There was some good news for Bulgaria's tourism sector this month, as figures showed arrivals up, even from some unexpected quarters. Meanwhile, there were also developments in the long-running saga over improvements to the country's tourism infrastructure, with a number of overseas companies reported to be lining up for contracts at Sofia's controversial international airport.
According to figures released by the Economy Ministry on March 30, the number of tourists visiting Bulgaria in January and February 2004 was 27.14% up on the same period the previous year. This meant a total of 319,814 foreign visitors during the period.
The national breakdown of this figure also provided some pointers, with 101,314 from Greece, 28,450 from the UK, 24,690 from Macedonia, and 11,520 from Serbia and Montenegro. For the EU as a whole, arrivals were up 52.11%. One EU country in particular was also in the headlines, with wide coverage given to predictions of a boom of visitors from Denmark.
This followed a report in the Danish daily BerlingskeTidende on March 30 that the number of Danes visiting Bulgaria was expected to rise to 55,000 in 2004, up from 39,000 in 2003.
Meanwhile, efforts were also underway to bring in tourists from another unexpected quarter - Russia. Before the end of the Cold War, Russia had been a primary source for Bulgarian tourism, with many Russian tourists heading for the Black Sea coastal resorts of Varna and Burgas.
However, all that tailed off in the 1990s. Last year, visitors from Russia ranked fifth in the arrivals table. Winning that market back has therefore become a major plank in the Economy Ministry's strategy for boosting the tourism sector. News came towards the end of March that the first Bulgarian tourism information centre is to be built in Moscow.
Two others are also to be opened in the near future - in Frankfurt and Paris - and all the centres are to be the fruits of co-operation between the Economy Ministry, the city of Sofia and local tour operators. At a ceremony to mark the opening of the Moscow centre, Economy Minister Lydia Shouleva and Sofia mayor Stefan Sofianski praised the project as a successful example of just such a strategy of co-operation.
One of the attractions for the boom in tourism during January and February recorded in the ministry's figures has undoubtedly been the skiing. Here, Bulgaria has a massive price advantage over other European destinations such as Switzerland and Austria. At a resort such as Pamporovo, operators reported a boom in arrivals, which they put largely down to the fact that for UK visitors a night in a three-star hotel there with half board came in at only around $18 per person.
In addition, the expansion of flight availability to Bulgaria has helped immensely. In the case of Pamporovo, charter flights now arrive at nearby Plovdiv from UK, Irish and German airports, enabling lower budget travellers to access the slopes with much greater ease.
Naturally though, whatever the price or accessibility, there is also a question of quality. Here, the Pamporovo case is also instructive. Hotel owners at the resort complain that the company that manages the ski facilities - Pamporovo AD - has not invested in any upgrade of the runs or lifts.
The company disputes this, however, with company managing director Nikolai Iliev telling the business newspaper Capital mid-March that a new investment plan for 2004 was about to be unveiled.
Keeping the infrastructure up to scratch has also been exercising minds in Sofia, particularly when it comes to airports. Given the importance of Plovdiv in boosting tourism arrivals in the nearby ski resorts, expanding and developing other regional airports is also clearly a priority.
On this score, there was news mid-March that a string of German, Austrian and Danish operators are interested in taking over the running of Varna and Burgas airports. Meanwhile, there is also strong foreign interest in Plovdiv itself.
Yordan Mirchev, the chairman of the parliamentary committee on transport and communications, told reporters late March that private operators might be granted a concession to handle the regional airports - although Sofia International remains out of this particular loop. He also suggested that this could be done as part of an arrangement whereby the operators would collect airport fees - set by the cabinet - and set them against paying Bulgarian taxes.
Mirchev added that the Varna and Burgas concessions would be granted by the end of 2004.
In 2003, the passenger flow at Varna Airport increased by 19% and at Burgas Airport by 34%. The government intends to invest 150m euros in developing the two airports over the next three years. This will be welcome news for Bulgaria's tour operators, who are by and large optimistic that the coming years will see the boom continue - provided there is also the investment to cope with it.