THE BEACHES OF BULGARIA ARE ATTRACTING A NEW GENERATION OF BRITISH VISITORS
While the likes of Sunny Beach have been compared with Blackpool, all-inclusive resorts such as Elenite are aiming for more well-to-do customers.These past few years have been nervous times for world tourism.
Popular short-haul destinations such as Spain are doing all they can to stanch an ebbing tide, but one former joke destination is having the last laugh: Bulgaria.
A tourism bonanza has spread along the Bulgarian Black Sea coast. After decades of plugging away at the bottom end of the market, resorts such as Sunny Beach and Golden Sands are experiencing a new lease of life. Grand new hotels are sprouting up to accommodate a big increase in visitors, a good proportion of whom are British, trying out Bulgaria for the first time.
Various factors play their part in this success. Initially, Bulgarian tourism was bouncing back after the loss of business caused by the Balkan crisis of the 1990s. That recovery coincided with an economic downturn in Western Europe that steered holidaymakers towards cheaper alternatives.
Meanwhile Bulgarian hotels had been refurbished, partly prompted by the need to raise standards for entry to the EU, and partly thanks to foreign investment by multinational tour operators.
In the past three years the big guns of British package tourism — JMC, First Choice, Airtours, Thomson — have all announced new programmes to Bulgaria, while the long-term operator, Balkan Holidays, has enjoyed annual increases of 30 to 40 per cent. Among those benefiting from this new interest is Mira, one of the many masseurs working the strand at Sunny Beach.
“Every year we get lots of new people,” he said cheerfully as he pummelled away at my stiff shoulder at a rate of £8 per half hour.
“I no longer need to be here all day, every day, to make money. I can spend some time with my girlfriend. And I, like you, can go to the beach.
” Mira’s workplace is warm and sunny but without being overpoweringly hot, with a sea that is clean and far less salty than the Mediterranean.
Resort prices, particularly for alcohol and restaurant meals, are low, and where once there were Stalinist blocks with plastic chairs, now there are newbuilds with architectural flair and designer style.
Locals such as Mira are hard-working, cheerful and happy to be a part of a success story after many crisis years in the national economy.
There’s nightlife if you want it, but the main emphasis has been on a more mature market — and on holidays for families.
“We normally go to Ibiza,” say Sonya Golding and Gayle Farmer, from Staffordshire, in the resort of Golden Sands with their respective husbands and five children aged between 5 and 11.
“But we read about Bulgaria in the paper, and it sounded as if the prices were about to go up, so we thought we’d better come.
”Golden Sands is the original Bulgarian resort, set in sloping woodland and fronted by 3.5km (2 miles) of beach. Proximity to Bulgaria’s third city, Varna, makes it seem more metropolitan, and it is popular with a young Scandinavian and German beach and boogie crowd who get going after 10pm.
For the families from Staffordshire, it has been a mixed experience.
Their three-star family hotel, the Sirena, has been good, but the children have
truggled with the half board-menu, and have had to top up with visits to McDonald’s.
The children have visited local attractions courtesy of the kids’ club, but the adults have largely stayed in resort, making a foray into Varna for a shopping trip which “wasn’t quite as cheap as we were expecting”, according to Gayle.
London-based Steve Moore, here with his parents David and Melanie, has been more adventurous, renting a car and setting off into the countryside. Habitually, he too would have taken his holidays in Spain or Portugal, but “Minorca was so expensive last year, now they’ve got the euro,” he says. “Here we’ve eaten out for £5 a head for three courses with wine, or £10 a head in the resort.”
The Moores particularly enjoyed exploring the hills and the coast, although map-reading has been a challenge, because most place names are written only in Cyrillic. “We drove up one mountain, expecting to go down the other side, but when we got to the top, the mountains just went on and on.”
Less buzzy, more family-oriented than Golden Sands, with a 7km beach which shelves gently into the sea, is Sunny Beach. This resort is twice the size of Golden Sands, and there’s a huge amount of hotel construction going on, although projects have all been mothballed during the season.
It’s busy, but not frenetic, with a clientele that is predominantly German and British. “We’re trying to avoid places where the lads go,” admitted Jane Lovering, from Devon, in Sunny Beach with her two teenage daughters. “Last year we went to Lanzarote, and my husband wouldn’t let the girls go out alone in the evening. Here we feel more confident. They’re off buying T-shirts right now.”
Also buying shirts — the England football strip, for a third of the price of back home — was Chris Hudson (not his real name) and his four boys. Chris, from the Wirral, is an old Bulgaria hand, having visited four times previously, but he was a reluctant interviewee.
“I’ve taken the boys out of school, which you are not meant to. For six of us, the price difference between now and during school holidays makes all the difference,” he said.
He regrets the way Bulgaria is becoming more popular. “We’ve had to re-learn the resort each time we’ve come here. The hotel we stay in, the Globus, is completely renewed. Might as well have a new name, too.
It’s only a matter of time before the prices start to increase, too, then where will we go on our holidays?” Down at what Chris called “the posh end” — the northern strip of the beach — you can see clear evidence of the direction in which Bulgarian tourism is currently headed.
The Victoria Palace Hotel is an African-themed, Vegas-style extravaganza of pools, bars and terraces. Next to it is the Hotel Helena, built in the style of a Bulgarian village, albeit with a “ Wellness Centre”, beach pagoda and green lawns, lovingly tended by gardeners with large scissors.
The Victoria Palace and the Helena are typical of the new breed of hotel, and the idea is to cater for a new market of wealthier customer, interested in higher standards. Whether that new customer will be happy to rub shoulders with the bread-and-butter market, in places with (unfairly) tacky reputations such as Sunny Beach, is another matter.
“Sunny Beach is like Blackpool in the sun,” says Nicola Wood, whom I met strolling through the picturesque fishing village of Sozopol, with husband Garry and son Mathew.
The Woods, who have previously taken their holidays in the Dominican Republic and the United States, are typical of the new kind of family that the Bulgarian resorts would like to attract. In Bulgaria they have taken side-trips, eaten out and generally seen more of the country than the traditional visitor, but their holiday didn’t start well.
They booked (with First Choice) into one of five new giant four-star hotels now under construction, funded by one of the Government ministers. This was to be at Elenite, an all-inclusive enclave north of Sunny Beach.
Despite reassurances to the contrary less than a week before taking off, they were told on arrival that the hotel was not ready. Says Garry: “There were two plane-loads of us, all expecting to go to the hotel we had booked. Some people were livid.”
Most were transferred south, to an equivalent property at Duni Beach, which the Woods describe as “brilliant. Super clean, lovely standard, the staff always ready with a smile. Mathew fell over in the foyer and cut his chin.
Within seconds three members of staff were there, and the customer services girl came with us to the doctor. They couldn’t have been nicer.”
So despite the inauspicious beginning, their story has a happy ending. “We would definitely come here again.”
Timesonline.co.uk (17 July 2004)next article >>> <<< back to news
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