Associated Professor Tsvetan Tonchev, Chairperson of the Bulgarian Tourist Chamber (BTC), in an interview for Focus Radio.
Focus: Are expectations of a tourism growth for this season being fulfilled?
Prof Tsvetan Tonchev: Of course, they are. I am not a great optimist, neither a pessimist, but mainly a realist. My expectations, based on the information received from hotel complexes, are that this year we will receive some BGN 1.8 billion from foreign citizens and another BGN 1 billion from Bulgarian ones for. In practice, this represents a growth of between 8% and 11%. Thus, tourism is taking the shape of a serious sector of Bulgarian economy that we account for no less than 12% of the national GDP.
Focus: This is only natural given Bulgaria’s potential as a tourist destination. Have you got any data on the hotel occupancy rate?
Prof Tsvetan Tonchev: You could say it is currently full. The occupancy rate is about 80-85%, small hotels, apartments on rent, etc included. Bulgaria has a great variety of tourist products to offer no – it has a hotel base, apartment hotels, and small houses. There has been a lot of talk about mistakes and weaknesses. There are such things, but one should have in mind that positive things are more than the negative ones as far as Bulgarian tourism is concerned. We are interested in a question which is of utter importance for the future and the perspectives in front of the sector – should it be based on sanatoriums or should it be recreational tourism. In my opinion, in the near future we should form a connection between relaxation and recreation, a connection with attractions, cultural sites. They should be offered to foreign and Bulgarian citizens alike. There are still a lot of things to work on, like road infrastructure, water, and energy, but, all In all, tourism is not doing badly.
Focus: We already told our listeners about an article in a daily newspaper which claims that hotel organisations along the Black sea coast have started to draw up a black list of travel agents who bring guests for alcoholic tourism in Bulgaria. Do you have any information on the case and what is your opinion of it?
Prof Tsvetan Tonchev: This is an initiative of a couple of hotels in Slanchev Bryag [the Sunny Beach resort]. They are responsible of things that have happened and are now splitting hairs. To be frank, there is no travel agent that offers alcoholic tourism in Bulgaria. Alcoholic tourism is a term that only we use. I told you – we have to mix relaxation with recreation, with attractions, contests, sport and culture events, etc. Only this way we could count on development of the tourism sector in the future. We cannot become a sanatorium, but only a mixture between relaxation and recreation. There is hardly a travel agent that brings people to drink all day. WE are the ones that came up with such an idea. Just look at a village, probably every man in 10 is a drunkard, I beg your pardon. But you cannot make a characteristic of a whole sector based on 10-15 people only. From now on the state, the government, and municipalities should seriously consider ways to make the season longer – from the current 90 days to 120 days at least. But what is most important is cultural events, cultural tourism, ecotourism, rural tourism, to develop tourism in places that are stagnating like North-West Bulgaria, for example. What we are doing with this alcohol and drugs tourism is an own goal. There is such a phenomenon like alcohol and drugs tourism, but it is actually more of a social phenomenon related to recent developments in Europe. There are people, discontent with their life, who have a totally different picture of tourism in their minds.
Focus: Do you witness any new trends in the touristic demand? Are people more interested in the types of tourism you mentioned – historical and cultural?
Prof Tsvetan Tonchev: These spheres are very difficult to be developed. A lot of money must be invested in order to have a well-working cultural tourism. I have given this example many times – 15 years ago Spain took a loan from the EU worth EUR 15 billion, which was used to develop all Spanish castles into objects of cultural tourism, and thus tourist spend two thirds of their holiday at the seaside and a third for cultural tourism. The positive thing in this direction is that the Bulgarian objects of cultural tourism are close to the seaside and mountain resorts. The progress made in Sozopol, among other places, was very positive, but a lot more money must be invested in developing cultural tourism and advertising it. There is, however, a growing number of tourists in this sphere.
Focus: People from which countries have highest interest towards Bulgarian tourism?
Prof Tsvetan Tonchev: There are mainly tourists from three countries in Bulgaria – Germany, Russia, and the UK. Lately, however, there is a growing number of tourists from countries like Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and even France. There are several issues that need to be resolved. One of them is the visa regime for Russians. If the visa regime for Russia is liberalised, this will reduce the additional expenses of the people there and will lead to more Russian tourists in Bulgaria. It is a pity that Macedonians and Albanians prefer Greece to Bulgaria, when it comes down to their holidays. We expect a more positive development in the diplomatic relations between Bulgaria and Serbia, and Bulgaria and Macedonia. However, now when people from these countries no longer need visas for the EU, they started going to Western countries and Greece more often.
Focus: What about the number of Bulgarian tourists?
Prof Tsvetan Tonchev: There is a growth of the number of Bulgarian tourists. People working in the tourism industry started paying more attention to Bulgarians and no longer ignore them at the expense of foreign tourists. After all, Bulgarians spend most money in restaurants and amusement places. We have registered a more serious growth of the number of Bulgarian tourists, especially in Sunny Beach, for the first time in 5-6 years. At least 100 people have called me this year looking for vacancies in our Black Sea resorts, which is a positive fact.
Focus: There is another topic, which is key for the tourism branch. Is there a good number of qualified Bulgarian staff in the Bulgarian resorts, as we knew that there was a high fluctuation of labour in the past?
Prof Tsvetan Tonchev: I cannot tell you many positive things in this regard. Everyone is looking for higher wages. A lot of good waiters, bartenders, and people from the hotel business went in Western Europe, so they could earn more. This is not bad, as they return after 3-4 years and bring back positive and needed experience with them. There are, however, tourism classes in 22 universities, more than 20 colleges, and almost all high schools in Bulgaria. Basically, we do not have a major issue with the volume of the staff. The questions is, as I mentioned, that our staff needs to learn that they need to be more polite and more welcoming to tourists, and there needs to be a better hospitality. People, after all, visit resorts to have a holiday and to spend their money.