Having experienced a poor summer season, with earnings and bookings down, Bulgaria's tourism industry will be using the winter months to review the situation and find a solution.
There have been varying reports on the scale of the downturn in the sector, with the state seeking to adopt a positive interpretation of the industry's performance in 2009, while private operators have pulled few punches in calling the situation bad and likely to get worse.
While figures issued by state agencies and the industry itself vary, with official sources saying arrival numbers are down between 3.9% and 7.8%, well short of the 20% or more some private organisations are reporting, there is agreement that 2009 has been one of the most challenging years in recent history.
Some Black Sea resort regions reported occupancy rates below 25% in the peak month of August, despite having slashed prices by as much as 50%, while earnings were down by between 20% and 25%. The poor season has prompted many in the industry to sell up, with around 700 of Bulgaria's 3000 hotels put up for sale on the market, according to figures from the Institute for Analysis and Evaluation of Tourism.
The director of the institute, Rumen Draganov, said that as a result of the economic crisis, stiffer competition from rivals such as Turkey and Greece, and poor standards, up to 20% of Bulgaria's coastal hotels had closed during the summer months.
Having earned $3.5bn last year, Bulgaria's tourism sector will probably generate around $2.7bn in 2009, Draganov said, a fall in the order of 20%.
To counter the recent downturn and the longer-term malaise predicted by some for the industry, tourism operators and officials are being advised to diversify their product and develop niche appeal rather than continue to promote Bulgaria's mass-market sun-and-sea image.
One idea is to increase the profile and the quality of Bulgaria's spa and wellness tourism segment. The 8000 mineral spas across the country can serve as the stimulus to develop health tourism, according to Anelya Krushkova, the chairwoman of the State Agency for Tourism.
Spa and wellness tourism was expected to play an increasing role in the future, and it has been made a part of the state's national strategy for sustainable development of the sector, Krushkova said.
There have also been calls to move even further away from the more accepted form of holiday trade. So says Lubomir Popiordanov, the head of the Bulgarian Association for Alternative Tourism, in an interview with the Sofia News Agency on September 25. According to Popiordanov, mainstream tourism in Bulgaria focuses on quantity not quality.
Without state support, such as incentives, promotion and the provision of infrastructure, mainstream tourism would collapse, he said, whereas minimal levels of assistance to alternative tourism would spread the benefits of the sector across the country.
"Bulgaria has all prerequisites to develop alternative tourism and few prerequisites to develop mass tourism. Mass tourism must stop expanding and start seeking to improve its quality," said Popiordanov.
The foundation of alternative tourism is in the countryside, he said, with Bulgaria building on its rural heritage, a background he says the country has been trying to escape but should instead embrace in order to reinvent its tourism identity.
"It is based on the value of Bulgarian architecture, the diversity of the Bulgarian cuisine, which is really rich and the quality of Bulgarian food products, which still exist in the villages. All this is competitive to the similar products in the developed states," Popiordanov said.
Another public figure to advocate the benefits to be had from the country's legacy of the past is the culture minister, Vezhdi Rashidov. "There is no tourism without history. Otherwise, it is just the accommodation. It is the time now when Bulgaria should turn into a real tourist destination, because tourists come for recuperation in the first place but they also want to take memories back home," he said in an interview with the daily Standart in mid-August.
While increasing the profile of alternative tourism and raising awareness of the cultural and historic riches of Bulgaria will undoubtedly improve earnings and attract more visitors, the industry's main income will always be mass tourism, fundamentally built around sun and sand.
Since coming to office in July, the new government of Prime Minister Boyko Borisov has taken a number of steps to overhaul state-based tourism operations. Foremost of these measures was to incorporate the state tourism agency into the Ministry of Economy and Energy under Traicho Traikov.
Although there have been some who have criticised the move, suggesting that the agency and its activities will be subsumed by the ministry, others believe having tourism represented at the cabinet level is a recognition of the sector's importance to the economy.
Though no one is saying the new ministry will be able to resolve all of the sector's problems in the short term, it is about to launch its first policy initiative for the industry, with a national strategy for cultural tourism due to be unveiled before the end of October.
According to Traikov, the new strategy includes a catalogue of the top 500 cultural tourist sites in Bulgaria. These sites will be given priority in receiving funds for the construction of a modern infrastructure, he told reporters on October 10.
Though Bulgaria will continue to promote itself as popular holiday destination, focusing on sun and fun, it is increasingly looking to broaden that focus as alternatives present themselves.