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Bulgaria Must Be the Most Desired Village of Europe

Date: 25.09.2009

  Interview with Lubomir Popiordanov, Chair of the Bulgarian Association for Alternative Tourism (BAAT), and owner of the tour operator Odysseia-In. BAAT is a non-profit public benefit organization established in 1998. It has over 90 members: national and regional tourist councils, nature parks, tour operators for specialized tourism, family hotels, guest houses and individuals. It is member of EUROGITES and official partner of ECEAT. 

- What is defined as "alternative tourism"? Would you say that it is better than the mainstream or "mass" tourism, and why?

- Tourism is part of the worldwide democratization and new opportunities. For some people, the mass tourism might be good, and it won't be right to say that it is worse. Today the cheaper flights and the Internet are also a cause of concern for tourist companies because people can now travel without them. This is true for both the alternative and the mass tourism.

We at the Bulgarian Association for Alternative Tourism do not say that there may be many high-quality offers in the field of the mass tourism. What we say that the alternative tourism is the most appropriate type for Bulgaria. Bulgaria is a country with modest resources and modest in scale, and its tourist business must be as environment-friendly and sustainable as possible.

The mainstream or "mass" tourism in Bulgaria is connected with quantity not quality, it lacks in added value, it is a marginal product of beds, sheets, and cheap bars, which sometimes offer unlicensed alcohol.

Luckily, this is not the case with the alternative tourism. We say it is good because it is more suitable for the Bulgarian reality. It is crucial for Bulgaria to change the geography of its tourism. You know, the mass tourism is concentrated at certain spots around the country.

The alternative tourism offers an alternative to this patched-up development of tourist spots. It is possible in over 50% of the country. It is not just possible, it is developing. And it is developing without any support by the Bulgarian state. Can you imagine what would happen if the mass tourism was not propped up by the state? It would collapse. The lack of infrastructure would be fatal for it, which is not necessarily the case with the alternative tourism.

A foreign tourist using alternative tourism services spends at least EUR 50 per day in Bulgaria on average, whereas a foreign tourist in a resort such as Sunny Beach spends a lot less than EUR 30, plus they create a lot of pollution, a lot of problems that Bulgaria does not have the capacity to cope with.

- How should Bulgaria balance between the development of the mainstream tourism and the alternative tourism?

- We are not calling for putting an end to the mass tourism because this is not realistic; we just demand that it is not favored - because the state's focus has been on it for 50 years - and to pay attention to the alternatives. These alternatives would lead to solving crucial social issues such as the development of the rural regions, the mountain regions, creating new forms of employment - all governments have declared their interests in that in the recent years but these have been just declarations.

Every guest house, every adventure park is something different, outside the standards. Their clients are people who do not care for the distribution of the lamps in the room but that does not mean they are not looking for good food and high quality service. To the contrary. And they pay a lot more for that than those with the mainstream tourism and the all-inclusive packages.

Bulgaria has all prerequisites to develop the alternative tourism and few prerequisites to develop the mass tourism. The mass tourism must stop expanding, and to start seeking to improve its quality. The alternative tourism will place Bulgaria much better than all four- or five-star hotels, which are not intriguing compared to the ones existing in Greece and Turkey, not mention spots such as Las Vegas. You know, we in Bulgaria seem to love the name "Las Vegas", it is pretty common here and exists in all sorts of forms. We are not Las Vegas, and will never be. We can only be a very low-grade Las Vegas. Our call is for emphasizing what is Bulgarian and of high quality and value.

The other problem of the mass tourism in Bulgaria is its acute dependence on the seasons, which is not the case with the alternative tourism - adventure, team building (which is also a form of tourism), the rural tourism which is the foundation of all alternative tourism forms.

- What is the potential for developing rural tourism, the condition of the rural regions in Bulgaria?

- We would like to see Bulgaria become Europe's desired village. Bulgaria has always been a village. This is its vocation that it has been trying to run away from over the last 60 years.

Bulgaria's Agriculture Minister recently said the country could not feed itself with its agriculture produce. And Bulgaria used to pay off its war reparations with its agriculture. Apparently, we have done everything possible in order not to develop our agriculture, and to desert the rural areas. Now is the time for an epicrisis of the Bulgarian tourism and of the condition of the rural regions. We don't have the resources and opportunities of an industrial country. We should develop high technologies, sure, this is no issue. But we should also focus on preserving the environment and developing the agriculture and the rural regions, and to create alternative employment.

Agricultural tourism is very well developed in Western Europe. But they have farms. Unfortunately, there is not a single farm worthy of this name in Bulgaria. There is not a single farm in Bulgaria providing accommodation for tourists. We need to make the village our export product. We should not be afraid of the carts and the donkeys. There are donkeys in Greece and no one is ashamed of them. In France, there are herds of donkeys that are raised to be used for tourist vacations. We here don't even have donkeys to pull the carts already.

