Bulgarian Resorts Aim to Profit From Israel-Turkey Row


As the diplomatic chill deepens between the two former allies, where will the 400,000 Israelis who normally holiday in Turkey go on vacation now? Bulgaria hopes it has the answer.Bulgaria’s tourism industry may be one of the beneficiaries of Israel’s increasingly strained relations with Turkey following the Israeli raid on an aid ship bound for Gaza in which nine Turks were killed. Isaac Herzog, Israel’s Minister of Welfare and Social Services, said in Sofia that his country was ready to encourage the 400,000 Israelis who normally holiday in Turkey to switch to Bulgaria.“After our deteriorating relations with Turkey, which around 400,000 Israeli tourists visit every year, it’s only natural that Bulgaria would be the preferred alternative,” he told journalists during his visit to Bulgaria two weeks ago. Herzog, who was a former tourism minister, urged Bulgarian authorities to launch a marketing campaign to attract more Israeli tourists.Jerusalem-Ankara ties plunged dramatically at the end of May after an Israeli attack on a flotilla carrying aid to Gaza ended in carnage. Israel said it needed to maintain a land and sea blockade on Gaza to put pressure on the local Hamas authorities, whom they view as terrorists. But the activists’ deaths outraged public opinion in Turkey, where the government has become ever more vocal in its disapproval of Israel’s continued occupation of Palestinian territory.Earlier this month, amid growing tension between the two countries, Israel’s National Security Council issued a travel warning for Turkey, advising Israelis to stay away. Direct flights to Turkish resorts have already been canceled and thousands of Israelis have tried to cancel planned vacations there, the daily Jerusalem Post reported. While some Bulgarian tourism experts doubt all the 400,000 Israelis who normally go to Turkey will come to Bulgaria, travel agents want the country to make the most of this unexpected opportunity. It is not the first time that the Jerusalem-Ankara tourist flow has suffered from political tensions between the two countries. Last year, thousands of Israeli boycotted Turkey after another diplomatic row. As a result, the number of Israelis vacationing in Turkey plummeted by a hefty 60 per cent in the first five months of 2009. Earlier, Turkey was a favourite holiday destination for Israelis, with numbers peaking in 2008, when 558,000 Israelis travelled there. By contrast, Bulgaria’s position in the Israeli holiday market, though sizeable, is far smaller. Around 100,000 Israeli’s holiday in Bulgaria annually.Bulgarian tour operators and tourist agencies hailed the Israeli minister’s remarks, as they had been expecting another slow season. After years in which construction boomed on Black Sea resorts, many hotels and vacation complexes stand half-empty. In all, foreign tourist numbers dropped by almost 8 per cent last year while many Bulgarians were forced to scale down their own vacation plans because of the economic crisis. “In my estimation and that of other tourist agencies working in the Israeli market, Israeli tourists are much more interested in Bulgaria this year,” said Gesho Lyubenov, director of Tural travel agency, which has been hosting Israeli holidaymakers for six years. Last winter his tourist agency welcomed around 2,000 Israelis. This year he expects this number to double.Ulyana Isakova, director of Ola Tours, another local tourist agency, working mostly with Israelis, agreed. “We’ve been busy in May and June, which are usually slow months for us, and now we’re having many more requests for autumn holidays,” she said.Statistical data matches their observations. In the first quarter of this year, nearly 9,000 Israelis vacationed in Bulgaria, 13.5 per cent up on the same period in 2009. Lyubomir Pankovski, of Alma Tours, one of the biggest tourist operators in the country, is also confident that the Israel-Turkey row will bring more tourists to the Black Sea resort, though he is reluctant to make exact predictions. “It’s a question of how good relations between Bulgaria and Israel become, so that organized groups of tourists can be redirected here,” he said.Tsvetan Tonchev, chairman of the Bulgarian Tourism Chamber, is also cautious about the number of Israelis that Bulgaria will attract. Referring to the figure of 400,000, he said that would take “a big advertising campaign and a lot of money”.Tonchev’s own expectations are much humbler. He thinks the country will see an extra 20,000 Israeli holidaymakers this year at most. But at a time of economic crisis, when there is fierce competition for visitors with Greece, Montenegro, Romania and Cyprus, every additional tourist counts.Lyubenov believes Bulgaria can easily beat off competition in the region for Israeli tourists, who traditionally go for big luxury hotels with lots of options for entertainment and shopping. “We’re the only country that has relatively modern big hotels at such low prices,” he said. “Greece is much more expensive and so is Cyprus, while Romania can’t compete with us because it’s years behind.”Since the Bulgarian authorities haven’t done much to promote the country as an alternative tourist destination on the Israeli market, local tourist professionals are taking matters into their own hands. Ola Tours is offering a greater variety of tourist packages, including cycling, jeep and hiking tours and spa vacations. Lyubenov, who is also director of Emerald Hospitality, a company that manages a five-star hotel complex on the seaside, has already issued special offers targeting Israeli tourists.He says Israeli tourists could do a good deal to revive Bulgaria’s seaside resorts as they apparently don’t keep their wallets shut when on holiday. “Israeli tourists often have special requirements… but they don’t mind splurging when paying for their vacations,” Lyubenov said.