With the winter season coming to an end, Bulgaria is looking to the summer now as tourism chiefs hope to see their market expand still further.
According to recent Economy Ministry data, revenues from tourism accounted for around 11% of GDP in 2004, with 4.6m visitors arriving in the country. This represented a rise of over 14% year-on-year, and a similar increase is expected in 2005.
Meanwhile, the ski resort at Bansko expects to have hosted 350,000 visitors by the time the season comes to a close, up from 250,000 last year. Attempts to move upmarket are also succeeding, with 10 new top-end hotels opening, including the Kempinski - Bansko's first five-star hotel, built at a cost of 80m euros and due to open in mid-March.
Recent legislative changes have also made it easier for foreigners wishing to come to Bulgaria. The Bulgarian parliament in February ratified an amendment to the constitution, aimed at bringing the country into line with European Union norms. Under the amendment, foreigners with EU citizenship will be able to purchase land in the country, although during a seven-year transition period, these foreigners will also have to be residents of Bulgaria.
Perhaps more significantly for short-term visitors, the government also decided to respond to the many complaints of foreign tourists and tour operators, and explicitly outlawed the widely-practiced 'dual pricing' system. This meant that certain businesses - most notably hotels - were charging foreigners much more than locals for providing the same service. While some have argued that outlawing this practice will lead to Bulgarians being priced out of holidaying in their own country, in the long run it can only lead to fairer practices and increased interest in the country.
As well as changes in the law, there have also been changes in governmental structure and personnel, with a new Ministry of Culture and Tourism being set up. The new minister is Nina Chilova, and she told Darik Radio that one of the reasons behind uniting tourism and culture in one ministry was it would help attract funding for the development of more sophisticated niche tourist markets.
This includes Bulgaria's 'Valley of the Kings', where tombs and artefacts from Thracian times were discovered during the last year. The government itself has earmarked 1.2m leva (613,000 euros) to develop the road infrastructure around the village of Shipka, where the monuments are situated.
On March 3, Bulgaria's National Liberation Day, Prime Minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg visited the burial mound of Seuthes III, one of the Thracian highlights, and carried out a traditional earth-breaking ceremony to open the cultural tourism project. Speaking at the ceremony, he said, "I have visited many museums in Greece, but what we have here is something unique. Bulgaria should develop its cultural tourism, keeping in mind that the competition in this sector is very strong across the world."
A long-term strategy for the promotion of Sofia as a tourist destination is also underway. Stefan Sofianski, the city's mayor, launched the strategy at the end of February. The overall intention is to prepare the city for potentially holding the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, but a welcome side effect will be the improvement to the city's tourist attractions and infrastructure, which it is hoped will boost the profile of Sofia as a destination.
As part of this, the Borissova Garden will be thoroughly redeveloped, the domes of central cathedrals are to be gilded, and as well as the modernising, the retro appeal of the communist past will not be forgotten, with a museum of totalitarian art to be established.
However, alongside all these attempts to diversify, Bulgaria's most famous attraction is not being forgotten. Politicians and tourist agencies alike are well aware that the country's biggest draw remains the Black Sea coast, with around 87% of all visitors heading for the coast. Indications are that there will be a sharp rise in numbers again this year, with 30 British tour operators offering vacations in the country, up from nine in 2004.
Part of the problem, however, is that tourists come on cheap all-inclusive deals and spend very little extra money while they are in the country. Again, the idea is to entice a broader spectrum of holidaymakers to the resorts. One way to do this is to improve the crumbling infrastructure, and on March 8, the government received four applications for the tender to run and modernise the airports in Varna and Burgas. The contract will be for 35 years, and the idea is to create modern year-round airports, providing a much better first impression for those arriving on the coast. Danish-registered Copenhagen Airports A/S is among the frontrunners in the bid, the result of which is expected to be announced before the start of the summer season.
It will take a lot of work and reconstruction for Bulgaria to lose its low-end package status, but current initiatives are certainly moving it in the right direction.