Responsible tourism in MoldovaLizet Wesselman - 03/08/2023
Responsible tourism in MoldovaLizet Wesselman - 03/08/2023
With the travel industry growing every year, the search for hidden gems grows just as fast. As beautiful and special the well-known tourist attractions around the world are, for some countries those crowds of tourists do a lot of damage. So, finding hidden gems isn’t just about finding a place with less people, so you can have the pretty spot to yourself. It’s also about preserving the beautiful planet we love to explore. We call this responsible tourism, a form of responsible travel that makes a positive impact on a local community, instead of a negative impact on the surroundings.
And well, did I find a hidden gem for you. The beautiful country of Moldova might not offer the stunning views that you’ll find in Bali, Thailand or the Maldives, but the local experience makes it so special. Dive into this country by reading about the personal stories that the local people gladly share with everybody who wants to listen. Because that open and welcoming attitude is what makes this country so incredibly special.
History and current separation of Moldova
To understand this country better, it’s important to understand its history and current separation between regions and ethnicities. Because this is quite the story, I’ve written a separate article about this. Throughout history, Moldova has been under control by different countries and powers. It’s been added to other countries and regions and split up again. Resulting in a country with a rich history, multiple languages and a very layered culture that offers an intensely local experience.
You don’t even have to dive deep to find the local culture because it’s everywhere. Every village has their own special aspect, that they proudly share with every tourist passing by. This makes responsible tourism in Moldova an easy and very rewarding task, with more impressive stories to tell than a holiday to a tourism hotspot will ever give you.
The beauty of making an impact
After a first day of exploring the capital city Chișinău, where we dipped our toes into the rich and layered history of Moldova, it was time to deep dive into the local culture. We spend the night in a homestay, a type of accommodation where you spend the night with a local family. We started the afternoon with a cooking workshop, where we made the delicious local dish “placinta”. Which is a dough filled with different kinds of stuffing, in our case we made them with cheese and with cabbage. It’s a family-run business, so the workshop was given by the owner’s mother. She got all dressed up and made it an authentic experience. We ended the day with a glass of homemade wine with the owners and of course our self-made placinta. But it wasn’t until the next morning that we realized how big of an impact our visit made on this local family.
A rough period for the travel industry
Our trip was at the end of April 2023. A year into the war in neighbouring country Ukraine and a little over 3 years since the start of the pandemic. During breakfast, we found a guestbook and decided to leave a little note. When we found the next empty page, we also noticed the last entry, dated November 2019. We checked in with the family, and they confirmed: we were the very first guests in almost 3,5 years.
While most international businesses survived the pandemic, because of the high profits they make during normal travel seasons, it’s a different story for local family businesses like this. This family was lucky to be able to revert to different income streams, but of course, they just want to be able to do what they love and continue to host guests. This was a recurring theme during our trip, and we were happy to make an impact on these people’s lives.
An important part of responsible tourism is to be aware of where you spend your money and what the local impact of your visit is. Are you spending money on big hotel chains which are probably owned by somebody outside of the country, or will you stay in a place like this homestay, where you get to meet the people behind the business and know exactly who you’re supporting?
Personal invites and endless hospitality
Throughout our trip, we met an impressive number of people and were often invited to people’s houses for home-cooked meals. The hospitality in this country is from a different level, and it’s very normal to express your gratitude through food. Tables are stuffed with plates with all sorts of food, preferably you won’t be able to see a single piece of the table. There has to be more food than you can eat, leftovers have to be taken with you, and the wine glasses never go empty. Meals are homemade, and usually, the ingredients are home-grown. This includes the grapes for the wines. And if the wine is not made by them, it’s probably made by a family friend.
Culture is very important in Moldova and people happily share their piece of culture with their guests. Every region has their specialities, based on its cultural heritage, and they try to keep local tourism as authentic as possible. We’ve tasted food inspired by Bulgarian culture, Russian culture, Romanian culture and different local specialities. All based on the community we visited and the resources they had available, like fish from a local lake, which isn’t available anywhere else in the country.
