At a time when many people are afraid to travel due to terrorist threats, there is at least one tourist destination thriving — the former communist state of Bulgaria.
One of Europe's poorest countries, Bulgaria is enjoying a boom in tourism. And the reason may be quite simple: it's cheap.
"Against the background of a difficult recovery in tourism worldwide [up 3.1 percent] and in Europe [up 2.8 percent] in 2002, the increase of 8.6 percent of tourism in Bulgaria and of 11 percent in tourist revenue is remarkable," a spokesman at the Economy Ministry said last week.
While people have worries about traveling, especially by air, after the terrorist attacks in the United States in September 2001, they also are weighed down by higher prices in Europe that have accompanied new highs for the euro against other currencies, particularly the U.S. dollar.
"The interest in inexpensive vacations has increased since price rises linked to the euro," said Kalin Sutev of the ITS German travel company.
Sutev said that ITS and two other major German travel firms, Neckerman and TUI, were investing in renovating hotels in Bulgaria, which has spectacular beaches along the Black Sea.
They also bring half a million tourists a year to Bulgaria.
"The reason for this is the quality/price ratio," said Ludmila Nenkova, director of the Riviera beach resort.
But she said quality of services would have to increase since there would be pressure on prices when EU expansion into Eastern Europe begins in 2004.
Bulgaria, which has embraced privatization and the market economy, is hoping to be in the second wave of expansion in 2007.
Even tourist guides warn of crime and occasional poor service in Bulgaria. But Marianne and Gys van Leyenharst, a Dutch couple, said at the Riviera resort, a former government residence during the communist era, they were happy with "the calm atmosphere, the friendly people, the inexpensive shopping."
Marianne, who works in a hotel near Utrecht in central Netherlands, said she also liked the package price they had — 640 euros per person for transportation, hotel and meals for two weeks.
She said they sometimes left the resort to see the surrounding countryside but were shocked by the poverty there.
"We've got to keep the tourists in the beach resorts. Otherwise they are disappointed," Plamen Ralovski, who represents the travel company Balkan Holidays, said.
His company is expecting a flood of British tourists this year, most of modest means.
"Richer people don't come here because Bulgaria is not a known tourist destination," Ralovski said.
Construction is booming along Bulgaria's Black Sea coast. The town of Slantchev Briag has a hundred hotels and as many owners. Green areas have yielded to socialist-style concrete, cube-shaped buildings and more creative structures with domes and arches.
"Slantchev Briag reflects the political reality in Bulgaria, where people do their own thing. We lack an overall strategy for tourism," Stoyan Lazarov, vice president of a landlords' association, said.
"Hotels have been sold under the table to mafia interests," he said.
But Erika, a German housemaid from Koblenz, said she was on her eighth vacation trip to Slantchev Briag and had seen "a calm and pretty place," rather than corruption. "I'll be back," she said.
Bulgaria also gets tourists from the east — Russians, Czechs and Poles who were already coming before the Berlin Wall fell and communism ended.
But Russian Assia Dagdaverian said she was in Bulgaria for the first and last time.
"Who do they think they are? In Russia, in Sochi on the Black Sea, we've torn down these hotels in the old communist style and prices are a third the price of here. And the service is better!"