Maxim Behar for NOVA TV: Bulgaria Does Not Need Visas for Tourists, but a Minister of Branding
In the show "Social Network" hosted by Milena Yaninska on the Bulgarian news channel NOVA NEWS Maxim Behar commented on a number of issues that need to be urgently resolved in order for Bulgaria to recover after the pandemic and maintain a successful summer season. According to Behar, Bulgaria should not have visas for tourists, but rather advertise its tourism more and appoint a minister of branding, who is more than needed now than ever.
Host: "Social Network" continues. We started the broadcast with the news about visa fees for visitors to Bulgaria from countries outside the European Union. The industry is concerned, but there are also several other issues on the agenda that can and must be urgently addressed so as not to declare the tourism this summer season as failure. My guests are Siika Katsarova, President of the Bulgarian Union of Balneology and Spa Tourism (BSBSPA) and Vice President of the European Spa Association, Maxim Behar - diplomat and global PR expert and Miroslav Mihailov, Chairman of the Board of the Institute for Development and Sustainability of tourism. Welcome!
From 60 to 80 euros for a visa. Mr. Behar, what are your thoughts on that? Can that be considered as a global trend - an attempt to drive away tourists, or we should not attach so much importance to 20 euros more?
Maxim Behar: What do I think about the fee increase or how do I feel about having visas for foreign tourists?
Host: That is another question.
Maxim Behar: I think this is absurd. I can compare it with my favorite Seychelles, of course, who have a visa-free regime for everyone, for the whole world, up to 90 days. In this way, they develop their tourism and support themselves. Bulgaria should not have visas for tourists. They can set some further conditions, for example, to present their plane tickets, but the visas are an absurd suggestion, especially when you’re trying to save the tourism, to want majorly overbuilt seaside cities to survive and at the same time to stop tourists visiting the country freely. I believe that the Government or governments in general depend on the current situation and should have a very flexible and open policy regarding that issue.
Host: Let's take into account the strong competition from the two neighboring countries - Greece and Turkey. Are there visas for tourists in these countries?
Maxim Behar: I have no idea, but there will always be competition. And even if there are visas there, we still don't need such restrictions. We should open our borders and let tourists spend their holiday in Bulgaria - not only to bring money in Bulgaria’s economy, not only to develop the country’s business, but to bring diverse culture and build a significant cross-cultural network. They get to know Bulgaria better and everything we do, such as spa treatment and many other good services tourists are looking for. No one knows about them because there are visas. There are probably another million other barriers that keep tourists from choosing Bulgaria. At the same time, there is no advertising - we'll talk about that later.
Host: As you mentioned spa tourism, especially now after several COVID waves and a global pandemic that humanity has been through, this can be a very strong asset for Bulgaria. But how are things in the industry, Ms. Katsarova?
Siika Katsarova: Hello to you and the viewers of NOVA News. You have caught a good trend - the future of health tourism. And health tourism is part of healthcare. The sooner politicians at both Bulgarian and European levels realize that health tourism should be seen as part of the prevention, promotion, and prophylaxis of Europe's population, the better, as serious high budgets could be saved from healthcare. We are adamant. I have estimated at the level of the European SPA Association / ESPA / and I hope in this line of thought in the plan for sustainable recovery from COVID for Bulgaria to be found a serious place, for example in the National Plan for Reconstruction and Sustainability of the Republic of Bulgaria "Fair Bulgaria", which is under the management of our Minister of Health. We are looking forward to meeting him soon. Of course, together with the Minister of Tourism. So, in fact, in this national plan we need to find a place for health tourism, prevention, and prophylaxis, as post-COVID programs for rehabilitation or prevention. And although I am not a doctor, I communicate with doctors and I know that prevention should start from the earliest childhood. There must be an opportunity for families to enjoy the goods of Bulgaria because our gold is our mineral waters.
Host: The goods of Bulgaria are not so widespread, not so common. Some countries do not have such resources. Have we relied so far on foreign tourists, in your sector particularly?
Siika Katsarova: Of course. First, I want to finish my thought on the topic with the national plan. Romania has accepted 400 million and we can compare with them on many indicators, be it only for balneology. Croatia - 2.2 billion. We hope to include tourism in the plan and our current topic - health tourism. Back to your question, he Israeli market, before COVID was the main market for many Bulgarian destinations, such as Kyustendil, Devin, Hissarya, Velingrad. The hotels there literally depended on this market. Also - the German market, thanks to the support by the German-Bulgarian Chamber of Industry and Commerce (GBITC) and of course the Ministry of Tourism and the Ministry of Health to add Bulgaria in the list of the German National Association of Health Insurance Funds (GKV-Spitzenverband) in 2019. This is a huge opportunity; this is a recognition of quality. But we should not think that people themselves will teach us that. I will agree with Mr. Behar, although I am not a PR specialist, without properly communicating this information, people will not understand that here in Bulgaria we have certified by the Ministry of Tourism and the Ministry of Health medical and spa centers, where they can use their health insurance for medical prevention programs.
