At a time when almost the entire planet is still struggling with the coronavirus, we are largely facing the serious consequences of a pandemic on the world economy. It is already clear that one of the industries hit the most is tourism, especially in countries that rely mostly on this industry. One of those countries is Bulgaria, a country with a huge tourist potential, for which tourism was established as an economic priority in the late 50s and early 60s of the last century. How things stand in that industry today, what potentials are still underused, what are the expectations, is there a chance for Bulgaria and Serbia to join forces in foreign markets – these are just some of the questions in an exclusive interview with Branimir Botev, President of the Bulgarian section of European League for Economic Cooperation (E.L.E.C.) in Brussels, responsible for the Balkan region, executive director of the European Institute for Strategy and Analysis EISA. He was a member of the Governing and Scientific Council of the European Institute of Public Administration (EIPA), n 1999-2000, and as he was the Deputy Minister responsible for tourism in three Bulgarian governments – there is almost no one more competent for this interview than he is.
This interview was realized in cooperation with the organization Skal International, thanks to the kindness of the president of the Skal club Sofia - Henning Krippendorff.
● As I know, tourism is very important industry for Bulgaria. You certainly have a great potential, so it seems reasonable when your Ministry of tourism speaks about the millions of tourists who visit your country. Those are great results but UNWTO says something else? I found out that Bulgaria is the only Balkan country that continues to reduce its tourism industry in relation to overall economic growth. If that is true, why is that?
- It's true that tourism is one of the leading industries in Bulgaria, and over the years it has seen very significant growth. It was established as an economic priority in the late 1950s and 60s. It became part of state policy for foreign exchange earnings by attracting foreign tourists. After the fall of communism it was one of the first industries to be privatized and showed good results. Bulgaria also has a wealth of experience and very seriously trained staff, as well as the objective prerequisites.
We should be grateful to God and to nature for providing wonderful opportunities for both sea / summer tourism on the Black Sea (approximately 2/3 of the total tourism in the country) and mountain and ski tourism (11.2 % of tourism), balneological and SPA tourism with mineral water (6.6%), and cultural and historical tourism. We have successfully developed city and congress tourism, wine and gourmet tourism, rural and eco tourism, golf and more.
Golden 2014: The rising tourism market
- Bulgaria has achieved remarkable growth. In 2014 tourism reached 13.6% of the country's GDP and provided approximately every 7th lev of revenue to the national budget. In 2013 and early 2014, an in-depth strategy for developing sustainable tourism in Bulgaria until 2030 was adopted. Leading industry experts, scientists from universities, and the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences participated in the development of the strategy. We received very good adviceс from one of the three world's leading tourism consultants THR Barcelona. We could also turn to Horvat International, but because we are competitors with Croatia in summer tourism, we preferred THR, and Boston Consulting has more expertise for America and the UK. We had the strong support of the UNWTO and experts from the European Commission. In June 2014, the strategy was officially adopted by the Council of Ministers. At the end of 2014, the second government of Prime Minister Boyko Borissov established a Ministry of Tourism, which was warmly welcomed by the industry. And of course there were very serious expectations. The global tourist market, as well as the Bulgarian market, was on the rise.
Unfortunately, there have been problems. This lead to over-administration and over-control on the part of the ministry over the tourism industry, which is essentially 100% private. Between 2015 to 2019, the Tourism Act was amended 18 times (4 times a year). The number of texts that regulate and control tourism have increased by 2.5 times. The administration has gone too far in terms of inspections and pressure on the hoteliers, restaurateurs, and the smaller tour operators. At the same time, a giant like Thomas Cook was unjustifiably tolerated. It was even allowed to advertise in 12 foreign markets, despite reports from Bloomberg, City Group and other global financial sources that Thomas Cook was on the verge of bankruptcy. All this has a negative effect on Bulgarian tourism.
The latest UNWTO data shows that in 2019 tourism in Bulgaria accounted for 10.8% of GDP, compared to 13.6% in 2014. This is not a good indicator. Despite its good traditions, Bulgaria is the only Balkan country which has recorded - 2.5% negative growth in tourism as part of the overall economy for 2019/ This has to be seen in comparison with the average growth of tourism for the other Balkan countries of + 6%. Growth has been recorded in Greece + 12.1%; Turkey + 10%; Serbia + 5.9%; Croatia + 4.1%; Northern Macedonia + 3.8%; and Albania + 8.5%. Against the background overall economic growth of +3.5% for Bulgaria, such critical tourist data raises a number of questions. In my opinion, this is due to poor management by the administration, bureaucracy and over-regulation limiting the actions of the free market of such a highly competitive and global industry as tourism.
