadly, most Romanians I asked had only seen the Coppola version). Stoker's book wasn't translated into Romanian until 1992. But three years is quick for Romania, a country whose pace of change towards capitalist democracy has often been as slow as its revolution was swift. In the capital city, Bucharest, street after street yields a skeleton of a building begun under Ceausescu and never finished. Bucharest's sky is scarred with static construction cranes that haven't moved for 13 years.

Dracula Park is different. Backed by government might, its fame has spread worldwide. On my first evening in Bucharest, a young Romanian architect asks why I am here, before answering for himself: "The new acceptable story for the West, right? Abandoned babies, Ceausescu and gypsies, and now Dracula Park."

Opposite the post office, steep steps lead up to Sighisoara's medieval citadel. It is one of only two inhabited citadels in Europe, and is a stunning sight. No noise, not much traffic, pastel-coloured buildings that have been standing gracefully and quietly for 500 years - all behind old wooden gates that could still repel a Turk or two. It seems perfectly preserved: there is a fairytale clocktower Disney would kill for. The most garish thing in sight is perhaps the hand -painted sign to Casa Dracul, the house where Vlad Tepes was supposedly born in 1431.

There are only 200 people living here, so orientation is easy. On one street, Teo Loroian sells his liver-singeing 50%-proof plum brandy tuica; nearby, Maria Kula stands guard at her window in an centuries-old house her family bought 15 years ago for $20. Maria's grand-daughter Marinela works in two local schools as an English teacher - even with two jobs, her monthly salary is $40. In the main square, two buildings gleam in the snow, both restored by foreign NGOs because the government couldn't afford to.

One of Dracula Park's selling points is the money it will raise for restoration. The figures vary - it's pounds 1.4m one week, pounds 7m the next - but either would be welcomed. Romania's ministry of culture has said Sighisoara will be in a state of severe degradation within 50 years. Ceausescu preferred to knock down, not restore. He didn't send the bulldozers to Sighisoara, but he didn't fix the cracks either.

Still, the square looks pristine. More so than it did last autumn, says local resident Ben Mehedin, when Miramax descended to film Dracula Resurrection (Parts II and III) in the citadel. The latest addition to the vampire film oeuvre - a noble line leading from Bela to Buffy via Tom Cruise and Gary Oldman - installed a circus set in the square, supposedly the site of a vampire attack. "In the morning," says Mehedin, "there were dummies lying around with blood dripping from their necks, and our children passing on the way to school. My daughter was terrified."

Mehedin works for two local NGOs, and is one of Sighisoara's better-known opponents of the park. He's no curmudgeonly conservative, though. And neither is fellow protester Hans Bruno Frolich, a Lutheran priest who lives in a presbytery with its own fortified tower, 100m up the hill.

Frolich had been quoted so often on his fears of satanism that I expected a crusty preacher, unworldly and stubborn. He's actually a clearly spoken 29-year -old fluent in five languages. There's no brimstone in sight. "I am not superstitious," he says calmly. "I'm not scared that vampires are going to come and suck my blood. But evil shouldn't be exploited. Building a park about bloodsucking vampires is like building a Hitler park. I mean, take the Institute of Vampirology. How will it work? What, in one room you sharpen teeth and in the other you learn how to rape children and in another you stake people?"

Frolich knows about tourism: for several years now Sighisoara has hosted an annual Medieval Arts Festival. Except the medieval arts have long since given way to rock concerts. Sighisoara's cobbled streets are now crowded every summer with 30,000 black-clad drunken youths. Frolich has seen them pissing in his churchyard, and found condoms on gravestones. "The authorities say they are building the park to take the tourists away from the citadel - but then they say they'll build a chairlift."

It would have to be a long chairlift, as the government insists the park site is 6km from the citadel. At the citadel wall, under one of its 11 fortified towers, Mehedin points to the hill opposite. "There! That's Breite. It's 1km as the crow flies and 6km by road. But the noise isn't going to come by road, is it?"