Host: We talk emotionally, maybe because we are afraid to fail. If there is a weak season for a second year in a row, do we risk a wave of bankruptcies, Mr. Mihailov? What is the situation in your industry?
Miroslav Mihailov: Hello to you and your viewers. We risk the season to be quite difficult. It is already difficult because, unlike neighboring destinations, such as Greece or Spain, we were not ready to show a health protocol at the beginning of the year. Most of the contractual relations were terminated. We do not have an official position on our relations with Russia and the Russian markets, as well as on visits, and you know that flights are still very difficult to manage. Still, I think that some colleagues realized that the demand is changing in 2020 - people are looking for an alternative to all-inclusive tourism and want more extra services, more trips, healthier food and lifestyle, want to visit spas and have contact with the locals, buy healthy, local goods - this worked pretty well actually. As the manager of the Emerald Hotel in the Bulgarian seaside Ravda, I can say that we managed to pass our target in 2020. There is a boom in demand for alternative destinations, such as Irakli and Kraimorie, where there are actually more boutique hotels. Sinemorets is also another such example. The reason for that is that such hotels provide a sustainable product constantly and consumers return for it. In the domestic market, as you may know that Bulgarians travel more often and for a shorter time in recent years.
Host: In fact, some of the Greek destinations are even closer than the Bulgarian Black Sea coast - this is one of the other topics that we will comment on a little later. Now the tourism industry relies on the two official ministries – Ministry of Health and Ministry of Tourism, to come up with a decision to remove the requirements for PCR tests of some Eastern European countries. Despite the announcement of flights from Russia to Bulgaria on June 28, there are still no reservations from there, and according to the latest data, the country registers more than 18,000 infected.
Host: Why, in the context of everything we are talking about, is advertising abandoned? Mr. Behar, some logic could be found in this if we consider that there are many, many more other important issues that need to be addressed first before dedicating time and money to a good advertising campaign.
Maxim Behar: The main important thing now is to remove the PCR tests requirements. You know, Bulgaria is a wonderful place - we have everything that a man can dream of, and not only the 4 seasons, and the mountains and the sea. Most of all - the people. Because the people in Bulgaria are great - European and cool attitude, intelligent, educated, ambitious. But no one knows about it. That is why I was a little surprised that no one mentioned that Bulgaria does not have a tourist logo. There is a terrible one. We have no slogan and no advertising strategy. A campaign is not only important for foreigners, a well-made advertising campaign that will go on Western television will raise our and the Bulgarian tourists’ self-esteem. These days everyone watches CNN, BBC, Euronews or any other big TV channel. And when a Bulgarian happens to see it, he will be proud to say he is Bulgarian and to spend his summer holidays there. Not only foreigners but also people in Bulgaria. There is no strategy and this is a very painful topic for discussion. About 2 or 3 weeks ago, the Bulgarian national newspaper 24 Hours proposed Bulgaria to have a Minister of Branding. Of course, this is a reference to the famous Minister of Happiness in Bhutan. However, I don't think this idea is at all extravagant. There should be a Minister of Branding, who has only 5-people team in this Ministry and drives his official car by himself. However, there should be only one person responsible to meet the Bulgarian Prime Minister once a month to report his monthly activities aimed at boosting the country’s good reputation abroad. The Minister of Branding, in addition, could make us very popular just by sharing the existence of such an official position on the news. The person in that position should have lived abroad and watched Bulgaria from the sidelines. Extravagant, exotic measures are needed to attract the tourists’ attention.
Host: This must come from the Ministry of Tourism before there is a Ministry of Branding.
Maxim Behar: Nothing has been done in the last few years. The initiative may come from the Bulgarian Minister of Foreign Affairs, who should be equally concerned about the country's reputation. The message can come from the Prime Minister or any tourism organizations, which can unite under the same mission and turn to the Prime minister. If I was involved in such an organization, I would do just that and put a proposal on the table. I would call for a good logo, a good slogan, a good advertising campaign. Tourist organizations must participate in the entire selection of instruments with which Bulgaria will be represented.
Host: What is the effect of the individual paid advertisements? Each hotel for itself - through tour operators or social networks? Ms. Katsarova, do you have any observations?
