First of all: the meaning of gustar goes well beyond the romantic interest. This is something you have to bear in mind.
If we see the RAE dictionary definition of gustar, we get these meanings (acepciones):
tr. Sentir y percibir el sabor de las cosas.
tr. experimentar (‖ probar).
intr. Agradar, parecer bien.
intr. Dicho de una persona: Resultar atractiva a otra.
intr. Desear, querer y tener complacencia en algo. Gustar DE correr, DE jugar.
I've written with bold text the two meanings we have to understand clearly.
As you say, when referring to people gustar has a meaning related to romantic interest, but depending on the context, you may be talking about the art or the production of someone. When you say:
Me gusta van Gogh
if you are talking about art, then the meaning will refer to the third meaning of gustar; but if there are (for example) two women talking about how handsome are/were some artists, then the meaning will be the fourth one.
The verb encantar has a stronger meaning than gustar:
Me gusta la pintura de van Gogh → (yes, I like it, I think his paintings are beautiful).
Me encanta la pintura de van Gogh → (I'm really a fanatic of his art).
Regarding the troubles you had when you said "Me gusta la gente aquí.", I think it may depend on the context and the place where you said it.
First of all, I think that the right way to say that is:
Me gusta la gente de aquí.
The context is very important because you need to be sure the people you talk to understand you're using gustar regarding its third meaning (see above) and not regarding to its fourth one.
To avoid any misunderstanding, in such a situation you could prefer something like:
Encuentro muy agradable (a) la gente de este lugar/ciudad/país.