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Ideas, Enthusiasm Fuel Bulgaria’­s Tourism Growth

June 12, 2004

By Christopher Deliso

Recently welcomed into NATO, and preparing for EU membership in the next few years, Bulgaria continues to take major steps forward in its remarkably quick transition from Sovietization to Western capitalism.

Although a large part of its success has to do with good geographical fortune (i.e., not suffering from growth-retarding war, as have its West Balkan neighbors), Bulgaria has also embarked on a genuinely progressive and proactive marketing and publicity campaign to entice visitors and foreign capital from the outside world. And there are clear sign that the hard work is paying off.

A major difference from its neighbors is the Bulgarian government’s involvement with overseeing the process. A nationwide contest was recently held by the government to choose a new national slogan for a worldwide marketing blitz. The winner, reports Novinite.com, was “Get Involved,” thought up by 2 young Bulgarians, Dimitar Gavanski and Assen Petrov, who were “…victorious among more than 500 participants.”

Speaking at the official ceremony on Friday, Prime Minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg noted that the wide enthusiasm for participating in the contest included not only Bulgarians at home but also those from the diaspora.

While this was a positive indicator of national enthusiasm and some degree of governmental foresight, the slogan contest was not the most ingenious recent idea that will translate into tourism-based prosperity. An ambitious project of associating the country with mythical and cultural figures, as well as one symbol from Western popular culture, shows an increasing sophisticated understanding of how to appeal to deep-pocketed Western tourists.

The promotion will include re-appropriating the ostensibly Greek Orpheus and Dionysius, as well as a “myth-based ballet” by former gymnastics coach Neshka Robeva, and most important of all, the Harry Potter cottage industry.

The perhaps surprising first part of the strategy has been bolstered by the recent discovery of an ancient temple in Bulgarian Thrace that Bulgarian archaeologists believe to have been venerated as the burial place of the renowned musician Orpheus (though this has not been confirmed definitively).

As for Dionysius, archaeologists excavating in the Rhodope Mountain village of Perperikon claim to have found the sanctuary of the ancient god of wine and sensual delights. According to head archaeologist Nikolai Ovtcharov, “…this sanctuary in the Rhodopes is as important as that of Apollo at Delphi.”

According to ancient historians and legend, Alexander the Great was told by the oracle of Dionysius that he would be the “master of the world” before his Asian campaigns, and where the father of Octavius (the future first emperor of Rome) learnt of his son’s illustrious fate. Ovtcharov also argues for the theory that that the popular traits and powers of Dionysius “…in fact come from the Balkan legend of the god Zagrei.”

Finally, the upcoming fourth installment of the wildly successful film series (”Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” due out in October) “…has been enriched with the landmark personality of quidditch team head Viktor Krum, whose imagery background is Bulgarian.” According to Novinite.com, the idea was hit upon immediately in March, “…when it became known that a Bulgarian boy would play the role in the next blockbuster.”

Parents and teachers regularly bemoan the apparent fact that the younger generations hardly bother to read any longer, their lives oversaturated with computer games and television. Yet the millions of readers, many of them children and teenagers, who were enthralled by J.K. Rowling’s magical world of wizards in the guise of English public schoolboys changed all that.

Now, the Bulgarians feel a considerable fortune has fallen into their laps. The character reference to Khan Crum, one of Bulgaria’s most famous medieval rulers, has rescued the warlord from the dusty prison of academic books. At least peripherally, the film may increase general awareness of Bulgaria as a nation and historical state. And perhaps a few young readers/viewers will develop a more avid interest in exploring the country’s history. It would not be the first time such a thing has happened.

For the Chief of National Tourism Advertising and Information Agency, Ivaylo Gyurov, the strategy aims to “stir the attention” of residents of Bulgaria’s typical market- Slavophone countries such as Russia, Ukraine, and the Balkans. But considering the free marketing boost the country will get from the Harry Potter franchise, it may well help in the much richer Western market.

Indeed, Western interest in the country as a tourist destination has increased considerably over the past few years. British retirees who used to look to Greece or Spain for seaside villas have now been attracted to Bulgaria, as prices are considerably lower there than in the EU states. Scores of websites run by British estate agents attest to the growing demand. More general Bulgarian tourism websites in the English language also abound.

According to statistical data from the World Tourism Organization, “…the number of tourists from the European Union (EU) coming to Bulgaria went up by 48.2% over the first four months of the year.” The Greek “import” market has been particularly strong, increasing by 50 percent- a total of 221,321 people. Tourism revenues have also increased over the first two months of 2004, by 30 percent on average. While the Bulgarian government has gotten into the habit of trumpeting its successes on a quarterly basis, it’s hard to find the same dedication from neighboring states. Macedonia, especially (which deceptively considers any foreigner who spends a night in the country to be a tourist), has a woeful record for wide publicization of its statistics (probably because they are not particularly auspicious).

More examples of creative vision from the Bulgarians include scenic rail tours in retro-fitted vintage train cars, the oldest being a steam-powered train dating from 1934. The tour, which takes in Sofia, Plovdiv, Bachkovo Monastery and more was recently tested on 56 Spanish tourists. Organizers are expecting 350-400 more Spaniards to see Bulgaria by rail before the season’s end.

Another sector of growing importance, health/spa tourism, has been targeted by 7 Bulgarian tourism organizations which recently provided market research detailing why they should develop this side of the industry. While Croatia, Poland and the Czech Republic currently are among the most “preferred health tourism destinations” in the region, they believe Bulgaria- with its plethora of wooded mountains, lakes and seaside- has potential in this area. Statistics forwarded point to the need to target the over-50 market. Forecasts indicate that by 2010 “…the number of tourists using that kind of tourism services will go up by 75 percent.”

The government has also taken its show on the road rather successfully. Appearances at major trade fairs across Europe have highlighted Bulgaria’s visibility abroad. The country is quickly advancing into the upper echelons of the promotions business among Balkan countries, far above countries like Albania, Macedonia and Serbia.

For example, visitors at this week’s tourism fair in Skopje were laden down with not one but 8 glossy booklets on subjects ranging from wine tourism and hunting to health spas, conventions and museums, in addition to Black Sea destinations such as Varna. The booklets come replete with excellent photographs, important data, logistical information and interesting vignettes.

Most remarkably, the standard of written English is not even that bad by Balkan standards. This is in contrast to neighboring Macedonia, which suffers a dearth of quality promotional material. Glossy booklets produced by Macedonian tour operators are almost completely devoted to “export” packages- to places like Egypt, Tunisia and Turkey.

All things considered, Bulgaria’s steady advance as a desirable tourism destination owes to more than just its atmosphere of guaranteed peace and its rich environmental variegation. It also owes to creativity, cleverness, and enthusiasm- all vital intangibles in the development and sustenance of a dynamic tourism industry.

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