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The suicide bombing is a shock to a country where such attacks are unknown – but the past experience of countries targeted by bombers is that the tourist industry usually bounces back in the long term.
Bulgaria’s reputation as a safe and easy-going tourist destination is well deserved, so this week’s deadly bomb attack on Israeli visitors is a terrible shock to the system. Bulgaria has extremely limited experience in dealing with such acts for the simple reason that terrorism is almost unknown.
Bulgaria’s tourism sector is something of a success. Directly and indirectly, it contributes upwards of 10 per cent of GDP, making it one of the biggest economic sectors.
Last year, the country attracted 8.71 million foreign visitors, more than the population of around 7 million. While this figure may be inflated by shuttle traders and by other visitors who may not strictly speaking be tourists, it is still fairly impressive.
Bulgaria has built its reputation as a budget holiday destination, particularly for sun, sea and sand on the Black Sea coast. For decades in the Communist era, the country attracted tourists from other Warsaw Pact countries. Eastern European visitors, including Russians and nationals of the Baltic states, still come in their hundreds of thousands.
Macedonians, who have no seaside of their own, and Romanians, disillusioned by overdevelopment and the high prices on their own Black Sea coastline, add to the numbers. Tourists from Western Europe, particularly the UK, Germany and Scandinavia, are another key market, and often come on cheap package deals to resorts like Sunny Beach (Slanchev Bryag) and Golden Sands (Zlatni Pyasatsi).
Recently, Bulgaria has quietly become a popular destination for Israelis, too.
Some 138,613 came in 2011, a rise of 6 per cent on 2010, according to official figures.
Israeli tourists are attracted to Bulgaria for many of the same reasons that the others are: low costs and large sandy beaches. Some also apparently enjoy the low-cost gambling.
But there are more specific links as well. Many Israelis born in Eastern Europe are familiar with Bulgaria from their visits in the Communist era. There are also Israelis of Bulgarian origin. The country has apparently secured something of a niche market as an affordable place to hold a Jewish wedding.
The tragedy on Wednesday was not about Bulgaria, it was about politics in the Middle East. It seems almost certain that Bulgaria was targeted as the “soft underbelly” of Europe, a place where the authorities have limited experience in tackling terrorism.
Bulgaria is understood to have increased security for Israeli tourists in recent months after reports of a suspicious package on a bus carrying Israelis in January.
But Wednesday’s attack was not prevented, and now Bulgaria is facing the consequences.
Cancellations are likely, and not just from Israel. One of the challenges that the tourism sector faces is that it competes largely on price: tourists can go to any number of other destinations for beaches and sun, and they may do so, if Bulgaria is perceived as being insecure.
Bulgarian tourist companies are understood to have received immediate reassurances from their Israeli partners that they still see Bulgaria as a safe destination.
One email read: “We face terror year round [in Israel]. Your Bulgaria is a beautiful place, the people are fantastic and it’s not your fault that a terrorist group did what it did...We will keep working with you because we love your country and your people.”
Much of the security clear-up is being handled by Israel and other international participants, given the importance of the situation and Bulgaria’s relative inexperience in this field.
The government and the private sector are meanwhile fighting back, reiterating the assertion that Bulgaria is a safe and peaceful country.
“We would like to use this opportunity to assure the international community that this isolated, yet violent and horrific incident will not impede our visitors from enjoying their holidays in complete safety and tranquillity,” Evgueni Spassov, a senior expert in the Ministry of Economy, Energy and Tourism, told Balkan Insight.
The experience of other countries that have been struck by terrorism is that, within a few years, visitor numbers recover. This has been the case in Egypt, Turkey and Indonesia, all of which face a considerably greater long-term terrorist threat than Bulgaria, where political terrorism has been non-existent for a quarter century and attacks on tourists unknown.
These are still early days, and the government has rightly been concentrating on dealing with the immediate aftermath of the blast. A strategy for recovery should emerge – though the current disorganised state of the Bulgarian tourism sector may make this harder to draw up and implement than should be the case. But Bulgaria should recover from the attack, in time.
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