Siika Katsarova: Hotels have started to unite more and more and advertise specific destinations. Hoteliers don't just look for today or tomorrow, they look to the future. I also think that we do not know how to present ourselves well. But this also requires funds and external experts to invite. Prof. Baltova, Minister of Tourism, did a great job last month because she caught the wave of recovery measures from COVID, but we cannot expect the people in the Ministry to do everything, as they are in the same side and need to have a different perspective from an outsider. We need to ask ourselves whether tourism is a priority for other ministries as well or is it just on paper. Regarding health tourism - this is the future and I hope the Ministry of Health will have real audibility, because money is constantly being poured into health care, and we have a methodology on how to reduce it if we invest in the medical prevention of Bulgarians.
Host: What is being done at the moment to attract tourists, Mr. Mihailov, and what does it emphase on - Bulgarian or foreign market?
Miroslav Mihailov: The emphasis is on the Bulgarian market and the solvent Bulgarians - they are targeted and at the same time the neighboring countries. Most of my colleagues have experience in certain markets - Poland, Ukraine, Central and Western Europe, but in Western Europe there are still restrictions and not as much demand as before. The good thing is that the situation is changing day by day and demand is rising.
Host: What are we doing to attract our tourists?
Miroslav Mihailov: The most important thing, in my opinion, is the quality of the services we offer, because, unfortunately, we have the image of a low-cost destination. A destination that is associated with alcohol tourism and a lot of complaints from our foreign customers has been registered. Advertising is very important. I am very glad that you have invited Mr. Behar and you are paying attention to this, but if we want to work in tourism in the distant future, we must have standards, we need the right staff retention policy and we need to work with local products. You know, we have a unique natural heritage - rose, lavender, yogurt, which should be more involved in our menus. We should also not be afraid to work in September and October, because there is a tendency for the summer to stay longer until the middle of September.
Siika Katsarova: I do not agree that Bulgaria is a cheap destination. Maybe, if you're talking about sea tourism, yes. During the pandemic, Bulgaria was the only destination open to tourists and our spas offered a very good service at a very good price.
Host: Mr. Behar, what do you think about an advertising strategy, a national menu with nine selected dishes to promote culinary tourism and traditional Bulgarian dishes to the world?
Maxim Behar: If I make a TV show in the kitchen at home and ask you what you think about it, your answer will be the same. Absolutely amateurish outing and most likely someone took money from European projects. I saw it on the internet and it costs nothing. I will go back in the conversation to add that I do not think we should divide tourists into foreign and Bulgarian. This is a bias in the tourism industry - the idea that foreign tourists will leave more money.
Host: Yes, but last year there were preferential prices for Bulgarian tourists.
Maxim Behar: This is great because there were a lot of people affected by the pandemic. In my work, however, I do not divide clients into Bulgarian and foreign. Our service is the same for everyone. Therefore, I would suggest to the tourism industry or the Tourism Board, which is a very important player, to unite in several tourism organizations and adapt a consulting board, working along with the Prime Minister. Because I have not seen a spark in the eyes of any of the tourism ministers. That is why there should be such a board that would take care of the presentation of tourism in Bulgaria not only abroad, but also here. It seems to me that once a month the Prime Minister can find an hour or two to review the work done by the Board. The presentation of Bulgaria is very important not only as tourism but also as an investment destination, as an industrial country, as a country that can export a product, as a brand. Because we promote many brands, but the brand Bulgaria is the most important. And a brand is what people say about you when you're not in the room.
Host: Let’s go back to the previous topic that Bulgaria has the image of a low-cost destination.
Maxim Behar: I have no problem that Bulgaria has such an image, as long as the hotels are full, tourists keep visiting, pay well, because hoteliers have to earn well to pay salaries and re-invest in better hotels. Therefore, the wages will raise and the employments will be motivated to work better and harder. What hurts me most is that Bulgaria does not have a brand. When you say Bulgaria, I want to feel excitement, not neglect, and this can be achieved in one, two, or three years. There must be a clear vision that a good image will help tourism, the country, and the people who live in it. Especially now, when the Western media are full of things about Bulgaria, including the ongoing changes of the MPs, who are in power. That is why we now need a very clear strategy.
Host: If our strength is spa tourism and the services we offer, how could we control the proper utilization of natural resources?
Siika Katsarova: Resources must come to the municipalities so that the fountains, baths, pipes can be rehabilitated so that we can show a complete full of services destination. The future is in the health tourism.
Host: Is there an outflow of staff?
Miroslav Mikhailov: No. The crisis in 2019 was much more serious. Then there was no one willing to work in Bulgaria, because a good receptionist, valet, or cook could find a job all over Europe on much better terms. People who worked seasonally last season preferred cruise ships, Scandinavian countries, or established hotels in the Middle East. They returned in 2020 and started looking for work in our country. There is also a migration of people from big cities who want to do something for a cause, and there is tourism.
Maxim Behar: It is not a bad idea for NOVA TV to initiate a discussion on the topic "The Brand Bulgaria". There will certainly be many quality participants in it.
Watch the whole interview here.