"Banat 22" - Living to tell the story

Author: Ana Claudia Leu

Foreword

“Civil society…cannot be identified with the existence of plural institutions, capable of acting as a kind of countervailing force to the state…It certainly specifies one element necessary for the existence of civil society, but it is not sufficient.”

The outline that Ernest Gellner (cited in Hann, 1996) draws establishes a prerequisite and points to a possible gap between the declarative and factual sides of civil society. The mere existence of NGOs, their names on a list of participants or their statements made in good democratic spirit can hardly be considered the pebbles on the bottom of the gap. The only tool that civil society has for successfully filling it is engagement.

In the countries behind the Iron Curtain, civil society has long been seen as a fairy locked in an ivory tower who gained her freedom when communism came to an end. This fairy found her path to the forbidden land of pubic affairs and, in time, learned to knock on the gate that the state had raised between these and citizens or even to break it in some cases. In other words, civic engagement has for a long time been equated with the battle between David (NGOs) and Goliath (the state) rather than with the bricks that David could have laid one over the other in order to build a new foundation for a tarnished society (Hann, 1996).

However, as Steven Sampson (1996) emphasized in his study, transition in Eastern Europe was a world of projects. It is due to this world that NGOs learned to alternate the opposing-the-state approach with initiatives that made them roll up their sleeves and enhance the life of the communities they belonged to.

Given that Romania also subscribed to the archetype above and that projects are the most fertile and illustrative ground of civic engagement, I will tell you the story of an initiative remarkable for how a civil society exponent has managed to counterbalance the failures of specilaized firms. The exponent is the NGO I am working for and the bestseller whose pages I intend to turn is called “Banat 22”.

At first glance, the tourism industry and civil society may seem protagonists of different movies, given the severe and frowned watchdog countenance to which the latter has accustomed us. However, when a region is not assigned the place it deserves on the tourist map and neither public authorities nor tourism firms manage to touch upon the issue, the initiative of civil society cannot be considered other than salutary. To put it simply, the case I am going to describe mirrors what civic engagement is all about by reviewing the actions of both the project team and the people that the project targeted. But it’s time to let the story flow…

How it all began

Once upon a time (in 2007, to be precise), the EU’s Romania-Serbia Neighborhood Programme allowed for a cross border project to be implemented. The title of this project was “Banat 22” and the main players responsible for bearing its burden were the Euroregional Center for Democracy in Romania and the PanĨevo Municipality in Serbia. The project was integrated, meaning that each of the partners entering this marriage was in charge of a slice of responsibility capable of ensuring its success. The main goal was to revive the tourism industry in Banat (a region in Central Europe), by taking it out of the dusty drawer to which it had been sentenced and putting it on the tourist map by choosing 22 events and locations (11 in Romanian Banat and 11 in Serbian Banat) that would become the emblems of the region. The main feature supposed to get the red carpet treatment was the cultural diversity that the region took great pride in. More precisely, three countries hold slices of the Banat region cake – Romania, Hungary and Serbia. In time, the history cupola under which this was placed transformed it into a patchwork of ethnic groups combining Romanians, Serbs, Hungarians, Germans and Slovaks as main ingredients responsible for the multicultural flavor of the region. Therefore, it was thought that by converting this feature into the ‘wow-factor’ of the tourist offer in this realm, the tourism industry of both Romanian and Serbian Banat would receive a major boost that would pull it out of the not too rosy picture it painted at that time.

Making a diagnosis

The first step to healing the wound was making a diagnosis by addressing four types of interviewees: NGOs, public institutions, travel agents and accommodation units. As I was taken aboard the “Banat 22” ship from the very beginning and carried myself a significant slice of the preliminary interviews, I will provide a brief insight into the findings.

One of the first stopovers I suggest is the merchandise that travel agencies from Romanian Banat displayed in their shop windows. Surprisingly or not, in most of the cases, this merchandise didn’t comprise tourism products from the region.

When shifting to the next hot spot – promotional materials - I discovered that a significant percentage of the respondents considered these to be unnecessary frills given the lacking demand.

Another unpleasant remark was the following: “Why should we promote Banat if all tourists ask for renowned attractions like Bran Castle?” Consequently, Banat tourism encountered an image issue whose burden was borne by the awareness icons that had been built for bringing the respective attractions to the world tourist map. And one edifying example was the over-popular Dracula which despite being pure fiction considerably fuelled by Bram Stoker’s novel, attracted millions of tourists who bought souvenirs to have an aide-memoire of their vampire experience. Why was Dracula so famous? Because he smiled at tourists from their cup of coffee, from the bottom of their ashtrays, from the label of their juice bottles.

To conclude, tourist attractions from Banat didn’t receive coverage directly proportional to their appeal. They were held in the backyard either because of a distorted image on the region’s potential or because of the cozy and easy-to-gain market share that selling pre-packed foreign destinations ensured. Moreover, cultural diversity which could have become the very backbone of this region’s attractiveness was nothing else but a soap balloon that vanished when the need for coordinated efforts arose.

