Welcome to Lonely Bulgaria - Your Next Tourist BargainEditorial |Author: Nikola Petrov | January 6, 2011, Thursday // 21:45| views
"Where do you come from?"
At this point, and after a brief confusion, most people would exclaim "Oh, yeah...Hristo Stoichkov!"
The football legend of the nineties used to be Bulgaria's face to the world, his name used to verify the country's sheer existence, even though not everybody could pinpoint it on the map.
But now, as we have already stepped into the 21st century's second decade and the former flamboyant Barcelona striker's international fame has started to seriously fade away, the majority of foreigners use new magical association words.
It is either "Bansko" or "Sunny Beach."
It is hardly surprising that Bulgaria's skiing and summer resorts constitute most of the country's image abroad - or at least in Europe. After all, it is a place gifted with diverse and breathtaking landscapes and a rich historical past.
There is a widespread belief that its people are extremely hospitable - especially towards foreigners. Whether it is the result of some inferiority complex or not, whenever most Bulgarians receive foreign guests, they tend to feed them to oblivion and pamper them like royalties - even when it means wasting their entire salaries.
It is also worth mentioning that tourism provides nearly 10% of the country's GDP - it has already been established as one of its main industries. Last, but not least, Bulgaria is really cheap, which makes it irresistibly attractive.
So, at the end of December, the little Balkan country made it to CNN's list of 2011's top tourist destinations, courtesy of Robert Reid, US travel editor for Lonely Planet. According to Reid, the country has the best Black Sea coastline for beach enthusiasts and offers great skiing in the mountains in the winter.
So far, so good. However, as it happens most of the times something positive is heard about Bulgaria, its citizens react with a mix of satisfaction, irony and suspicion. What feels wrong about Bulgaria as a tourist destination?
First of all, as I already mentioned, it is mainly quite cheap - in all meanings, unfortunately. To put it in a nutshell, most of the Bulgarian resorts offer what may be described as "mass" tourism. While it would be an unfair generalization to label the service as mediocre, it is fair enough to point out the rundown infrastructure, the overcrowded strands and the occasional lack of electricity or running water at many places.
What seems to be an even more widespread problem is that a lot of Bulgarian winter and summer resorts have since a while ago turned into never-stopping construction cites. Even in the middle of the tourist season, concrete is being restlessly poured into a myriad of new, generic looking hotel buildings, until one starts feeling unable to breathe, let alone enjoy the landscape.
The strategy of developing Bulgaria as a tourist destination - or, more likely, the lack of it, has turned a lot of places with a remarkable potential into lower-market destinations one often chooses to get wasted at. But while the trend of Bulgaria establishing itself as a destination for alcohol tourism could hardly be stopped - after all, its alcohol is objectively quite cheap for nearly everybody except Bulgarians themselves - there is another issue I consider really bothering: the lack of a clear brand image.
Believe it or not, as I ran into a bunch of Swedish tourists some two years ago and accidentally asked them whether they knew where exactly they had their vacation, they answered they were pretty sure it was somewhere in the Balkan peninsula.'
Could have easily been some generic island as well.
The new magical association words seem to possess a quite dubious power.
Instead, Bulgaria could have easily developed a sustainable brand image by now, given its cultural and natural resources.
Sure, the old parts of cities like Veliko Tarnovo and Plovdiv enjoy some touristic activity, as well as the astonishing Rila Monastery.
Still, there are some 400 other monasteries in the country, some of which are rather obscure.
Furthermore, the capital Sofia's downtown is packed with archaeological sites from the Antiquity and the Middle Ages, many of which found recently and by chance during construction works for a new Metro line.
Not to mention the constant new discoveries of ancient Thracian tombs and towns across the country - there is really no need to discover and certify the alleged "remnants" of St. John the Baptist or relics of any other saints, as the former Bulgarian Diaspora Minister Bozhidar Dimitrov tried to do recently, in order to boost Bulgaria's cultural tourism. All the country needs is already here - one just has to open people's eyes.
The citizens of the Bulgarian Black Sea Nessebar (ancient name: Mesembria) recently made the unprecedented move of launching a petition to get the old part of the town out of UNESCO's world cultural heritage list, as they saw their participation in it as a restriction to their construction and commercial activities, which will sooner or later turn it into an ordinary resort.
On the large scale, maybe it is time for Bulgaria to do precisely the opposite to the above mentioned citizens.
"I love doing road trips in Bulgaria. It begs for it. It's beautiful," Robert Reid from Lonely Planet says.
Beautiful, indeed - and surely begs for a mountain hike, too. Some undiscovered, lonely and peaceful gems are in store for the curious traveler in Bulgaria.
As for now, one might enjoy some of the country's excellent skiing facilities. Bulgaria's potential to be soon associated with something amazing is easily recognizable.
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