The last winter season was barely touched by the pandemic. As the lockdowns were coming into force last March and countries were shutting down, the large ski resorts, including the Bulgarian ones, had to close early. That seems to be the lesser evil compared to what may happen this winter. "A season on a ventilator," "ice age," "like a hailstorm in agriculture," "fighting the perfect storm," "a rollercoaster ride": these are just some of the phrases people in the travel industry in Europe and Bulgaria have been using this winter to describe their forecasts for the tourist season, as a second wave of Covid-19 pandemic is sweeping across the world.
The only certain thing in the new normal - which included an unprecedented political debate on whether EU's ski resorts should not stay completely closed - is that everything will be decided at the last moment. Bulgaria's first test, i.e. the reservations for the Christmas and New Year holidays, showed that demand is uncertain and depends on many conditions.
The hopes now are that the health part of the crisis will start easing after January, helped by the start of vaccination which will make travel possible for both Bulgarian and foreign tourists. The expectations however are that the season will vacillate between periods with some degree of hotel occupancy and zero reservations. Therefore, it is practically impossible to predict how much of Bulgaria's typical winter tourism revenue of 900 million levs to 1 billion levs (460 - 511 million euro), will be rescued.
Smaller hotels and resorts may turn out to be in a better position, or at least they were in summer, when they attracted tourists who were unwilling to do without a vacation but were looking for less busy locations where the risk of meeting other holiday-makers was lower. As for now spa hotels appear to have more reservations than ski complexes, mainly because ski resorts rely heavily on foreign visitors.
No party time
If the current winter season can be compared to skiing, the tourist industry now will have to ski down the steepest slopes in complete fog. So much so that no-one can predict what the result will be at the finishing line. The hotels in the big resorts traditionally start to be occupied in December and most rooms are booked for Christmas and New Year, which is the peak time for the industry. In 2020 however, nothing like that happened: the first wave of holidays, for St Nicholas' Day on December 6 and for the students' holiday on December 8, was practically no party time for hotels.
"This is the saddest students' holiday I have seen and I have been in the business for 30 years," says the chairman of the tourist business union in the ski-resort of Bansko, Malin Bistrin, who is also managing the Molerite complex in the mountain city. The same picture can be seen elsewhere: though hotels are not officially closed by the health minister's order for partial lockdown, the fact that restaurants are not allowed to work in practice blocks their operation. To the extent that some hotels had 2 to 5% occupancy rate, when the traditional rate is more than 80%, and some did not open at all. Bookings for the Christmas and New Year holidays were also sporadic - and decreased when the health crisis aggravated.
The big resorts hope that the winter conditions will permit the ski season to open in the beginning of 2021. To prepare for that, Borovets, Bansko and Pamporovo introduced new working rules that include social distancing of clients and encouraging online purchases of ski lift cards. Skiing packages have also been diversified with bonuses for longer stays, early bookings and small groups. Some hotels are testing the interest in second home office with package offers including the necessary working conditions and even child care services.
As for now the tourist industry relies mainly on Bulgarian visitors, given that many countries have some kind of limitations for trips to Bulgaria - either a negative PCR test or quarantine on return to the country of origin - which, understandably, have reduced reservations by foreigners to almost zero.
The winter of the unknown
Plans for the winter tourist season will not be clear until the very last moment, regarding Bulgarian tourists. As far as foreigners are concerned, the situation is even worse. An analysis of the key Greek market conducted by tourist businesses in Bansko has shown that online bookings have fallen substantially, says Malin Bistrin, adding that other countries (e.g. Russian) have recommended no travel abroad.
At this stage it is not yet clear what will happen on the other key market for the Bulgarian tourism industry: Great Britain. At the same time Turkey, which was relied upon to be the best tourist market this season, introduced restrictions at the end of 2020 that will remain in force until March.
The good news is that Romania, which accounts for 12% of foreign tourists visiting Bulgaria, lifted the requirement for a negative PCR test for people entering from Bulgaria from January 4. In the past five years Romania has remained steadily in top 3 of the foreign markets for Bulgarian winter tourism. More than 58,000 Romanians visited the Bulgarian resorts in the winter of 2019/20, according to data of the National Statistical Institute.
Whether the opening of the Romanian market will revive the current winter season , however, is still early to say. "We were very happy with the decision of the Romanian authorities to lift the travel restrictions, we hope that will help our business, as Romanians are our traditional guests," said the chairwoman of Bansko hoteliers' association Yanka Rahova. She however added it is still difficult to make forecasts for the entire season.
The Bulgarian market
The expectations are that the reservations will be concentrated around certain holidays if travel is possible and if the way the resorts are functioning in the new coronavirus conditions satisfies tourists. Data of the resorts show that there was some surge in visits around the winter holidays.
"At Christmas, it is traditionally Greeks who visit Bansko but they were not here this winter. But for New Year there a rise in the number of Bulgarian tourists," said Rahova. At any rate, until the end of March hotels will most probably see periods of some occupancy alternating with periods of almost no guests.
According to some forecasts, the interest in guest houses and smaller hotels may rise, as it did in summer, as they allow for more privacy. At any rate that will only be possible if the health crisis subsides.
"We have no reservations whatever, everything has been cancelled and we only expect to have single bookings in the coming months," said the chairwoman of the Guest House Association Veronika Kaneva, who owns a house in the mountain town of Kalofer. In her words, people go to the mountains for walks and sports but only during the day and do not stay for the night at accommodation facilities. And those who are still interested in reservations demand substantial price discounts.
If there is any ground for optimism, it is that at last some of the thousands of people who have already had Covid-19 will dare to use their winter holidays. However, the short and uncertain 2021 season will be probably a time bomb for the financial health of the ski resort hotels.