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Bulgaria's popularity is on the increase

Bulgaria has long been known to Europeans for cheap packaged tours and inexpensive real estate, but the country is now offering a wide range of activities and witnessing an increasing number of visitors from distant countries. Leah Larkin reports.

From the bustling streets of Sofia to the snowy slopes of Bansko, from golden sands on the Black Sea to warm mineral springs at Bankya, more tourists are discovering Bulgaria. Three million foreign tourists visited the country between January and July 2007 – an increase of 4.49 per cent over the same period last year. Almost half of those visitors were from European Union (EU) countries, representing a 30 per cent increase in EU travellers over last year. Increasingly, they're finding five-star hotels, posh seaside apartment complexes and state-of-the-art ski resorts. However, some remnants of 45 years under a Communist regime remain. Many roads are still in poor condition. In some places sewage is inadequate. Service is not always up to par. Yet most agree the positive far outweighs the negative and that progress has been dramatic. James Knight, managing director of Knight International, a property investment firm focusing on Bulgaria, started doing business in the country in 2002. He spoke of  the "tremendous number of changes" since then, as well as the growing numbers of British tourists – from 100,000 in 2002 to 600,000 in 2006. "Bulgaria is improving, there are so many new hotels," noted George Petkov, general manager of the travel company Balkan Express Ltd.
 
According to a 2001 study, at that time the country had 710 hotels and 97 per cent of them were in the one and two star category. Bulgaria now has about 2,500 hotels, 50 per cent of which are three and four star properties with some 50 hotels awarded the five star rating.  Sigma Capital Hospitality plans to develop 3,000 rooms in four and five star hotels on the Black Sea Coast. Natasa Kazmer, head of corporate communications and public affairs for the low-cost airline Wizz Air, which offers service to the country, said that the airline believes "Bulgaria has a lot of potential with both business and leisure travellers… the seaside is stunning and fast developing to accommodate the diverse needs of the tourists. Sofia is a popular destination both for business as well as leisure travellers".  The years preceding December 1989 when Bulgaria overthrew Communist rule were bleak, with no emphasis on tourist promotion. Since then progress has been steady. The country joined NATO in 2004 and became an EU member in January this year.   In 2006 the Bulgarian State Tourism Agency was given enhanced status under the Council of Ministers.  It now has increased responsibility including the implementation of a national tourism strategy whose focus is "to develop Bulgaria as an international destination for quality tourism in the four seasons of the year… while adhering to environmental and cultural sustainability". Bulgaria has traditionally been known as a cheap package tour destination for visitors seeking sun and sand on the Black Sea.
In the Communist era, its resorts were especially popular with Russian holidaymakers, as well as Germans.

Today travellers from these countries are joined by British, Irish and Scandinavian tourists, as well as those from neighbouring Balkan countries – Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Romania and Serbia.   Inexpensive package tours are still a huge drawing card.  Lyubomir Pankovski, president of Alma Tour BG which had 100,000 tourist customers in 2006, said his company offers package tours from Moscow to the Black Sea for as little as US$340 a week which includes flight, accommodation and breakfast in a two star hotel – winter ski packages start at US$475.  Package tours account for most of his business which has been steadily increasing in past years by as much as 40 per cent per year. Stanislav Novakov, who is deputy chairman of Bulgarian State Agency for Tourism (BSAT), would like to see this change. "Bulgaria is a well-known tourist destination, but mostly for mass tourism," he said. "We're now looking for personal identity. We want to get away from the mass tourism image.  We need to improve other areas."  Seventy per cent of incoming tourist arrivals have traditionally been in the summer. The agency's advertising campaign for the next five years will be directed at promoting Bulgaria as a year-round destination. Winter visitors have been rapidly increasing thanks to dramatic improvements and upgrading of ski resorts, especially Bankso which now offers the latest technology in lifts and snow-making, as well as an abundance of first-class accommodations.  As Novakov pointed out, Bulgaria has much more to offer than snow and sand. Mineral springs top the list.  "We have over 900 mineral springs with the water temperature between 27 and 100 degrees centigrade. Yet we use only five to six per cent," he said.
 