Breite plateau is where the park will be situated. It's actually 5km by road and one by foot, because the average Romanian Dacia (the national car and a national embarrassment) can't manage the narrow track up through the forest. It's beautiful, peaceful. In the middle, like a haemorrhage, a large sign proclaims, "Here will be built Dracula Park" in red letters dripping with blood. Mehedin winces at the sign and gestures at the trees. "Those oak trees are 400 years old and they're still producing acorns. They're unique." Breite's oaks were made a nature preserve in 1990, under law number 5/2000. "Now they deny it," Mehedin says. "Ask them how they can!"

"It is not protected, but with Dracula Park it will be," says Alin Burcea in Bucharest. "Do you think I am so stupid to cut down the trees? They date from Vlad Tepes - they can be a tourist attraction!" A pause. "OK, maybe we'll cut down what we have to."

I tell Mehedin that the mayor asked me for the names of protesters I spoke to. He roars with laughter. "This is such a communist way of dealing with opposition!" Ben went to the press conference on 20 November thinking that in the absence of any other public discussion, he might get his concerns across. No chance. "They had collected 7,000 signatures in favour of the park. They were going into factories and people were signing - afraid of losing their jobs. It was Ceausescu-style."

Recently the Romanian newspaper Ziua de Ardeal reported that the Romanian Foreign Intelligence Service (SIE) was investigating "enemies abroad" who oppose the project. Jessica Douglas Home, one of those "enemies abroad", chairs the Mihai Eminescu Trust, a heritage organisation (patron: Prince Charles) that has worked in Romania since 1987. She finds Dracula Park outrageous in its location and is suspicious of the speed of its execution. "It's a familiar mindset," she fumes. "The same old people are back in place." When one senator suggested on television that the park would be better elsewhere, Dracula Park's managing director Marius Stoian waved what he claimed was a Securitate file in his face and threatened him with investigation.

Both the mayor and secretary of state mutter darkly about foreigners who dare to interfere in Romania's business. "This is a government project," says the mayor. "No one can tell us what to do in our own country. This is a small town, it's quiet. It's good ground for foreigners who want to launder money."

If anything deserves scrutiny, say some opponents, it's the Dracula Park business plan. "From any angle, this project is unviable," says a reputable Western financier in Bucharest. "As a banker, I wouldn't put my money anywhere near it. On the economic side, it's crazy. There is no upside."

Even to a layperson, there is much to raise eyebrows. The fact that the management team includes a sitting mayor might already be cause for concern. That none of the team has any experience in the mass-tourism market could be worrying. That its chief administrator, in charge of a pounds 22m project, is a 31-year-old ex -journalist with no business experience - as Marius Stoian's CV on the website makes plain - would make investors run a mile. (When I asked who the park's architect was, Burcea shrugged. "Oh, some Russian," he said.)

The flaws are unmissable. Recipes for themepark success have certain essential ingredients: access to a constant flow of tourists, good infrastructure, all -year-round climate, proximity to a major city. But Sighisoara is five hours' drive from Bucharest along a two-lane highway jammed by slow-moving trucks and horse carts. It has a severe winter and would be out of bounds for half the year. There are two domestic airports nearby, but with poor service. And there are only six hotels, the largest of which has virtually no central heating in temperatures of minus 15 and an elevator that uses ropes. "No city in Romania has the infrastructure for a theme park," says the mayor. "But we will build it."

Such confidence even extends to the projections: 1.1 million visitors a year, of whom 80 per cent will be Romanians living within 80km. To add some context - though the prospectus fails to - Denmark's Legoland rarely gets over one million visitors, and it's not in the middle of Transylvania, where the majority of the target audience is old, rural and has neither a car nor money. (In Sighisoara's citadel, some houses still have outside toilets.)

Ministers point to the 4,000-odd Dracula fan-clubs who will surely visit. But even Romania's small vampire tourist industry — which you'd expect to be in favour — finds the figures ludicrous. Mircea Poenaru, who runs vampire initiation tours and Club Dracula in Bucharest, gets 400 people a year: mostly Americans, some Goths, but no Romanians.

Nicolae Paduraru, director of the Transylvanian Society of Dracula and another vampire tour operator, isn't against a theme park in principle. "But Dracula Park simply reproduces the gimmicks Westerners already have. They already have the creaking door, the spiders' webs. Dracula Park has to be highly sophisticated to attract them." But the construction timetable favours speed over quality: the centrepiece, Castle Dracula, will cost pounds 1.8m and be built in only 150 days, whereas "one of the latest white knuckle rides can cost in excess of $ 200m," says Bournemouth University professor of tourism John Fletcher, who finds the figures bemusing.

