BALEA LAC, Romania: Tucked away in a valley in the Carpathian mountains, a tiny ice hotel has opened to try to lure tourists and their cash to the unspoilt forests of some of Europe's greatest wilderness.
A refuge for brown bears, wolves, bison, lynx and a wealth of other wildlife and plant species found nowhere else, the region needs money to tackle the poverty that environmentalists say could threaten the mountains.
Arnold Klingeis hopes his eight-room hotel, built 2,000 metres above sea level and accessible only by cable car in the winter, will attract tourists interested in nature. Nearby areas could be further developed for skiing, some say.
"This area has the resources to become a European tourist attraction. But we need investment," said Klingeis, a 27-year-old Romanian-born German, who runs the hotel.
"In the winter there are no foreigners here and local developers don't have the budget for a ski lift."
Made of ice from a nearby lake, the igloo-shaped hotel cost less than 10,000 euros (US$12,100) and took a month to build. Next to the sheepskin-covered ice beds, a local artist put icy copies of the sleek sculptures by Romanian-born modernist sculptor Constantin Brancusi.
Romania, one of Europe's poorest countries that hopes to join the European Union next year, is struggling to build up its tourist industry saddled with crumbling infrastructure.
Government officials estimate that up to 6 million tourists visit Romania each year, heading for Black Sea beaches dotted with mineral mud spas or following the footsteps of notorious medieval ruler Vlad the Impaler, whose life inspired Bram Stoker's "Dracula."
Tourism needs cash injection
The uninhabited slopes around Balea Lac, an icy lake surrounded by some of the highest peaks in the Carpathians, a vast mountain chain that spans much of Eastern Europe, could be another attraction, local residents believe.
"This pristine charm is what used to attract people to the Alps," said Paul Philippi, a retired theology professor from the nearby town of Sibiu. "The Alps don't have it any more. These mountains...have sheep and not much more," he said, leaning against an ice table in one of the new hotel's bedrooms.
Balea Lac currently attracts only the most devoted skiers, who scramble up the slopes with only one small, beginners' lift available to give them a pull. According to Romania's National Ski Federation, there are 23 ski runs in the mountainous country and only five of them meet international standards.
A seven-nation plan to protect the Carpathian mountains, backed by the United Nations, came into force last month, seeking to protect wildlife, promote sustainable development and preserve the cultures of the up to 18 million inhabitants.
Environmentalists say that cash is needed to prevent poverty-driven exploitation of natural resources and pollution. Structured development would be more environmentally friendly but that costs money.
In the valley of Balea Lac, mountain lovers say there is plenty of room for tourists and their cash.
"This area is beautiful. It's got huge potential," said Sorin Brinzan, a 26-year-old bartender from Bucharest who skis around the lake, on the slopes of Romania's two highest peaks.
"We believe in this project," he said, while a hotel worker behind him used an electric drill to turn cubes of ice into drinking glasses and filled with them palinca, a Romanian type of plum brandy popular in eastern and central Europe.
As in any region of Romania, local authorities are struggling to find new employment sources.
In Sweden, cash spent by tourists beating a trail to the world's first ice hotel built 200 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle created jobs in a depressed region.
Source: China Daily