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Bulgaria Desperately Needs A Long Term Integrated Tourism Strategy!

Ultimately Bulgaria can offer value for money, second homes and holiday property in a way that few other countries can. Indeed a recent article named Bulgaria the second best value eastern destination for British Tourists.

Tourism is already up by 6% for the first two months of this year and visas from Russian tourists are up by 50% year on year!  Much of this growth is due to the global economic crisis with tourists seeking budget destinations.  This season there is an interesting twist with a spike in demand an unexpected but very welcome dividend as tourists seek alternative destinations after the ongoing unrest in the Middle East.

This ‘windfall tourism’ is not driven by a long term marketing strategy & the risk remains that whilst Bulgaria indirectly benefits it fails to capitalise on the opportunity to showcase Bulgaria to the influx of first time visitors.  I fear that short termism, under-investment in infrastructure & the poor service culture might undermine Bulgaria’s chances to consolidate on this unexpected boost.

Why one asks have Bulgarian governmental bodies and institutions not pushed harder to establish the country as a leading tourist destination?  Who should be held responsible for the recent World Economic Forum’s ranking of Bulgaria as 48th in terms of travel & tourism competitiveness?

On taking office in 2009, Boiko Borisov’s cabinet decided to shut down the former State Tourism Agency maybe not a bad thing in and of itself as in 2008 it had a paltry budget of only 2M Euros!.

Under Boiko tourism was incorporated into an expanded Ministry for Economy, Energy, and Tourism.  As yet this restructuring seems to have born little fruit in terms of tourism development.

Whilst recent TV campaigns on  BBC International and CNN show a marked improvement, with the ‘’Magic Lives Here’’ campaign.  It has been plagued by controversy as the making and broadcasting of the video totalled 3.7 M Euros!  A significant sum for a country of this size. The campaign is partially funded by the EU & experts in the field of advertising have commented that the production price of almost 250,000 Euros is way too high.  However the critics seem to forget that it marks a vast improvement as until only very recently the disastrous slogan was:

''Bulgaria easy to find!''

I used to cringe every time Bulgaria’s Ad came on the screen thinking that the creative director must have been very lost not to have found a better rallying cry for his beloved nation!  Bulgaria’s Ad’s frequently outclassed by elegant campaigns from neighbouring minnows Macedonia & Montenegro with their ‘’Timeless’’ & ‘’Wild Beauty’’ slogans respectively.

Why are the big tour operators not falling over themselves to get a piece of the touted Bulgarian miracle ....the new Costa?!

Ultimately if big tour operators don't get behind Bulgaria’s tourist industry investments in leisure property will have put the cart before the horse in the hope that Bulgaria some day gets its act together!

The onus should be on the large developers and government to cooperate, integrate and  in a proper tourist marketing, communications and infrastructure strategy.  This is after all a vital part of the economy! Tourism closely follows automobile exports as the third largest Net contributor to the GDP of a nation.

However it seems they have fallen short and underperformed for a long time now without the foresight or motivation until nascent signs of improvement only very recently, with the jury still out on that.  One has to ask why?

Sadly many Bulgarian politicians and the powers that be in local government seem to be too busy looking for the best angle to exploit their office in exchange for personal influence or financial gain.  One only has to look at the recent ‘Vertue’ mobile phone scandal that saw MP’s scurry out of Parliament on the day of an important vote for the promise of a free handset, only to find that the whole event was a media sting.

Many developers and it has to be said some investors sought the promise of a quick turn-around on the back of off-plan sales without giving thought to how to drive sustainable tourism to Bulgaria to fill the many golf courses, spas, ski-chalets and berths at fancy new marinas.  Without a joined up and coordinated policy many leisure developments will continue to underperform & with low occupancy rates failing to deliver satisfactory ROI to overseas property investors.

It would be a start if the Bulgarian hospitality industry up-skilled their service culture to allow this fine of country to compete with neighbouring Turkey, Greece & Croatia and even Spain & Portugal as a regular holiday destination of choice.

Bulgaria is a great country with wonderful potential however if radical change is not implemented fast the weary fatalism will continue to govern public perceptions of those in power and much of this amazing country’s potential will continue to be squandered!  Ultimately Bulgaria would benefit from cleaning up public life and looking forward to a more dynamic future, rather than looking back dwelling on historical grievances.  This might allow Bulgarians to take a longer term view of their future as a nation, instead of hedging short term odds with least cost options.

Investment in and protection of the rich cultural & archeological heritage dating back to magnificent Thracian ancestry, the 500 or so mineral Springs, ecological & sustainable tourism, adventure tourism and other niche high value-added attractions could kick-start a small revolution which over time would add revenue streams by diversifying from the main staple of sun sand ski, adding a more year round appeal.

There have been great improvements in communications with Bulgaria now hosting routes from all the major no-frills airlines.  The recent link to Plovdiv by Ryan Air being worthy of special mention as this town is indeed a hidden gem!

The country also has huge potential as a destination for the ‘silver pound’.  Although hit hard by exchange rates there still remains great underlying potential for the development of retirement homes & villages with the abundant space and glorious nature this land is blessed with!

This might start to underpin a more sustainable revival in leisure property development after the mad rush to the coast and the overcrowded ski-resorts. By allowing ‘brand Bulgaria’ to shine not only as a low cost destination competing on the lowest common denominator of price with a near total dependence on mass tourism.

This will take political will, considerable vision and an integrated approach with the backing of  EU funds.  A new future for post boom Bulgaria awaits and I for one hope that it brings sustainable, long term growth to a sector in need of direction & development!

Sofia Casa

James Flint

TAGS: Sofia Property, Plovdiv, Montenegro Property, Macedonia Property, Europe Property

, CEE Property, Bulgaria Property

James Flint

James Flint

Director & Owner of Real Estate service SofiaCasa, JamesFlint (BA Hons., MA, MSc) is based in the Bulgarian capital full time.

Having worked hard to invest wisely & understanding local business culture in Bulgaria, James’s inside knowledge & expertise regularly helps clients with their property investments in Sofia where he provides facilities & property management, project management, refurbishment & interior design.


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