For one London-based businessman with Romanian interests, the prospectus is more than bemusing. (Nobody with links to Romania's business community would go on the record.) "I don't want to look at this emotionally," he says. "But purely from a business perspective, there are red flags all the way through."

Under the rules of the UK Listing Agency, companies have to be independently audited before they're allowed to sell shares to the public. FPDTS hasn't done that, and it probably wouldn't pass if it had. There are the unsubstantiated projections. There are disturbing lacunae - of the $5 million the company hopes to raise from the first share offering, almost half is slated for "non-specified costs and consultancy". Then there is the issue of Breite, public land ceded to FPDTS then valued, without the help of any obvious real estate expertise, at $ 20m (pounds 14m). The businessman doubts this figure: "The value is dependent on its marketability. And who wants to buy in Sighisoara? It's a backwater."

This may be too cynical. But from the start, the Dracula Park project has been marked by a curiously sloppy business style. The speed of the project is puzzling - a six-month gap between initial announcement and share offering would seem rushed even on Wall Street. "Before, many projects were not getting completed," says Danesan in defence. "We wanted to do this, not just talk about it." There were other discrepancies. tourism minister Dan Matei Agathon listed western firms that he said were interested in investing in Dracula Park. When the Bucharest Business Week paper phoned three of the companies, they knew nothing about it. There has been much interest from merchandisers (one proposal was for kids to write their name on parchment in their own blood) but no foreign investment - even the loudly touted German theme park company Pullman is yet to put in a cent. "Well, we are waiting," says Burcea, confidently. "I've told them they have to buy shares and then they can run the park. So far we haven't signed anything. But we will, we will. Trust me."

Tourist minister Agathon has pledged that his brainchild will be built "no matter what", and almost everyone is certain the bulldozers will arrive on the first day of spring. Not even the news that the park would have to pay Universal Studios to use the classic Dracula image (white face, black cape, red lips and fangs) has derailed Agathon: he simply asked 100 art students to design a new all-Romanian version.

There is one possible leaf on the tracks: Romania neglected to inform UNESCO of its plans, though it is obliged to under the World Heritage Treaty. At a UNESCO meeting in December, members expressed deep concern about Dracula Park, requested an impact study from the Romanian government, and decided to send a fact-finding mission immediately, to report to their next meeting this April. Curiously, Dracula Park architect Dan Covali, who was at the meeting, subsequently announced that UNESCO had congratulated Romania on its project, and that there were no problems. Hardly - though UNESCO has no legal power to step in, its diplomatic pressure has so far stopped the construction of a ringroad around the pyramids, and halted a salt-production plant at a whale sanctuary in Mexico. Romania, keen for NATO and EU membership, may eventually prove unwilling to fly quite so blatantly in the face of "the enemies abroad."

"I'm not against popular tourism," says Jessica Douglas Home. "Just not a tacky, badly made park in the wrong place." There are many brownfield sites riper for development near the Dracula spots of Brasov and Targoviste. Ecotourism is slowly taking route in the unspoilt Saxon villages. Mickey Mouse with fangs - as one American professor described the park - would derail everything.

Still, logic hasn't governed Dracula Park much so far. Sighisoara's links to Dracula are so tenuous, its clocktower museum doesn't deign to mention Vlad Tepes. There are no vampire souvenirs in town, save the odd "I love Dracula" car sticker. So it's surprising to find that the museum's deputy director, Georghe Baltag, is a park supporter. "This is a ravished country," he says gently in his 800-year-old office. "Dracula Park may not be acceptable for ecology or morality, but it's acceptable for general economic development. For tourism, anything goes."

Even so, Mehedin is putting the final touches to the "Sustainable Sighisoara" logo for when Unesco comes to town. Hans Frolich grins that "it would be a wonder of God if this park succeeds. But it's about the Devil, and he doesn't usually do miracles." The anti-Dracula camp hopes the secretary of state Burcea's mobile phone tune will prove prophetic: it's set to "Mission: Impossible".

Published in the Independent on Sunday Review, January 2002