In our conditions, the basis for the development of tourism should be private owners, guest houses, small hotels and restaurants, municipalities. Without these no country can have sustainable year-round tourism and a durable image.
The large-scale tourist complexes are wonderful, but they are usually seasonal. They require complex logistics, huge investments and staff, and they are the most affected by crises such as Covid 19.
Coastal resorts require new facilities
● What should be the specific profile of Bulgarian tourism that would earn throughout the whole year? Accordingly, what comparative advantages could Bulgaria and Serbia use in joint projects for distant markets - Russia, China, Japan, USA... ?
As I said, Bulgaria has certain advantages thanks to its climate, landscape and its natural and historical features. In fact, Bulgaria has the prerequisites for the development of all five types of tourism: sea / summer with the resorts on the Black Sea; mountain and winter tourism (Bansko, Borovets, Pamporovo and 33 smaller resorts); balneological, spa and wellness tourism. Bulgaria has 2000 or more mineral water springs and 423 million litres of mineral water which flow naturally every day. According to this indicator, Bulgaria ranks second in Europe after Iceland. Bulgaria has 58 official balneological resorts, most of them close to Serbia (Belchin, Kyustendil, Sandanski, Sapareva Banya, etc.). It also has a range of cultural and historical heritage sites. In terms of the amount of Ancient and Mediaeval artefacts discovered here, Bulgaria ranks third after Greece and Italy in Europe. In terms of city tourism Bulgaria has some of the oldest cities in Europe - Plovdiv (Philippopolis), Sofia (Serdika), Varna (Odessos), Nessebar (Mesemvria), Silistra (Durostorum), Veliko Tarnovo and others. Today this is also combined with congress and event tourism, shopping, etc.
Personally, I think it would be a mistake to rely only on a single type of tourism. We must learn how to use the full potential in Bulgaria of natural, climatic resources, cultural and historical heritage, ancient centuries-old traditions, and so on. What I mean is that Bulgaria has a beautiful Black Sea coast with soft sand, wonderful beaches and warm slightly salty sea water. On the other hand we have a much shorter coast line when compared to our direct competitors such as Greece, Turkey, Croatia, even Albania and a more shorter summer season. Thus we have to find broader uses for our beautiful tourist resorts and hotels.
One particularly interesting solution is for the Black Sea hotels to develop health and spa tourism outside the high season (July and August). The Black sea coast is rich with thermal mineral springs with curative waters, mud, and lye. In the northern part of the Black sea we have Varna, St. Constantine and Helena, Euxinograd, Sunny Day, Riviera, Golden Sands, and Albena. To the south there is Pomorie and the region of Bourgas. What we need is a distinct strategy that requires suitable organization, medical care and the right equipment to enable hotels to perform the functions of sanatoriums, dispensaries and health centres. We're not talking about intense clinics, but anti-aging, anti-stress, detox, and other recovery programmes. This is particularly relevant given the context of the aging population in Europe and the world, as well as the consequences of Covid 19.
At the same time as finding additional uses for the hotel facilities, this will also provide well-paid additional employment for Bulgarian doctors, nurses and rehabilitators, so that they don't have to for work in Western Europe.
The average bed occupancy rate is 72.2% per year. At the Bulgarian sea resorts, it is about 30%. We have to ensure the most efficient use of the marvellous facilities we have. This will help business. We have all the prerequisites. Initial analysis shows that ¼ of Black Sea hotels are ready to start such upgrades immediately. It is realistic that within 3 years about 2/3 of the hotels will be able to adapt a regime that would provide them with 6 to 12 months of employment.
Just as an example, Turkey generates about 9, 5 billion USD annual revenue from health tourism. What also has to be borne in mind is that clients leave much more money than they would normally do by just sunbathing on the beach, where all they need is a towel, flip flops and swimsuit, and not always.
In short, classic summer beach tourism has just about reached its maximum potential. Intensification needs to found by changing the nature of the services. Health and spa tourism are the most logical options. This also coincides with market demand. Until about 20 years ago, beauty treatments, anti-aging programmes, detox and anti-stress and all other therapies were available only to a group of spoiled and very rich people. Now it's all part of middle class lifestyle. It is enough to see TV presenters, even weather forecasters, famous singers and actresses, to understand how widely rehabilitation, cosmetic, medical and other beauty treatments are being used. Tourists will increasingly be looking for a combination of active rest with healthy diets, recovery, massages, and therapy. Remote medicine will also become a popular service in hotels.
