Deterred from popular holiday destinations by political unrest, tourists flock to Sofia.
Author: Matthew Brunwasser
SOFIA, Bulgaria — The Eastern Mediterranean has its fair share of human misery, economic chaos and political violence, but there is a silver lining. Just ask a Bulgarian tour operator.
A combination of economic factors, geopolitics and armed conflict have led a record number of foreign tourists to Bulgaria this summer, deterred by the instability and terrorism in popular holiday destinations such as Turkey, Egypt and Tunisia.
“If the Balkans used to be the powder keg of Europe, Bulgaria is now a symbol of peace, tranquility and stability,” said Blagoi Ragin, the head of the Bulgarian Association of Hotels and Restaurants.
The latest tourism figures show that more than 6 million foreign tourists visited Bulgaria between January and August this year, a growth of 18 percent over the same period last year. In 2016 Bulgaria looks likely to see the largest number of tourists ever recorded in the country. Germans were the biggest group of visitors in August — up 11 percent from last year — followed by Russians.
Rather than discuss the Turkish government crackdown or refugees risking their lives to reach Greece, Ragin prefers to talk about Bulgaria’s treasures. The country has the second largest number of hot springs in Europe, after Iceland. And with the remains of seven ancient civilizations, Bulgaria has the third most number of cultural monuments in Europe, after Greece and Italy.
“The main attraction is that it’s very cheap. And that’s definitely a big plus.” — German tourist Maria Marstrand
Ragin estimates that some 12 percent of foreign tourists who came to Bulgaria in 2016 had originally planned to go to elsewhere but changed their plans in response to heightened security risks. This year has seen terrorist bombings, armed conflict and a failed coup attempt in Turkey, terror attacks in Egypt and sharp tensions between Russia and Turkey following Turkey’s downing of a Russian military jet.
When Turkey shot down a Russian warplane — which it claimed had violated Turkish airspace near the Syrian border — in November 2015, the Kremlin placed a ban on Russian charter flights to Turkey, a popular destination for Russian tourists. The ban wasn’t lifted until the end of August after Turkey apologized.
In August, the number of Russian tourists traveling to Bulgaria was up 27 percent over last year.
Bulgaria’s Tourism Minister Nikolina Angelkova doesn’t chalk up Bulgaria’s booming tourism industry solely to tourists’ fears. “While the geopolitical situation has certainly been influential, it has not been decisive in the [tourists’] choice of destination,” said Angelkova in an interview in her office in downtown Sofia. She prefers to credit Bulgarian tourism industry professionals for improving services and promoting the country internationally.
However, the creation of Bulgaria’s tourism industry does date back to another brutal geopolitical transformation.
After World War II, the Bulgarian Communist Party seized Czechoslovakian investments in sugar refining and electricity production as part of its efforts to nationalize private property. As a result, the new People’s Republic of Bulgaria was short on hard currency with which to pay its foreign debt, including to its newly communist allies.
Klement Gottwald, the communist leader of Czechoslovakia, came up with a plan: Bulgaria could pay reparations in the form of holiday stays for Czechoslovakian workers on its Black Sea shores. Bulgaria’s state tourism company Balkantourist was founded in 1948.
Bulgarian holiday destinations had a hand in international politics in other roundabout ways too. It was during a visit to Varna, Bulgaria’s biggest Black Sea city and a major holiday hub, that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev first hit on the idea of sending nuclear missiles to Cuba, according to his memoirs. His speeches in Varna in April 1962 vehemently condemned the American nuclear-tipped medium-range ballistic PGM-19 Jupiter missiles pointed at the Soviet Union less than 500 miles away across the Black Sea in Turkey.
Today, Sofia’s St. Alexander Nevski Cathedral is one of the capital’s main tourist attractions. Most foreign tourists here say they know almost nothing about Bulgaria and the unknown is part of its appeal.
“I had to look up where Sofia was on the map,” admitted James Turgoose, 33, from London, who was in town for an international PR industry conference and was spending his free time taking in the sights.
Not knowing what to expect, visitors to Bulgaria are often pleasantly surprised.
Maria Marstrand, 28, who works in marketing in Karlsruhe, Germany, decided to spend a long weekend in Sofia when she came across an inexpensive flight. “The main attraction is that it’s very cheap,” she said. “And that’s definitely a big plus.”
Bulgaria is keen to protect its fledgling industry. When Romania proposed forming a Black Sea NATO fleet to counter Russian expansionism in the region, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov refused to participate. He justified the move by stating he was reluctant to antagonize Russia because of the damage it would do to Bulgarian tourism — an industry generating about 338,000 jobs and 13 percent of the country’s GDP.
“I want to see sailing ships, yachts, tourists, love and peace in the Black Sea, rather than seeing it turned into a theater of war,” Borisov said.