Everyone knows the globalization and the global working environments create a need for going back to nature. At the same time, the Bulgarian tourist sector does all it can to turn its natural beauties into cities - as is the case with the Sunny Beach and Pamporovo. This contradicts the demand and economic logic This is only possible because there is money laundering going on in Bulgaria. But this is a whole other topic.

- What is the share of alternative tourism in terms of revenue and number of tourists in Bulgaria out of the total?

- I am positive surprised by the figures. Our estimates show that 1,5% of the revenue from foreign tourists in Bulgaria in 2009 will come from alternative tourism services used by foreigners. The share of the foreign tourists who used alternative tourism in 2009 of the total number of foreign tourists is probably much smaller than 1,5%. This is because we don't even know how many foreign tourists come to Bulgaria each year. This is statistics that no one can provide. I hope that Minister of Finance Djankov and Minister of Economy, Energy, and Tourism Traikov will manage to figure out how to come up with it.

- But the data of the State Tourism Agency says that about 4,5-5 million foreign tourists visit Bulgaria per year?

- This figure includes all sorts of persons who just passed through Bulgaria. Say, they may be traveling from Ukraine to Turkey or Greece, they stopped to have a coffee in Bulgaria, and they are counted as tourists. Unfortunately, the gray sector in Bulgaria's tourism is pretty big. This is not our topic now, but I can say that the statistics for the alternative forms of tourism is 100% accessible, and that there is no gray economy there. What is more, a lot of small municipalities profit from the taxes paid by the guest houses in the villages.

So our estimates are that in 2009, Bulgaria's total revenue from alternative tourism will be about EUR 12,5-13 M, which is not less than 1,5% of the total tourism revenue. There are about 15 000-20 000 foreign tourists who used those services.

The Bulgarian market, i.e. Bulgarian tourists using the alternative forms of tourism is no smaller - it is probably about BGN 20 M. If you ask Rumen Draganov from the Institute for Analyses and Estimates in Tourism, he would say the figure is even greater.

The Bulgarian market has been really neglected. The number of Bulgarian tourists using alternative forms of tourism is probably three times greater than that of the foreigners coming to Bulgaria for that purpose. However, the trips of the Bulgarian tourists are rather low-cost. And only about 10% of them are in organized groups, the rest usually travel individually. Of the foreigners coming to Bulgaria in order enjoy alternative tourism, about 50% travel individually, and about 50 % in groups.

- How has the global economic crisis affected the alternative tourism in Bulgaria?

- I would not say that the decline in the revenue and number of foreign tourists using alternative forms in Bulgaria has been greater than 10 % in 2009 because of the crisis. The demand for such services on the internal market, i.e. with Bulgarian tourists has actually grown.

- Are there foreign businesses investing in alternative tourism in Bulgaria?

- One major foreign investment in alternative tourism in Bulgaria is the adventure park in the town of Sopot. I think it is a Russian investor. There are already guest houses owned by Belgians, Dutch, British.

There are already "vacation villages". There are two types of them. The first one is when an investor buys a whole village. We support that on the condition that the investor preserves the authenticity of the architecture and the lifestyle. The other type is re-designing some village according to the ideas of some architect or investor - this is the kind of thing that we do not support because they destroy the landscape. The landscape of Bulgaria is a very important resource. I don't know what the total amount of the foreign investments is. But there is definitely interest in that. For example, there are alternative forms of tourism in the villages around the mountain resort Bansko. Because there is this type of foreign tourists who do not like concrete balconies and all that.

- Is it true that there is a huge international demand for high-quality alternative tourism services, and that the supply of such services is negligibly small?

- It is true that there is a demand for the top-quality services of which there is very little supply. By the way, the same is true for the mainstream tourism. There are very few spots which are 100% authentic, which have aesthetic harmony, greenery, flowers, space for kids to play.

There is one such spot in the village of Kovachevitsa, it is valued as unique not just in Bulgaria but also in Eastern Europe by the US guidebook Frommer's. We lack this sort of culture that values these things, and I think that foreign investors could bring it to Bulgaria if they come from counties such as Austria, Germany, Italy, or France, and not from some countries located to the east of Bulgaria.

Investments in this type of services require thinking about the future, preserving resources, employing latest technologies. I just came back from Greece, and I have to tell you that there every such establishment has to meet extremely strict state requirements on energy efficiency and so on.

This is what is expected by the Western tourists who are willing to pay a lot. Bulgaria is not marketed as such kind of destination, and it does not have a supply of such services. Even if there are offers, it is hard to advertise them because there is no public support for the alternative tourism sector.

- Do you see Bulgarian tourist companies shifting their focus towards alternative tourism?

- There are large hotel-owning firms which have started to pay attention to this sector. I think the Bulgarian investors are starting to realize they have to start focusing on the alternative tourism. But the thing the lack is creativity and imagination.

The reason for that is that very few of them work with any sort of a business plan, with consultants, all that smells of money laundering and means creating things which are not market-oriented. Foreign investors are generally concerned by Bulgaria's image as a country where laws are not obeyed, or do not exist. The Bulgarian institutions need to send them a new message.

