The number of foreign tourists who visited Bulgaria exceeded the country's population of 7.2 million last year for the first time. Due to perceived threats to security in typically favorite tourist destinations in other countries, Bulgaria's tourism industry achieved a two-digit growth rate in 2016. The results are expected to be similar this year, albeit more modest ones. German tourists have already purchased more vacation packages but interest from Russia is slightly lower. New business is therefore likely to be in the range of 5 to 10 percent, partly due to the gradual increase in prices.
The bad news is that business remains locked within three months. Besides, staff shortage may affect quality.
No record growth
At the beginning of the summer tourist season at the seaside, which traditionally contributes two-thirds of the annual revenues of the sector, the expectations are positive. Strong bookings so far on the major markets, as well as the expansion of the programs offered by the large tour operators are a precondition for growth, which Minister of Tourism Nikolina Angelkova believes will reach 10%. Representatives of the sector are more modest and expect growth of 5 to 8 percent for the whole season. With hotel prices slightly higher than last year, revenue is likely to increase.
Official data of the Ministry of Tourism show that tourism revenue reached 3.5 billion levs in the period June-August of 2016, up more than 17% year on year. The figure, however, does not include the money spent by Bulgarian tourists, nor the revenue before and after the peak season, so the total figure is probably close to 5 billion levs.
Data of large tour operators and hotel owners show that early bookings are stronger this year. One of the reasons is that such packages are cheaper. Early reservations also give holiday-makers more choice. Sector representatives say that the most desired hotels are already fully booked from June to August. However, little has changed in the months before and after the high season, an underutilized period which could provide stronger growth in the sector.
New old leader
Russia has been the largest market for Bulgarian seaside tourism since 2010 but this year Germany is likely to restore its leadership position. So far, data show higher interest from German tourists and last year there was a slight increase, too. On the one hand, early bookings in Russia are stronger this year; on the other, the reservations made in April and May are fewer than usual, by close to 10%. Possible explanations are the return of Russian tourists to the large resorts in Turkey, as well as increased interest in vacations in Greece and Cyprus. However, on the whole, the number of Russian tourists is expected to be similar to last year's or a little smaller.
At this stage, the bookings from the UK, Romania, Scandinavia and the Czech Republic are similar to last year's. For a fourth straight season now an increase is expected in the number of Polish tourists but it will not exceed 3 or 4 percent.
The news this year is the gradual increase in the number of tourists from France. Besides the fact that existing tour operators have expanded their programs, the French unit of Thomas Cook has also opened one. Burgas airport operator Fraport has said that for the first time this year there would be flights to Lyon in France.
While the season is expected to be stronger, the owners of seaside hotels say that the staff shortage in the sector is reaching worrying dimensions. Data of the Ministry of Tourism show that in the first week of May there were 23,000 vacancies announced in the labor offices of the government's Employment Agency alone. Most probably, the actual figure is higher, as many companies use other channels to hire staff. Currently, 2017 seems likely to be a record year for imports of hotel and restaurant workers. Staff is most often attracted from Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and Macedonia. The staff shortage can become a grave problem if it affects service quality, which is not that high anyway.