Tourism: A Welcome from Behind the Mask

Views on BG | November 16, 2004, Tuesday // 00:00

By Anthony Robinson and Theodor Troev
Financial Times

This summer people queued outside the former mosque that houses Sofia's splendid archaeological museum to shuffle past the golden mask of a scowling Thracian king.

The mask was discovered by archaeologists at a burial site in central Bulgaria's Valley of the Thracian Kings, where rulers' tombs lie beneath tumuli dotting a landscape that has hardly changed since ancient times.

The 680g golden mask, probably made by a Greek craftsman in the 5th century BC, is life-size and appears to be the image of the warmongering King Tereus.

The Odrisi fought their way to pre-eminence among the Thracian tribes who dominated the Balkans for 1,500 years until the Romans conquered what is now Bulgaria and parts of Serbia and Greece in the first century AD.

Last month Bulgarian archaeologists found the bust of a bearded man made from bronze with semi-precious stones for eyes. They believe it is a portrait of Sevt III, another famous Thracian ruler.

The golden mask and the bronze head could become the symbols of up-market tourism and a resurgent interest in, and funding for, an ancient cultural heritage to compete with that of Greece or Italy.
It is all a long way from the traditional view of Bulgarian tourism. In the communist era the country was a cheap and cheerful beach resort for undemanding Soviet trade unionists and central Europeans who were unable to get visas for Yugoslavia.

Lots of sunshine, gentle, safe sandy beaches, tasty, simple food and plenty of cheap but drinkable local wine also attracted western tour operators. Tourists have returned during the past five years as central Europe and Russia have recovered from the post-Soviet economic collapse and the former state-controlled hotel chains have been privatised.

Many now have more money and demand higher standards. In response, private hotel operators have upgraded and refurbished their hotels, clubs and restaurants.

With many resorts in Spain and elsewhere already overdeveloped, western property investors and hotel chains are increasingly turning their attention to Bulgaria.

This is evident in Sofia where western chains such as Hilton, Radisson, Kempinski and Sheraton have built or refurbished hotels in anticipation of EU entry.

The capital and other cities have also seen a surge of smaller, often family-run hotels and restaurants.

Blagoi Ragin, chairman of the Bulgarian Hotel and Restaurant Association, says that its more than 1,600 private hotel members are rapidly increasing their share of what he estimates is now a ?2bn a year tourism industry, with 4m visitors expected this year.

Most of the Russian and western money is flowing into hotel complexes and residential property along the largely undeveloped coast and into new or refurbished ski resorts such as Bansko, Borovets and Pamporovo in the mountainous interior.

The scope for moving further up market is considerable, given the country's wealth of natural spas, the extensive Balkan, Rila, Pirin and Rhodope mountain chains and an estimated 40,000 archaeological sites.

The archaeological sites range from the pre-historic to the remains of little-known Thracian kingdoms and ancient Greek cities - including the awesome ancient shrines at Perperikon and the recently rediscovered nearby sanctuary of Orpheus.

There are also extensive monuments from the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman periods.

Thanks to the many mountains and sparsely populated rural areas, the wildlife, which includes wolves and bears, is extensive and the country is developing its reputation as a hunting venue.

The reasons for trying to break out of the old stereotype as a low-cost resort destination are easy to see.

By paring costs and margins to the bone the big tour operators can offer package holidays to Sunny Beach and similar high-density resorts for little more than ?300, including flights, transfers, meals and a week's lounging around the hotel pool.

At this price, a holiday at a popular Black Sea resort is only marginally more expensive than staying at home for many European visitors.

This is very attractive to pensioners, unemployed people and those with young children - so attractive, that tourism numbers were up 25 per cent over the first three quarters of this year.

The problem is that lower-income tourists often have little to spend on eating out, clubs or even deckchairs and sunshades on the beach.

Local tour operators at Sunny Beach complain that thrifty Germans tend to be the lowest spending group, while Russians are those who are most willing to shell out money on having a good time.

Plamen Panayotov, deputy prime minister and the man who is co-ordinating EU integration, says pre-accession funds are helping authorities in tourist areas to raise standards.

They are also contributing to the search for a more attractive and inclusive image for an industry that contributes 10 per cent to gross domestic product and jobs for 6 per cent of the workforce.

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