Figures for the January-September 2006 period demonstrate another bright year for Bulgaria's tourism industry. Indeed, the State Agency for Tourism announced last week that 4.25m tourists visited the country. Meanwhile, Kremena Nedyalkova, the head of the Tourism Policy Directorate at the agency told the local press that the number of foreign visitors increased by 5.39% in comparison to the same period in 2005.
While many tourists from neighbouring countries such as Romania and Serbia (the number of tourists from Romania doubled this year), tourists from the UK, Ireland and Scandinavian countries seem to show the greatest interest in Bulgaria.
At the same time, companies operating in the Bulgarian tourism sector have reported an increase in their earnings. For example, gross revenue at Golden Sands, a resort on the Black Sea coast, increased by 16.4% and its net profit by 44%, up to $1.9m. Overall, visitor numbers on the coast increased by 7% in the first eight months of the year. Nevertheless, the picture is not all rosy with some resorts, like Albena, who despite rising earnings, suffered from a drop in profits because of increased expenses.
Overall the revenues derived from tourism that Bulgaria received in the first eight months of 2006 amount to 1.56bn euros ($1.99bn), according to the Bulgarian National Bank. This represents an increase of 5.45% compared to last year.
In order to promote the image of Bulgaria abroad, the State Agency for Tourism participates in many tourism fairs around the world, including Russia, France and China this year.
Beach and ski resorts are the two best-known attractions. Bulgaria is also attracting interest as a cultural tourism destination. Tourists also come to see the old cities of Veliko Tarnovo and Plovdiv.
Moves are being made to diversify the sector. InvestBulgaria, has made golf tourism a priority. According to them, golf projects currently under construction amount to almost $460m.
Four million tourists are expected to visit Bulgaria in the winter season, 800,000 alone to the south-western ski resort of Bansko. A recent report in the foreign press referred to Bansko as "the new Val d'Isere" or "Europe's answer to Aspen". "Brits are pouring their pension plans into buying up cheap ski apartments," it reported.
Many Bulgarian and foreign observers fear that the construction boom, generated by the growth in tourism, is beginning to appear as a blemish on the beauty of the landscape, which drew visitors in the first place. Alexander Kravarov, mayor of Bansko, has expressed his worries about over-construction and has announced that all construction projects will be suspended in January pending a review of urban planning.
While doubts have also been raised about the quality of Bulgaria's hotels, the State Agency for Tourism has stated that Bulgaria's hotels are "almost 100% renovated". In a bid to improve services and clarify hotel rankings, the government is considering making changes to the official star system, which could lead to major international luxury hotels being downgraded.
Given that Bulgaria currently stands outside the EU open skies agreement, the full potential of tourism has not yet been fully realised, due to a lack of direct flights to the country. While local operator Hemus Air offers cheap flights to Western Europe, flagship European carriers have yet to fly in. However, it is expected that airlines such as EasyJet will start coming to the country after an open skies agreement is signed.