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They vant to suck your wallet

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Posted: Tuesday, October 31, 2006 1:35 pm | Updated: 3:23 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

In Transylvania, Dracula is big business. asap looks at the tourism the fictional bloodsucker inspires.

Tour companies call it Dracula's castle, this sentinel built on a mountain pass connecting the flatlands of southern Romania with the hills and forests of Transylvania.

But this isn't the bloodsucking vampire that roams at night and sleeps in his coffin by day. There was a real-life Dracula who was in many ways more horrifying.

The 15th century ruler Vlad Dracula used mass murder as an instrument of terror to psyche out his enemies, earning the nickname "Vlad the Impaler." His enemies spread a lot of rumors, but not much about him drinking blood. Vampires are the stuff of other Balkan legends.

Still, with Halloween approaching, it's high season for lovers of Gothic novels and bloodsucking lust. Romania tourism officials are seizing that fear and fascination and offering visitors who might come looking for Bela Lugosi the 500-year-old historical Dracula instead.

"We are certain that the legend is a draw, a major motivation to travel to Romania, for an important number of foreign visitors," said Simion Alb, the director of the Romanian Tourist Office in New York. "Halloween is huge in the USA. I believe that as long as there will be Halloween, Dracula, Transylvania and Romania will live in the people's minds."

SUCKING YOUR BUCKS

Dracula tourism has been going on for about 30 years, when a few U.S. tour operators started visiting Romania around Halloween "because their customers wanted to see where Dracula lived and if the legend is still alive," Alb said.

The best guess is that the interest in Dracula brings about $50 million a year in tourist spending to Romania, said Alb, whose office is part of the national government.

Bran Castle, about 15 miles southwest of the city of Brasov, is nearly 60 rooms of dark timber beams and white plaster. A secret staircase built into the rock wall had an entrance that used to be at the back of a fireplace, said tour guide Matei Simion, 29.

So, since it's known as Dracula's castle, Vlad must have lived her, right?

Not quite. Vlad was held prisoner here for a couple of months under orders of a more powerful king from neighboring Hungary, according to the castle museum's Web site.

But if the castle has so little to do with Vlad, why is it promoted to tourists as "Dracula's castle?"

"That is the tourist firms' problem. They propose the Dracula tour without involving (us)," Bran Castle's museum director Narcis Dorin Ion said.

The thing is, the castles that Vlad built or lived in are ruins. Bran Castle stands as something of a majestic tourist trap for Dracula lovers. It pulls up to 400,000 people a year, making it Romania's second most-visited historic castle, Ion said.

The Dracula tourism circuit also includes the house in the Transylvanian city of Sighisoara where Vlad Dracula probably was born (there's a plaque on the house), and a monastery in Snagov, near Bucharest, where Vlad was said to have been buried after he was killed. There is another palace in Bucharest, started while he was ruling the neighboring lowland province of Wallachia.

Some tours also hit places mentioned in Bram Stoker's original 1897 novel. Tourists dine at The Golden Crown in Bistrita as the book's hero said he did. Castle Dracula Hotel was built at the mountain pass described as the site of the fictional Count Dracula's castle. Tour operators offer seven days of checking out the real Dracula over Halloween for around $1,000.

A KINDER, GENTLER IMPALER

Vlad is a hero to Romanians. They said he managed to keep marauding Turks and Hungarians at bay, and his cruel justice brought law and order to a wild land. Some art students still are taught to sculpt his face.

He was born in 1431 to a father, also named Vlad, who was admitted into the knightly Order of the Dragon. Wealthy Germans living in Transylvania at the time didn't get along with the father or the son, and they made a play on words by substituting the word for "dragon" with the Romanian word for "devil," or "Dracul." The boy was named "son of the Devil," or "Dracula."

Depending on your point of view, Vlad pretty much grew into the name. He adopted the practice of spearing criminals or captured Turks from the enemy Ottoman Empire with long, wooden stakes and then hoisting the wriggling victims into the air. The dead were left that way as an example to others. Stories say Vlad killed thousands by the gruesome method, earning his nickname "The Impaler."

Torturing confessions out of suspects and burning people at the stake was also considered normal for those times.

So replacing a fictional ghoul with a former ruler who might be seen as a real monster is part of the trick of promoting Dracula tourism, Alb said.

"We may still be afraid that marketing will change the focus from hero to a simple but famous vampire. We may be afraid of how some will judge us," he said.

There may be a limit to Dracula tourism.

Romanian tourism officials announced in 2001 that private investors planned to build an amusement park called Dracula Land outside Sighisoara. The project is still on hold.

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