Mineral water and balneological treatment in Bulgaria and Serbia originate from the Roman baths and asclepions. They have enormous potential for year-round sustainable tourism which is the fastest growing type of tourism in the world both in terms of number of tourists and revenue.
Bulgaria has a huge and untapped potential in other types of tourism. I’m sure this also applies to Serbia and other Balkan countries. For example, mountain tourism. Bulgaria is truly blessed. Our country has 5 high mountains ranges, among the highest in Southeast Europe. The Balkans (Stara Planina) which has given the name to our entire peninsula extends into Serbia. Then there is Rila, the highest mountain in the Balkans, the Rhodopes and Vitosha, considered as Sofia city mountain. In fact, we have 146 mountains over 2000 metres.
Almost a century ago Bulgaria was among the founders of the World Ski Federation in 1924 in Chamonix. The Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, as well as neighbouring Romania, were also founding members. This type of tourism is developing at an extraordinary pace. Leading specialist and ski industry analyst, Laurent Vanat, considers that Bulgaria has the potential to triple its capacity to receive foreign tourists in its ski resorts and receive 1.2 million foreign tourists per season. The three leading ski resorts Bansko, Borovets and Pamporovo already have vast experience in organizing the Ski World Cup (6 have been held in Bansko alone), snowboarding and biathlon. There are dozens of European Ski Cups have been held. Such competitions are viewed by a minimum of 100-120 million spectators worldwide. You can only imagine the potential of such advertising and development.
Danube route - potentially strategic permanent connection
- You asked a very interesting question about the strategy of attracting tourists from China, Japan, the United States, and Russia. The first thing we have to take into account is that Covid 19 has had an extremely negative impact on air transport. According to IATA, there will be 55% decline in international flights and expected losses for airlines will amount to more than 314 billion dollars. Hardest hit will be seasonal charters which will be operating at less than 15% of its previous capacity (85% decline). So in the next few years we will not be able to count on serious groups of tourists from these destinations. Estimates suggest that it will take 2 to 4 years for tourism to reach its pre-coronavirus level. Nevertheless, it's a very apt question, since it shows potential for the future. Tourists from the United States are mainly interested in cultural and historical heritage and everything connected with so-called discovery tourism. The greatest number of these are American tourists who travel by ship along the Danube and visit Bulgarian cities, fortresses and monasteries along this route. This is a wonderful opportunity for the Balkan countries to unite their efforts to create permanent routes and cruise tourism along the Danube. A permanent connection could be established for tourists coming from Vienna down to the Black Sea and back. In addition to Bulgaria and Serbia, this strategy would benefit Romania and all other countries bordering the river.
The main target for Russian tourists under joint programmes could be pilgrimage tourism based on the traditions of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Such pilgrimage routes could be developed, for example, to follow in the footsteps of St., Ivan Rilski and St. Sava Srbski, part of whose relics are preserved in the "Pokrov Bogorodichen" Monastery of the Virgin Mother in Samokov. This would involve visits to the beautiful monasteries in both countries, as well as developing a shared route with Greece for pilgrims going to Mount Athos.
The mineral springs and opportunities for specialised therapy with organic products, and organic food have exceptional potential. Tourists from China and Japan, are particularly attracted by getting to know our folklore, traditions and customs. Japanese tourists in particular, but also increasing numbers of Chinese and Korean, are visiting the valley of roses, Kazanlak Karlovo mainly in the months of May and June because of the rose-gathering and related traditions. Chinese tourists in particular are attracted by shopping tours, but there are other target groups from Israel and Iran, whose main interest is the combination of tourism with visits to casinos and gambling.
Priority: investment in road infrastructure
● Bulgaria became a member of the EU in 2007. It is a long period, so you can say with certainty what are the benefits of membership, especially in the field of tourism? What Serbia can expect?
- EU membership offers a huge range of opportunities. The removal of visa requirements is a serious prerequisite for the influx of foreign tourists. In second place there has been enormous interest on the part of budget flight and charter companies, allowing the expansion of the airports in Bourgas and Varna. This will soon happen to Sofia as well. Regional development programmes have provided Bulgaria with a lot of funds for the promotion and advertising of Bulgarian tourism, as well as the development of specific tourist sites in villages and small towns. These are the so-called guest houses. The programme for the conversion of vineyards and other agricultural programmes have has provided serious funds for the creation of vineyards and small wineries, not only as wine production but also for tourist sites, as well as funds for the promotion of Bulgarian wine on international markets.