These kinds of local experiences are only possible if tourism is actually run by the local people. Chains of restaurants and hotels would completely change this balance and slowly overshadow this part of a culture, by offering the same services and food that they serve all over the world.
Peel off the layers
But we couldn’t help but wonder if there wasn’t a little hidden layer behind all of this hospitality. Don’t get me wrong, these people genuinely are this friendly and welcoming. But we were right to assume it might be gratitude as well. We really were the first tourists in a really long time, we even noticed this in the streets, we definitely were the odd ones out. So aside from the normal friendliness and welcoming behaviour, they went the extra mile to make us happy.
Another example during our trip where we made a big impact was at the Eco Village. Aside from very friendly, Moldovan people are also very open and easily share their life stories. The owner of the Eco Village told us that in 2008 she took her family to Romania for 10 years, because there were no prospects for them in Moldova. In 2018 they came back because they found a way to offer food, wine and a place to stay to tourists. She was optimistic, but of course we all know that these can’t have been easy years for a starting business. This year, we were the first guests.
Of course, this country got hit harder than most and our travel impact was even greater because of it. But it just amplifies the impact us travellers have on local communities You never know what people go through and you might be the reason they can stay open. Responsible tourism is the way to be aware of this impact and make conscious decisions during your trips.
A small local winery…
Since wine is such a big part of Moldovan culture, we couldn’t leave without visiting a few vineyards as well. Unfortunately, it’s very hard for the wineries in Moldova to sell their products to other countries, especially European countries, due to trade limitations. The more reason to try a whole lot of them while we were there!
Although we did visit the big wineries, we all loved the local experience of the small Gogu winery so much more. Of course, this came with a jet-packed table of food because how else? We were guided around by the owner, who again happily shared a lot of personal information. He was accompanied by his son, who’d translate for us to improve his English. So, one day, he could work in the family business as well and guide more tourists. They sat with us through dinner and happily answered all of our questions. We had a conversation, in which he was also interested in our reasons to visit Moldova and our experiences so far. It felt more like having dinner and a wine tasting with a friend, than visiting a business.
… or the biggest one in Europe?
Of course, one of the biggest wineries in Europe, with the biggest underground cellar, offers a lot more to see and it was an interesting experience. But it also included a tour guide who rushed through the story she tells multiple times a day, and who left us alone during our wine tasting because the next group was already waiting.
Big tourist attractions are big and popular for good reasons, they are often worth the hype and the visit. But for me, those personal stories and knowing that my visit actually made a difference for the people I met, means so much more. Those are the stories I will remember in 30 years, and that’s what conscious travel is about. Being present in the moment, fully experiencing a local culture and meeting the people who build it to what it is.
Make a local impact
Responsible tourism is about leaving a memorable impression, and nothing else. Making a difference where it matters in a local community. Like the saying “leave nothing but footprints”
This doesn’t mean you can’t do the big tourist things, it just means you should be aware of the local impact, the people behind the business and what choices you have. Choosing the big chain hotel because it’s familiar, means the local B&B next door might struggle to stay in business because of the competition. And eating at the chain restaurant might be the safe option, but won’t give you the local speciality you’d get at the locally owned restaurant just out of the tourist centre.
It’s not about not doing the big tourist things, it’s about knowing where you can make an impact and making a choice to actually try to make that impact as much as possible. And in the process, you’ll find those hidden gems you’ll gladly tell everyone about because they often turn out to be so much better than the touristic alternatives!
Casper and Reizen Moldavië
Are you seeking a unique experience in Moldova? Then I can only recommend booking your trip with Reizen Moldavië. If it wasn’t for Casper, I never would have visited Moldova. Or at least, not now. And now is exactly the time to go! Before everybody else discovers it. However, Casper has been going for years and years and pretty much knows every corner of the country. He will create the perfect trip for you, that you will definitely love.
This trip was in collaboration with Reizen Moldavië, but the blog is based on my personal experience. Nothing in the blog is sponsored.