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A Mimic of Miami Misses the Boat In Ex-Red Romania

NICE try, but the flamingoes are missing.

So are restaurants, clubs, tennis courts, and souvenir shops -- nearly everything that could make Mamaia, Romania, more like its near-namesake, Miami.

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Dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu's Orwellian excuse for sun and surf on the Black Sea sprang into business in the 1970s -- a hastily organized scheme to attract foreigners with hard cash.

For a while, the strip of 52 beach-front hotels squatting over three miles of gentle surf snared some low-income Western families, as well as package tours of Soviet vacationers.

But the collapse of communism crushed Eastern Europe's holiday resorts by lifting both the cap on prices and the Iron Curtain that limited westward travel for Easterners. In Romania, about 5 percent of the nation's economy relied on tourism during the 1980s -- about the same percentage as in Disney-laden United States.

Resorts like Mamaia (pronounced Ma-MA-ya), for example, are floundering in a wave of neglect despite the natural beauty of the coastline. The ex-vacationers surely had reason to stay home: Even Romania's hunger for hard cash, for example, could not keep the government from sending gun-toting guards out to patrol the beaches. It also could not prevent pollution from a nearby chemical plant from oozing beachward.

Now, resorts are trying to work with the free market. A long-delayed privatization scheme will offer shares of the resorts to private investors, though some resorts may have to splinter into smaller companies to attract buyers. Tourism authorities are trying to spruce up their assets to make them more attractive to potential investors, but it's not an easy task.

''It's been very difficult for the big resorts since 1989,'' says Mihaela Burada, a tourism expert at the Romanian government's development agency. ''The tourists from former socialist countries stopped coming, and the tourists from the West find our service standards unacceptable. The hotels don't have any money to invest in improving the situation.''

From the spas of Poland to the beaches of Romania and Bulgaria, resort hotels stand nearly empty. Even in market-hungry Hungary, where services are more advanced, tourist revenues in the Lake Balaton region are drooping, and the large state-owned hotels there have been struggling to stay solvent.

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''The East and West Germans used to meet each other on the Balaton back when it was impossible to meet on their own soil,'' says Robert Toth, manager of the Budapest office of Tradesco Tours. ''Now that's no longer an issue, and a lot has to be done to bring the hotels and market image of Balaton up to Western standards to attract visitors again.''

Romania and Bulgarias' resort enclaves have millions of unhappy visitors to win back. In 1990, foreign visitors spent 4 million nights in Romania. By 1993, that number had dropped to 2.7 million, and most of those are thought to be low-spending visitors from Ukraine, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Hungary, who often bring their own food and stay with friends and relatives. Domestic tourism has fallen by over half in the same period.

If the resorts are to survive, they each need a resort-wide investment plan, not just an effort to renovate individual hotels, according to a recent study carried out by London-based Horwath Consulting. Despite dictatorial communist planning, many resorts were erratically laid out, lacking everything from tennis courts to general stores. ''Our prices are already as high as resorts in Spain or Portugal, but our services lag far behind,'' Mr. Arhip says. Mamaia may eventually reform, but a rush of desperately needed cash from tourists seems a long time coming for Eastern Europe.

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