According to a rough estimate of programmes that directly or indirectly apply to tourism in various dimensions, Bulgaria has received over 450 million Euros. We have also received significant financial and expert support for the restoration of Bulgarian churches and monasteries. The cohesion funds and the money that Bulgaria has received for infrastructure projects have provided serious, indirect support. We now have a fast highway from Sofia to Bourgas on the Black Sea. Completion work on the Hemus, Sofia-Veliko Tarnovo-Varna highway is continuing. Work on the highway from Sofia and the border with Greece and Thessaloniki is ongoing, as well as the completion of the highway to the border with Serbia which will connect with your highway to Belgrade. This will allow for extremely intensive traffic of visitors and tourists from the neighbouring Balkan countries. The main segment will be "weekend tourism", where tourists can come on Friday and stay until Sunday to visit tourist sites, go shopping and go home using their own car. For example, for Bulgaria, is among the top 8 countries for inbound tourism, 5 of which are neighbouring Balkan countries.
The government and Prime Minister Boyko Borissov have prioritised the construction of the road infrastructure. As an additional boost to the tourist industry, the prime minister has personally imposed a VAT reduction on tourism to 9% to help the industry after the coronavirus crisis. This should make prices more affordable and fair.
More often - a weekend in Serbia!
● The borders between our countries are finally open at the beginning of June, so both sides expect tourists. How many tourists you expect from our side in regard to 2019? What kind of Serbian tourists comes to Bulgaria? Are they important for your budget? What Serbian tourists can expect in Bulgaria this summer? Your own recommendation is...?
The flow of tourists between Bulgaria and Serbia is becoming more and more intense. As of 2019, about 1.2 million people from both countries visited the other country as tourists. It is a very interesting trend. 10 years ago, the number of Bulgarians who visited Serbia was 280,000 - 2.5 times more than the number of Serbs who visited Bulgaria 129,000 (2009). This process is beginning to change. Tourist flows from Serbia to Bulgaria are on the increase and in 2019 the number of Serbian tourists visiting Bulgaria was 680,000, compared to 515,000 Bulgarian tourists who visited Serbia.
There is a clear profile of Serbian tourists visiting Bulgaria. Almost 70% of visitors come to Bulgaria visit the Black Sea coast, the next largest group of about 12% visit the ski resort of Bansko and the resorts near Sandanski, and Kyustendil. Most Serbian tourists consist of family and friends, with an increasing trend for more and more young people to visit Bulgaria. The clear trend among Bulgarian tourists visiting Serbia is weekend tourism. The main target is gourmet tourism, visiting wonderful Serbian restaurants and small hotels, celebrations of organized occasions, such as birthdays, anniversaries, and gatherings of friends. Bulgarians are particularly fond of Serbian cuisine and especially Serbian grill, but there is an increasing number of people from Sofia who are visiting Serbia not just for vacation, but for culinary shopping, grill, meat, white and yellow cheese, all of which still have that authentic home-made taste.
This summer in Bulgaria will be no different from the situation overall Europe - reduced flights, strict sanitary protection measures and prevention of Covid 19 infection. These are some of the measures which every tourist country has to apply. On May 13, 2020, the EC urgently adopted a package of measures and recommendations with 7 applications aimed at preventing the consequences of Covid 19 in the tourism and hotel business. Bulgaria is complying strictly with these rules. The hotels on the Black Sea coast which have already opened, have taken all possible measures to implement them. Due to the ozonation of the air around it, the sea is a natural barrier to the spread of viruses and it is no coincidence that the southern coastal areas are the least affected. This has been established by world epidemiologists.
At the same time, now, due to the market situation, the prices are extremely attractive. They can be negotiated individually, but there is also a completely new option, which can be very attractive for Serbian tourists. Visitors can rent wonderful houses in their entirety. Some are like mansions with enclosed gardens, swimming pools and all sorts of extras with several bedrooms along the entire Black Sea coast. In this way, tourists can enjoy a well-deserved break and at the same time avoid unwanted contact with many other people. For the same reason, many people from Sofia are beginning to rent such houses in the mountains and in small villages and towns. They have also started renovating the old village houses of their grandparents. Spending 7-10 days in a mineral water resort can also boost the immune system. You can relax and recharge your batteries for months to come.
Author: Ljiljana Rebronja