(Bloomberg) -- At Romania’s rustic eastern shore, where the 1,800 mile-long Danube empties into the Black Sea, four-time Olympic rowing champion Ivan Patzaichin sees green.
Patzaichin is crisscrossing the Danube Delta of his youth, investing money and creating an eco-tourist business within the verdant walls of weeping willows alive with waterfowl and wild lilies. It’s a labor of love that he hopes will bring capital to one of Romania’s poorest regions and show local settlers eking out a living in a marshland larger than Rhode Island how to survive in a modern world traveled by cash-rich tourists.
“We want to show them that there are other ways to make a living,” said Patzaichin between bites of crisp fried fish pulled that day from the Danube and served up by a fisherman’s wife in a dirt-floored reed hut. “We want them to unite and create small communities working together, set up their households to have boarding guests, show the traditional way of life.”
Romanian entrepreneurs are marketing the country, the second-poorest European Union member, as a place to invest and visit. With economists predicting the U.K.’s Brexit and Middle East concerns will shift investment focus more to former-communist emerging markets, Romanians want to change their image of a poverty-stricken land known best for Dracula to a destination rich with untapped beaches, wine groves, spas and mountains.
Olympian Patzaichin, who took gold for canoing in Mexico City, Munich, Moscow and Los Angeles, and his partner Teodor Floru acknowledge deep misgivings about Romania.
Their eco-tourism project, operating under the umbrella term “RowMania,” enlists the help of otherwise isolated fishermen to take tourists out for a catch and serve them local cuisine in primitive surroundings, a local craftsman to build canoes for delta tours and villagers to provide supplies and overnight stays in thatched-roof huts. He wants to use EU regional funds to help establish and finance his network which has so far recruited about 120 people.
The 67-year-old rower grew up in Mila 23, a remote village of fewer than 500 and the home of 23 Olympic and World Championship rowing medalists. As a child in the desperately poor hamlet during communist times he rowed everywhere -- to the store, to school, for firewood with his grandfather. Years later, many of the cottages’ roofs are still covered with reeds, sidewalks are hard dirt paths and fishing boats are tied to rickety wooden docks with creaky floorboards.
“I have always had a responsibility toward the Delta and its people, I’ve always felt that I arrived where I did because of them as well,” he said.
Romania’s chances of changing decades of neglect of the tourism industry following the overthrow and execution of Dictator Nicolae Ceausescu have never been better. The economy in the second quarter expanded 6 percent, the fastest pace in the 28-nation EU.
“There’s a need for modern tourism in Bucharest and investment geared toward expats,” said Mihai Patrulescu, a senior economist at UniCredit Bank in the Romanian capital.
The number of foreign tourists and expatriates living and working in the largest Balkan nation has been growing as the country has taken steps to cut corruption and the political system has stabilized.
The perception of an improved business climate in Romania is helping draw investors, with foreign direct investment totaling 2 billion euros ($2.3 billion) in the first six months of 2016, compared with about 1.6 billion euros a year earlier.
The government is also spending about 3 million euros on advertising this year to play to the country’s strengths and promote tourism, said Deputy Economy Minister Claudiu Vrinceanu. Romania had about 120 new investments in tourism last year, a steady pace from 2014, he added, as the country is witnessing an increase in the number of tourists and the average spending per person.
New hotels outfitted with modern amenities are spreading out from the capital to areas such as ancient Targu Mures, in Transylvania, where the Hotel Privo’s design was lauded on the Luxury Hotel Awards website. A project to build 15 floating bungalows on the Danube near the southern border with Serbia is the first of its kind.
While the government has come up with tax incentives to help other sectors, like IT, “tourism has been mostly ignored by the country’s leadership,” according to Alin Burcea, who heads Romania’s Travel Agencies’ Association, in an op-ed in the local media last week. The administration doesn’t offer any incentives for investment in tourism and there’s no nationwide strategy to lure tourists as officials don’t understand the industry’s potential, Burcea said.
In January, the country’s first modern spa and wellness center, the 55 million-euro Therme Bucuresti near the main airport, opened its doors with Austrian funding and a license by Wund Unternehmensgruppe, based in Friedrichshafen, Germany.
The complex, housed in a sweeping glass structure, with indoor and outdoor pools and living palm trees, has already attracted more than 500,000 visitors and is on track to break the full-year target of 1 million people, so expansion is already underway, operations manager Stelian Iacob said.
Three hours by car away from the hustle of Bucharest’s newest spa attraction, Olympian Patzaichin is betting that the pristine experience of Europe’s second-largest river delta will be the magnet for tourists that the local community needs.
Tucked alongside a narrow canal of brackish algae-covered water, 51-year-old Austrian administrator Christian Katzendorfer and his family finished pitching a tent for the night under a willow, leaving their RowMania canoe pulled up on the shore. It was their fifth night on the delta, fulfilling a dream he has had since he was a child.
“I have lived on the Danube all my life in Austria,” he said. “And I always wanted to see the end of it. It’s beautiful.”