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February 2017 Newsletter


The short ski

How fast do we now see time honoured assumptions changing almost before our very eyes? The rate of change is gathering momentum at a breakneck pace and this not only applies to technology which seems to find some way to permeate into our everyday life, but also in the way we, as people, are changing our work and leisure behaviour.

Take the way we spend our leisure time: there are now more things available to us and this is no derived from simply new sources of leisure activities, but more about how we can all more easily access those leisure products that have always been out there. Think skiing; hardly a new sport or activity by any stretch of the imagination but think back just a few years ago and for the vast majority of people taking a ski break this meant a 7 day Saturday to Saturday or Sunday to Sunday package and indeed, even the ski resort hotels were (and sometimes still are) geared up only for 7 night duration visitors. If we look at the by gone era of Ski tourism in Bulgaria, Saturday was the main changeover day for the then big ski resorts of Borovets and Pamporovo. This was of course “”pre Bansko’” which came into the equation around 2007/8 but which initially was also a 7 day focused ski destination, locals excepted.

This was however the time that Bulgaria joined the European Union and directly or indirectly, it was also the time when the Low Cost Airlines across Europe started to gather traction in the public domain across Europe. I recall writing in the UK Financial Times in January 2007 about the longer term possibilities of Low Cost Airlines arriving on the local scene and the impact this would have. Fast forward a mere seven years and the impact Low Cost Airlines are now having on Bulgaria is nothing short of incredible.

So called Low Cost Airlines now transport around 50% of all passengers leaving/arriving at Sofia Airport but not only is this figure impressive, as is the growth of passenger traffic generally, it is the allied impact they have had on the country’s vital GDP source of Tourism revenue that is the more interesting.

The ski holiday was, as we have described, a generic 7 day stay; this was the same in Bulgaria as it was across other European resorts. The ski holiday was also a huge time commitment for people regardless of the costs involved, bearing in mind that for most people, the ski holiday was the only the second most important annual holiday after the family summer one. As peoples lives became more hectic, more people became cash rich and time poor and the ability to squeeze in 7 days for a winter break became harder and harder. This is where the Low Cost Airlines enter the equation.

If we use our home market of Bulgaria as the sample model, Low Cost Airlines are now flying to Sofia – which is still the main gateway airport to all three of Bulgaria’s main ski resorts – from a myriad of airports across much of Western Europe and indeed beyond, but not only do they fly from for example Bristol, Doncaster, Eindhoven and Nuremburg as opposed to flying solely from main capitals or cities like London, Amsterdam and Frankfurt, they are flying at regular intervals which in turn facilitates a whole new ski product: the short duration ski holiday, itself not dis-similar to the short weekend city break that people across Europe now see as a staple part of the leisure options.

Skiing has never been a poor mans sport and whilst you nowadays do not have to be rich to enjoy the sport, even a short ski trip can be as costly as a summer beach holiday, but for those without the ability to skive away from the responsibilities of work or home duties for a whole week, the chance to come to Bansko, Borovets or Pamporovo for two or three days skiing is now well and truly on the table. Jump on the Ryanair flight from Liverpool on a Friday and ski in Bansko or Borovets on Saturday and Sunday before flying home on the Monday; get a cheap flight from Manchester with Easyjet from Manchester on a Thursday and head back on a Sunday. If you live where Germany, France and Switzerland merge but find local skiing expensive; then fly from Basle with Wizz Air on a Friday and back on a Monday. If you are from Holland or Northern Germany and you like skiing then you will be more than familiar with the brutality of the weekends on the A5 and A8 German autobahns that transport skiers to the Austrian Alps! Jump on the five times weekly Wizz Air flights from Eindhoven or one of the daily flights from Dortmund and arrive in Sofia a couple of hours later and a couple of hours later more you are in your inexpensive Bulgarian ski resort; an altogether faster and safer journey and even cheaper option than a drive down the A5 and A8!

Of course, all this wouldn’t work if the aforementioned flights weren’t affordable, something that they most certainly are. The intervention of the likes of Ryanair, Wizz and Easyjet into the local equation has seen air fares plummet: people in this part of the world used to look on with skepticism at the ”10 Euro” air fares in Western Europe as they looked at the (high) fares being charged in this part of the world by Lufthansa, BA and Air France et al. The reality now is that fares of 10 Euro per way originating from Europe to Bulgaria (and vice versa for that matter) are a fact and not a theoretical concept. OK, not all flights on the Low Cost Carriers are so low but they invariably do not reach treble figures and this is one of the core factors that are driving this evolution in ski tourism.

It should however be note that despite this changing pattern in how people approach their ski break, it does not guarantee that there will be any more nights stayed in total across the whole ski season despite the huge increase in ‘”numbers’’ of people who come to the country. The reality however is that invariably the overall net figures for these total nights will increase as is being borne out by EU statistics which shows Bulgaria as having the highest rate of growth on visitor numbers across the whole of the EU countries, a growth of 17.9%.

The bottom line then for the local ski scene is that the impressive improvement in the ski infrastructure across the three main ski resorts is now yielding great results both for the ski areas and also for the country’s coffers. This might go down as astute forward thinking by the state or regional planners; on the other hand the successful evolution might be down rather to good luck than good management!


Mark Thomas

Managing Director

HRG Bulgaria

Hotel fined for price gouging

It seems we should trust some hotels like we trust some airlines – or not as the case may be; a hotel at New York JFK Airport has just been fined 17,000 USD and ordered to pay back 48,000 USD for gouging guests!