- What state measures are needed to develop the alternative tourism in Bulgaria? What are your expectations for the new government?

- We believe that the new government has to focus on three main things. The first one is education and qualification. Which, of course, has to go together with measures to get the people in which we have invested to stay in Bulgaria, i.e. this is a public private partnership of a sort, in which the investors need to start viewing human resources differently.

We also need to make the Bulgarians more "cultured". Because right now we don't even have the good village culture that we used to have. This is what makes the life in big cities in Bulgaria so unpleasant, and needs to be changed. We need not just language qualification, but also to create knowledge for Bulgaria among the Bulgarians.

Then we need to focus on the professional development, marketing, information environment, supporting good practices. Why is there not a single billboard along the highways and roads paid for by the state inviting people to visit the villages of the Rhodoppe or the Balkan Mountains? Instead, there are only billboards showing nude women and vodka.

This is very simple and such billboards would create lots of impact - not just leading people to visit those villages but also letting their residents see that the state cares for them.

Now those rural areas are viewed with neglect and distrust of which we only think during election campaigns.

Another important thing is that EU funds should not be awarded unless the people who get it have the proper qualification. In Western Europe there are always qualification courses. You can't give money for developing rural tourism to someone who has communication issues. A lot of money has been granted for rural tourism so far, and few of those objects are in operation. Maybe because people just used the money to build houses for themselves.

- Do you think it is a good idea to incorporate the State Tourism Agency into the Ministry of Economy and Energy, as the new government of the GERB party has done?

- For us it is not a problem that the State Tourism Agency has been incorporated into the Ministry of Economy and Energy. We actually prefer a large ministry with a lot more weight than a structure that is of a second order. When the head of the respective institution issues an order, there should be enough weight to realize it. If that is a second-rate institution, they would have to ask the various ministries for money, and for assistance. There are actually orders under the Tourism Act from 2004 that still have not been adopted and put into practice because there hasn't been enough coordination between the institutions. Those have to do with the tourism jobs such as tour guides, mountain rescuers, ski teachers, and so one. The status of these professions in Bulgaria should have been set up and made clear five years ago but those orders have not been adopted yet. Right now, any foreigner can bring people to the Rila Monastery or the History Museum and start telling them all sorts of stuff. This is unacceptable. In Greece, for example, this is impossible to happen. Or anyone can take people up in the mountains despite the huge risk of accidents.

By the way, the tragedy in Ohrid, Macedonia, where 15 Bulgarian tourists died is a case in hand. If Bulgaria had negative attitude towards Macedonia, it could totally destroy its image. The Ohrid Lake tragedy showed that in Ohrid, and in the Republic of Macedonia security and safety mean nothing. Safety is the most fundamental thing in tourism but there it is not guaranteed in any way. Neither Lloyd, nor the Macedonian government can guarantee it. There is no safety whatsoever. And keep in mind that Ohrid is 50% of tourism of Macedonia.

- Which of all the areas of alternative tourism does Bulgaria need to focus on?

- Well, the foundation of alternative tourism is the rural tourism. It is based on the value of Bulgarian architecture, the diversity of the Bulgarian cuisine, which is really rich, the quality of the Bulgarian food products - which still exists in the villages. All this is competitive to the similar products in the developed states.

Then there is the adventure tourism, birdwatching - we are very rich in bird species. Then there is Ancient Thrace and the Thracian heritage. How come Bulgaria does not have a single museum of Ancient Thrace? There is no Thracian Studies Institute.

There are only excavations carried out by certain archaeologists with suspicious attitudes such as Mr. Nikolay Ovcharov, who works for his personal PR and destroys archaeological monuments - this is actually the opinion of many Bulgarian archaeologists who do not really have the opportunity to voice it. We actually have the monasteries and Ancient Thrace. We need to say it loud and clear that the Thracian heritage is Bulgarian heritage, and have to do something about it.

We also need to put efforts into the promotion of certain areas that have been left out even though they have huge potential. This is the region of the Danube River with which Bulgaria is not associated in any way. Romania also has this problem but it is a lot more associated with the Danube than Bulgaria, in the very least because of the Danube Delta on its territory. The Danube is most of all an axis for affiliation and belonging to European and world culture.

- What kind of projects does the BAAT have to support alternative tourism?

- One of our special projects is the so called "Green Lodge", which are guest houses focusing on being welcoming and environment-friendly while espousing the traditional atmosphere and lifestyle of the Bulgarian regions.

The Green Lodges aspire to achieve sustainability - to be energy efficient, to preserve the local customs and architecture, and to represent the local food and drinks. In the age of raging globalization, the Green Lodges are an example of responsible business and traveling.

The BAAT awards two types of categories to Green Lodges - a nomination and a certificate - based on the criteria of the European network ECEAT.

We have also just presented our Bulgaria Bed & Breakfast and Adventure Guidebook, which is bilingual - in Bulgarian and English (for presentation in English click HERE), and where people can find 105 BB and small hotels around the country that meet our requirements, and have espoused responsible hospitality.

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