Vitan Ivanov, Chairperson of the Sofia Tourist Council and Chairperson of the Sofia Tourist Cluster, in an interview for Focus News Agency.
Focus: Sofia was placed ninth in the latest chart of cheapest tourist destinations. Is this insulting, in any way, for the capital?
Vitan Ivanov: I would not say that this ninth place is insulting. There is nothing insulting in this. This chart shows that there are European capitals with more developed tourism.
Focus: Why is Sofia a cheap tourist destination?
Vitan Ivanov: The prices in the hotels are good enough, as are the hotels. The food in Sofia is cheaper than in the other European capitals.
Focus: Does this attract or repel tourists?
Vitan Ivanov: It does not repel them. The tourism advertising in Bulgaria is very insufficient. The initiatives for making advertising materials started over the last couple of years, and Ministry of Economy, Energy and Tourism opened a designated tourism website. Such advertising campaigns were lacking for many years. Advertising materials, websites, TV spots, and many other things are being made thanks to the projects initiated by the ministry. There is a 10% growth of tourism in Sofia, as people mainly come to the Bulgarian capital for cultural or specialised tourism.
Focus: This means that foreigners do not come to Sofia only because it is cheap, but because they want to see something specific, right?
Vitan Ivanov: Of course, they want to see many things. Sofia will become an even more attractive tourism destination this autumn, when the Sofia Largo, which will include the crypt of the St Sophia church, is opened. Sofia will become a lot more interesting destination then.
Focus: How will the amendments to the Forestry Act reflect the tourism in Vitosha Mountain?
Vitan Ivanov: They should have a positive effect. If the ski lifts and installations are improved, this would also open the door for the development of the mineral springs, which is a very difficult process. There is not a single hotel in Sofia, which has mineral springs. There are Spa centres, but without mineral water. Budapest, for example, generates income of nearly EUR 2.5 billion per year from only two mineral springs. For comparison, the entire income from the tourism sector for this year is expected to be around EUR 3 billion.
Focus: How does the smoking ban, introduced on June 1 2012, affect the tourism in Sofia?
Vitan Ivanov: There is a definite downturn of income, especially in establishments, which do not have outdoor seats. The income of the establishments, which have outdoor seats, has gone down by around 10-20%.
Focus: What do you think will happen in the winter, when there are no outdoor seats?
Vitan Ivanov: Let us hope that the people will get used to the smoking ban, as is the case everywhere in Europe, where smoking bans have been introduced. The bad thing is that the European directive was for introduction of a full smoking ban by 2015, while the agreement between Brussels and Bulgaria was for this to happen in 2013, in order to be able to pay off their investments for designated smoking rooms, but someone misled our Prime Minister, and the ban was introduced earlier.
Focus: Which is the most preferred destination in Bulgaria by foreign tourists?
Vitan Ivanov: With regards to resort tourism there are two types of tourists – the more settled and calm tourists prefer Golden Sands and Saints Constantine and Helena resorts, while younger and wilder people prefer Sunny Beach. The situation in night clubs and discos around the country is a bit complicated now, after the introduction of the smoking ban. There are no outdoor seats in such establishments. They will suffer the most from the smoking ban.
When we talk about preferred destinations in Bulgaria for specialised tourism – these are mainly the monasteries - Bachkovo Monastery, Rila Monastery, Troyan Monastery, as well as the city of Plovdiv, the town of Kazanlak, and the nearby Valley of Thracian Kings, and Perperikon are the most popular destinations.
Focus: Where does Sofia rank among such destinations? Is it among the preferred ones?
Vitan Ivanov: I would say that it is among the preferred destinations, at the very least it is the capital of Bulgaria and the main airport is here. Most of the tourists land in Sofia and then go to the abovementioned places. They stay for a night or two in Sofia and have the time to do some sightseeing in Sofia. The imperatives, with regards to tourism destinations, in Sofia are – the Museum of Archaeology, National Museum of History, St Sophia church, and the Church of St Petka of the Saddlers. When the Largo opens this autumn things will become very, very interesting.
Focus: What is the thing in Sofia that is most attractive to foreigners?
Vitan Ivanov: Many foreigners show interests in the treasures. I have already spoken with Minister of Economy, Energy and Tourism Delian Dobrev, and I will send an official letter to him and to Minister of Culture Vezhdi Rashidov, this week, and ask them to make inquiries and come up with detailed lists of the exact locations of all treasures in Bulgaria, which should be ready by September 15 2012. This will make the tourism advertising programme of the ministry more complete, as tourists cannot currently see some of the things that are being advertised. Minister Dobrev promised to cooperate in this regard.
Focus: Tourists from which countries visit Bulgaria most regularly?
Vitan Ivanov: From France, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, and Austria.
Focus: Can the fact that Sofia is famous as one of the cheaper tourism destinations alter the image of the capital in any way?
Vitan Ivanov: The problem with tourism in Sofia is also in the sphere of advertising. We are working very actively towards producing very interesting advertising materials. We opened a tourism centre on Terminal 1 of the Sofia Airport, as well as a joint information and tourism centre on Terminal 2 of the Sofia Airport, which is yet to be finalised.