The Marriott Courtyard Hotel hiked the room rates by as much as 75% after bad weather stranded passengers at the airport. In one case, a guest was forced to pay 499 USD for a room that on the same day the previous week was being sold for 154 USD.

It’s hard to feel sympathy with the hotel for such opportunism but equally what of the hotels in Frankfurt and Barcelona who charge rack rate plus x% when there are certain trade fairs taking place in their area? This apparently is legal whereas such activity in the USA is not.


Success of failure

IATA member airlines – this excludes the likes of Ryanair, Wizz and Easyjet etc., but includes BA, Lufthansa and Air France/KLM – last year saw their highest seat occupancy levels with 80.5% of seats sold.
Of course it is easy to sell more seats on planes if you reduce the actual number of flights! Also worth commenting on is that the Ryanair’s and Wizz Air’s of this world might deem 80.5% seat occupancy as abject failure! Guess different types of airlines measure success differently.


No growing beards

As airports strive to make the frequent travellers life simpler and easier, the latest trials at Amsterdam Schiphol sees the need for boarding passes, paper or electronic, discarded and replaced with face recognition machines at the airplane gate. The trial will last three months and may also curb the current (mainly) male fashion of trying to look like an ISIS terrorist and grow a beard; the face scanners might not be too happy with this! Perhaps though the airports more interesting other trial revolves around new hand baggage scanners which allow laptops and liquids to be left in the travellers bags.

Somehow we think that this latter trial will be frowned upon by the trade unions at the airport who will feel jobs are threatened by striving to make the passenger experience more comfortable.


London slipping

London has been over taken by Bangkok as the worlds second most visited city. Hong Kong has held onto top spot for the seventh year in a row. Hong Kong in fact saw a 4% drop in visitors whilst London’s numbers increased by 7% but this was dwarfed by the 10% rise in visitors to Bangkok. Singapore came 4th and Paris 5th. It will be interesting if people have short memories in 2017 as if they have not, then Paris may struggle to maintain its lofty position.


Get real

A fake US Embassy in Ghana was closed down at the end of last year which for a decade had been issuing fake US visas! The building was located in a rundown building in a less than upmarket area but did have a USA flag outside and opened three times per week. Both fake visas and fake passports were seized in the raid with the operation having been allowed to carry on by local authorities who had been paid off to turn a blind eye.


Top of the pile

Have a guess which air route has the most first class seats? Logical guesses might include London to New York, Dubai to Beijing or Tokyo to Seoul but no; the actual answer is between the Iranian cities of Tabriz and Tehran. The airline that runs the route is little known ATA Airlines and typically carries 35, 646 First Class seats per month. Just for the record the second route was Beijing – Shanghai followed by Atlanta – Orlando. If you fancy flying with ATA by the way, they operate an aging fleet of MD 80 aircraft, the manufacture of which ceased in 1999.

Other air trivia:-

Worlds Busiest Route

  1. Seoul – Jeju (450 kms)
  2. Tokyo – Sapparo

Most Countries served by an airline

  1. Turkish 115
  2. Air France 93
  3. Qatar  86

World’s busiest airports

  1. Atlanta  101.5m passengers
  2. Beijing  90,1m
  3. Dubai  83.6

(2015 figures)


The real world of tourism

As the winter ski season rumbles on in full earnest, many locals are gob smacked when they discover that across Europe, Tour Operators – this also includes Balkan Holidays – have already released their brochures for next winter; 2017-18.

It wasn’t so very long ago that the definition for long term tourism planning was defined as next month; the real and competitive world of tourism has certainly made Bulgaria toe the line.

Sporting fall out

One of the likely fall outs from the election of Donald Trump as US President and his subsequent banning of nationals from certain Muslim countries from entering the USA, is the bid for Los Angeles to host the 2024 Summer Olympic Games. Apparently Los Angeles’s Olympic Committee are being repeatedly asked by delegates from other countries ‘”what is wrong with your country?”

Equally, the USA’s desire to host the 2026 Football World Cup could similarly be scuppered before it even begins the process.


New to New York

A new route to the USA may be available for local travellers via a short hop to Athens and joining a new Dubai – Athens – New York flight. This new ‘”fifth freedom route”” i.e. where a country (Greece) assigns the right for an airline from another country to fly to a third country destination, starts March 12th on a daily basis.


Tender delay

The tender deadline for submissions to pick a concession operator for Sofia Airport has been extended to May19th. This is the fourth time the date has been extended with the initial date set for mid 2016.

It is however extremely debatable if the new government (any government) will allow the tender to go ahead. The most important criteria for anyone wishing to run the airport is the concession fee they will pay and this is in addition to an upfront payment of 281.2 million Euros that is required. Annual concession fees must be no less than 7% of the airports revenues but also no less than 9.95 million Leva (5m Euro) per year. The winner will also be expected to invest no less than 306.5 million Leva in the airports infrastructure including a new Terminal 1 with seven gates.

Drive at your own risk

The driving on Bulgaria roads is nothing but hairy, the baseline fact is that the country’s roads are amongst the most dangerous in Europe; the same goes for the driving ability.  In 2016 our roads saw 703 deaths and 9306 injuries from 7355 accidents, compare that with the aviation industry which globally saw just 325 deaths in 19 accidents, two of which involved airlines included in the EU’s airline black list. Indeed in aviation terms 2016 was beaten only by 2013 for fewest deaths when 265 people were killed.

To put this into perspective, the aviation deaths equate to one per 10,769,230 passengers. Conclusion – it’s safer to fly than drive on Bulgarian roads.


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