The quest for identity

A famous advertiser once said that we are so preoccupied with measuring people’s opinions that we forget we can change them (Newman, 2003). However, this didn’t apply to our case as the findings above were only the itch that made us engage further in solving the issue.

One of the first steps taken was finding a fingerprint that would counterbalance well-known trademarks like Dracula as well as remind the people involved in the project of their goal. This fingerprint was Lala, a character from Vojvodina (Serbia), known as chubby, easy-going and the possessor of an excellent sense of humor, whose story dated back to Maria Theresa’s rule. When I saw the sympathy that Serbs in Banat had for him, I decided to turn Lala into the project logo by providing him with elements that both countries would recognize and feel represented by. Thus, I created two suitcases – one with the Serbian flag and the other with the Romanian flag – and added an extra embellishment to his traditional hat, namely the project title which became so close to his heart. From a marketing perspective, the mascot displayed a huge potential as up-to-date research have revealed that stories sell much better than any advertising trick and no purchase decision is taken 100% rationally as consumers have to first feel its result in their subconscious. The perspective became even more optimistic when I changed the mascot’s name from Lala to Cross Border Lala and provided him with a digital camera for taking photos of the landscapes in Banat. However, his contribution wasn’t exclusively pictorial as we dedicated an entire website to his narrative gift.

Cross Border Lala was officially brought into the world at two press conferences – one in Serbia and one in Romania. Both events were spiced up by the mascot’s gifts to the audience – T-shirts with his photograph, an introductory letter telling his story and intentions as well as a roll-up banner displaying his image and the banat22.net website.

When the ugly duckling turns into a beautiful swan

Tapping the sympathy capital that the mascot had gained, we took another step for engaging Banat people in Lala’s quest for the 22 emblems of the region. Thus, the chubby fellow invited mass media, local authorities, tourism stakeholders and NGOs to stand for the locations and events they considered to be ‘king of the hill’. The competition was a success due to the avalanche of proposals through which people in the region advocated the high points of the communities to which they belonged. The overwhelming response rate was not only triggered by the participants’ desire to take their communities out of shade, but also by the prizes promised – leaflets, tourist guides, billboards advertising the attractions in winning localities. In other words, if resorting to the carrot-and-stick approach, “Banat 22” competition was all carrot and no stick as competitors had the chance to push their town or village on the much desired tourist awareness path.

After choosing the emblems of the region, we built a network for enabling the cross promotion of Serbian and Romanian Banat attractions. This touched upon a critical issue that the tourism industry encountered, namely the poor information flow among tourism stakeholders which would contemplate the communication gap from its margins rather than throw pebbles for filling it. Consequently, all the members of the miscommunication chain were engaged in an exchange of promotional materials that shed light on the tourist ‘walk of fame’ in historical Banat. Additionally, the brochures advertising Serbian Banat played a major part due to persuading people to break a perception frame which hindered them from traveling to Serbia given the country’s unstable political climate. Thus, Mark Twain’s statement “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness” once again proved its veracity.

On the other hand, the entire action was supported by a piecemeal lobby campaign urging local public institutions in two counties from Romanian Banat to pass the dream forward and take over the tourist information points (established within the project frame) when the financial life of “Banat 22” came to an end.

Our climbing of the tourist challenge hill didn’t stop there, but culminated in the International Tourism Fair in Belgrade (one of the biggest events of its type in the Balkans), an episode that clearly emphasized how civic engagement can make a world of difference. More precisely, despite the wide coverage that the event boasted, no Romanian firm or public authority that advertised ‘home-made’ products was present. The booth we organized was the only window that allowed visitors from all over the world to catch a glimpse of Romanian Banat attractions. The demand was so high that we gave all our materials in three hours and had to cope with the tourist information thirst by word-of-mouth advertising, for the rest of the day.

Epilogue

There is an old joke that answers the question “What is the difference between a pessimist, an optimist and a Marxist?” Simply put, a pessimist looks in a dark cellar for a black cat that isn’t there and he is convinced he will not find it. An optimist looks for the same cat but hopes to find it, while a Marxist really finds it. I think that the civic engagement in this story was a blend of the last two, given the ambition with which civil society pursued its goal and saw people to the station. Moreover, the story clearly highlights that civic engagement is not only about fighting the state, but also about bringing all the people preoccupied with an issue on the path to solving it, as however out of fashion this may sound, the “all for one and one for all” musketeer principle still works best in this case.

 

 

Bibliography

1. Goeldner, Ch. R., & Ritchie Brent, J.R. (2006). Tourism: Principles, Practices, Philosophies. New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons.

2. Hann, C. (1996). Introduction. Political society and civil anthropology. In C. Hann and E. Dunn (Ed.), Civil Society. Challenging Western models (pp. 1-25). New York: Routledge.

3. Newman, M. (2003). Creative Leaps: 10 Lessons in Successful Advertising at Saatchi & Saatchi. Singapore: John Wiley and Sons.

4. Sampson, S. (1996). The social life of projects: importing civil society to Albania. In C. Hann and E. Dunn (Ed.), Civil Society. Challenging Western models (pp. 121 – 142). New York: Routledge.

 

 


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