Nature is another asset, especially birds. "Bulgaria has 35 different kinds of birds which are extinct in other European countries," said Donka Sokolova, president of the Bulgarian Association of Travel Agents. "You can still find clean air here."  In addition to bird watching, the country aims to promote hiking, mountaineering, caving, horseback riding, hunting, mountain biking and cycling. "Country tourism" was mentioned by Petkov – "living the life of the locals, riding a horse, milking a cow, getting an axe in your hand". Also on the list are cultural/historical tourism and golf travel.  Bulgaria has 4,500 historic monuments, Sokolova noted. "Yet no one knows about them," he adds. Golf will play an important role in the future, too. Currently the country has only three courses, but by next summer there will be nine.  Novakov spoke of other priorities of BSAT, including a new law to reign in development of the Black Sea coast which many say has been overdeveloped. "Ten years ago we asked Parliament to pass a law controlling development," said Sokolova. "Now it's too late." According to Novakov, it's been difficult to find common grounds to bring together the investors and the environmentalists, but he says a law has been approved and will go into effect in January 2008.
 
Bulgaria has been hot with property investors for several years.  The Association of International Property Professionals (AIPP) states that "the growth of Bulgaria's property market has been phenomenal", and that Bulgaria is the third most popular destination for property investors after Spain and France.  According to an article in the Sofia Echo, foreigners bought real estate worth US$418.5 million in the first three months of 2007 – up 63 per cent for the same period in 2006. Many, especially British, are buying holiday homes. Knight International expects to open The Vineyards early next year. Located two kilometres from the sea, it's described as "a very spacious, prestigious, gated five star hotel complex with 34 detached villas and 224 apartments".  A one-bedroom apartment goes for approximately US$95,000.  Tom Fingleton, director of Buy in Bulgaria, an investment company in Ireland, said the initial attraction for buyers was price – property was cheap.  "Some developments are no longer so cheap," he said. "But people have come to realise that Bulgaria is a beautiful country." There are other reasons attracting buyers to Bulgaria, according to Knight: "The beautiful thing about Bulgaria is that it's a small country with great natural resources. "There are 250 miles of coastline and beaches plus wonderful mountain areas for skiing. You can travel the whole country by car in seven hours.  "It used to be difficult to get to, but that's changing. Low-cost carriers now make access cheaper and easier."
Wizz Air, which entered the Bulgarian market in 2005 and now offers flights to Bulgaria from Rome, London, Budapest, Katowice and Warsaw, will launch services from Dortmund to Sofia this month.  EasyJet will begin service between London Gatwick and Sofia three times a week in November. Several other low-cost carriers also serve the country. This means more tourists from distant countries, but Bulgaria is experiencing a boom in visitors from neighbouring countries as well.  In volume of tourists to Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey and Romania get top rankings. Macedonia and Serbia were growing markets, but since Bulgaria joined the EU their numbers have decreased. Citizens of these countries, as well as Russia, are now required to have a visa to enter Bulgaria.
As Bulgaria has numerous consulates in Russia, it's less of a problem for Russians. But visa procurement, even though the visa is free, can be a hassle for citizens of non-EU countries. "We're working with our partners in the EU to resolve this problem," said Novakov.  EU membership has many pluses for the country though, including money.   Bulgaria will receive US$2.3 billion in EU funds for regional development with some US$405 million of that slated for BSAT. Novakov said the funds will be used for advertising and promotional  activity.
 
Within the next two years, BSAT plans to open offices in its main market destinations including Russia, Germany and England. To continue to entice more visitors from these and other countries, Sokolova said the Bulgarian Association of Travel Agents promotes the country as a destination offering good value in a peaceful and safe environment. Nonetheless, as Paul Owen, chief executive of AIPP, pointed out, Bulgaria still has weaknesses.
"Getting around the country is still tricky," he said. "More facilities are needed, more sewage. It will take a bit of time to get it in place."  "We're improving step by step," said Pankovksi of Alma Tours.  "Europeans are discovering that Bulgaria has interesting places to visit.  It's possible to have a good holiday and receive a good level of service for a reasonable price."