Initially, the news of a Bulgarian polling station on Zanzibar Archipelago on April 4th sounded like a joke. Yet it turned out tour operators really had asked Bulgaria's Central Election Commission if it could open the polling station because 600 Bulgarians had booked prepaid vacations there. If true, this is going to be one of the largest winter-spring charter holiday programs in Bulgaria's history to an exotic destination.
Promised lands are few and far between during a pandemic and Zanzibar is now the most famous. Tons of happy posts on Instagram. No coronavirus prevention measures, no masks and no social distancing - because of Tanzania's state policy of denying COVID-19.
Doubtless, many tourism operators in Bulgaria would also welcome an outright government denial of the pandemic. Because, short of this, Bulgaria cannot conjure up a message to attract tourists amid such uncertainty.
On one hand, it invested millions in advertising. Bulgaria has a summer and winter season. Its ski slopes are amongst the few open in Europe and PCR tests are relatively cheap. On the other hand, the realities of living with a pandemic have hit the sector hard: since the beginning of February, entry into the country has been possible only with a negative PCR and the requirement is currently valid at least until the end of April.
The ski season here started in December and the country is a green zone for skiing. This is a winter season like no other - some of the major ski resorts in Europe are closed. The French government has said that ski lifts will not open in February, as was hoped. "According to government ministers, the public health situation remains too precarious. The assumption is now that it's unlikely lifts will open at all this winter," wrote snowmagazine.com.
Days ago the Italian government abruptly delayed opening the ski season because a coronavirus variant had been detected in certain parts of the country.
The two other big Alpine players, Switzerland and Austria, resisted closing their slopes, remaining open but with restrictions in place to ensure safety. Austria's lifts started running on December 24th, just before the beginning of a new national lockdown.
At the same time there was new hope from abroad - Romania's decision to lift the quarantine requirement after returning from a trip to Bulgaria. It came into force on January 4. In the last year, Romanian tourists have increased their share to 12% of the total number of foreigners spending the winter in the country, making this market number one among all that the tourism business relies on here.
At the same time Bulgaria is one of the countries with the lowest prices of PCR tests in Europe, along with the other Balkan countries, which makes returning much cheaper.
In the United Kingdom, for example, the test cost is around £150. In Poland, the price is about 120 euros. Bulgaria's price is between 40 and 60 euro.
"The Balkans have some advantages: PCR tests cost between 40 euro and 120 euro across Balkan countries, with the cheapest - on average - being in North Macedonia and the most expensive in Slovenia," wrote Euractiv.
In Croatia, the average price of PCR testing on personal request is around 93 euro in hospitals and health-care centers, compared to about 113 euro in private facilities. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the price is 57.3. euro and in Montenegro - 80 euro.
But closed borders
But all the tourist sector's hopes for this winter and for the spring season evaporated on 28th of January. The Minister of Health Kostadin Angelov issued an order that all entries into the country, except for transit, require a negative PCR test or mandatory 10-day quarantine.
This was felt immediately. Even before the order was issued, but after the news spread through the media, the National Board of Tourism and the Bulgarian Tourist Chamber announced that cancellations had started and predicted that this rule "will inevitably lead to the collapse of winter tourism."
Hotels currently rely mainly on tourists from neighboring countries and the internal market for primarily weekend vacations. The two organizations are sure that winter-2021 will be - historically - the worst season.
At the same time, the country has not yet stated clearly what is going to happen in the future with the tourists who have been vaccinated - whether it would lift the quarantine and the PCR test requirement. Greece and a few other countries have already provided this guarantee, so giving some kind of certainty, at least for those with documented proof of vaccinations.
The position of the Ministry of Health at the moment is that the certificates for vaccination against COVID-19 do not serve as proof of entry into the country and respectively for cancellation of quarantine or replacement of the requirement for PCR test.
The fierce battle for tourists
After 2020 saw over 1 trillion dollars of losses in the global tourism industry, this year the global market is a ruthless battlefield for shrinking profits against a background of an advertising boom.
Bulgaria is in this battle, as the state will spend almost 20 million leva in the familiar way - from basic image-making in different countries, to participation in exhibitions, and Internet ads on the national tourist portal bulgariatravel.org, which hardly anyone abroad or in the country uses.
On the other hand, the Bulgarian Hotel and Restaurant Association has launched the "We are waiting for you at home" campaign in recent days, targeting Bulgarians living abroad and members of historical Bulgarian minorities abroad on a holiday in the country.
For this purpose, special cards will be issued. They provide 10-50% discounts in hotels, restaurants, shops, gas stations and for various services. So far, the network covers about 350 sites and other businesses, including 81 hotels, 113 restaurants, services such as horse riding, water parks, spas, extreme sports, and event halls.
The "We are waiting for you at home" campaign is very similar to the loyalty programs developed by various companies. Potential clients are about 2 million Bulgarians living in other countries, "regardless of whether they have a national passport or only Bulgarian identity."
Carriers getting readyWhile the winter season will almost certainly prove dismal, there are still fragile hopes emerging for the summer. Wizz Air is opening up 7 new destinations from the port city of Burgas. The low-cost carrier that dominates Eastern European markets will add Dortmund, Liverpool, Tel Aviv, Poznan, Eindhoven, Kyiv and Turku on its schedule from 10 June until 12 September.
Burgas will also see a direct flight to Romanian city of Kluj, courtesy of Blue Air.
Bulgaria air in the meantime, is opening up 10 new destinations from Sof