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January 2018 Newsletter


On the home front

A lot is happening on the home front, here is a run through of what’s what in the local travel world: –

Finally, a new road to Sofia Airport; It only took 11 years but better late than never! The new road to the airport was supposed to be opened along with the opening of the new terminal 2 back in December 2007 – just before Bulgaria joined the EU, but land issues delayed that until January 2018 when, by coincidence, Bulgaria became president of the aforementioned EU! The new link takes drivers direct to Terminal 2 via a road bridge whilst those using the de-facto ‘” Low Cost ‘” terminal 1 take the slip road just before the new bridge. Let’s hope any further development does not have to wait until Bulgaria is once again president of the EU.

Talking of airports, the two Black Sea airports of Bourgas and Varna are churning out record numbers again with overall growth being an impressive 8.42% combined. A total of4.95m passengers used the two airports and things look set to continue on an upward growth cycle as Ryanair announced that it will open a new base in Bourgas in March 2018 with 11 new routes being introduced.

As we mentioned, Bulgaria is now the President of the EU for the next six months and this means lots of regimista’s  landing on our shores. Its been a long standing question as to whether or not the local upmarket hotels benefit from this influx or will the Marinella take most of the cake with their heavily discounted government rates? Certainly some local hotels seem to be shrugging their shoulders and I refer here to the Intercontinental located in arguably the best central location opposite the Parliament building, except that is, it isn’t open! The former Radisson hotel has not seen occupants for several weeks now as it prepared to change management but equally the new managers i.e. the Intercontinental, are not prepared to open their doors until all the renovation work is done to their spec, which is already several weeks late! Meanwhile, the local media has announced something that we have kept under wraps for several months now and that is that a new Marriott is planned for Sofia on Hristo Botev Blvd.  whilst this is due to open in 2020, only a fool would bet that this will actually come to fruition on time or at all! By the way don’t forget we also have a Hyatt coming along at Levski Monument just as soon as they sort out what to do with the Roman ruins. So all in all it looks like a lot of branded international hotels will be on our door step soon: will there be the demand for them is the big question?

Perhaps the biggest talking point in the local domain recently has been the “supposed’” agreement whereby a second much needed gondola lift will be built in the ski resort of Bansko.  That’s the good news but the bad news is that this has riled the Green brigade who fear – perhaps with some justification – that this will open the door for even more construction in what is actually a National Park! Bansko already has far too many beds for the size of the ski/resort area so it’s difficult to imagine anyone being so stupid to build yet more hotels and thus increase the supply which struggles to marry with demand. Yet the same argument could have been said five years ago but people still build empty hotels. On the other side, how does Italy, France and Austria successfully manage its resorts that dwarf the size of the Bansko area but yet find the balance between nature and human recreation?

Mark Thomas

Managing Director

HRG Bulgaria

Which Passport?

Ever wondered what passport you wish you had? If so then the best choice might be to try qualify for a German one! The German passport apparently is the most useful in the world and gives visa free access to 177 countries. The second most useful passport is the Singapore one whose citizens can travel to 176 followed by the passports of Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, Japan, Norway, Sweden and the Uk; all in joint third, whose holders get visa free access to 175 countries each.

At the other end of the scale, avoid Pakistan, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan passports as these will only allow visa free access to 30 countries.

How far?

Whilst spring cleaning the Newsletter files, we came across an article from a few years ago which is perhaps even more relevant to local travellers these days due to the explosion in flight options from Bulgaria thanks to so called Low Cost Airlines. However, people new to travelling with such modes of transport should be aware that Low Cost Airlines tend to ‘’dress” the airports they fly to. Below is a list of airports and the distances they are from the cities whose name they carry: –

  1. Munich West (Memmingen) – 110 kms
  2. Frankfurt Hahn – 110 kms
  3. Oslo Torp – 110 kms
  4. London Oxford – 96 kms
  5. Stockholm Skavsta – 95 kms
  6. Barcelona Girona – 94 kms
  7. Barcelona Reus – 94 kms
  8. Paris Beauvais – 88 kms
  9. Dusseldorf Weeze – 80 kms
  10. London Stanstead – 64 kms
  11. Tokyo Narita – 60 kms
  12. Verona Brescia – 53 kms
  13. Glasgow Prestwick – 51 kms
  14. London Luton – 51 kms
  15. Milan Bergamo – 50 kms

Maybe soon it’s a case of watch out for Sofia Plovdiv?


Toilets v Seats

As the human body gets larger and larger, flying economy class on certain carriers came be something of a challenge. The airlines are now squeezing in as many seats as is possible onto their fleets regardless whether this is short haul or long haul travel. The consideration for their passenger’s comfort is not on the agenda but profit is. Thus anyone wanting to use the WC on the new Boeing 737 Max series of planes might have a battle on their hands. American Airlines who have recently brought the new machine into their fleet, have found that their passengers and even their own staff are reporting that the sinks are so small that passengers can only wash one hand at a time and that water splashes everywhere during the process. Another user notes that you are physically wedged into the cabin when facing the toilet!

In response, American Airlines found a novel way to solve the sink issue: they restricted the flow of water!  They haven’t yet solved the problem of how to us e the facility without having the impression of being a sardine in a tin.

No doubt these complaints will drag on until people become bored with them and meanwhile, the airlines make more money from the extra 12 seats they were able to fit on their planes.


Handbags across the water

The latest airlines who have announced that they will offer hand baggage only fares for transatlantic flights include Air France-KLM and Alitalia. Passengers using these airlines when departing from Sofia will find such fares available on flights commencing in April this year. As with European flights, the choices of tickets that offer: bags v no bags v changeable tickets v tickets that gather frequent flyer miles’ v refundable tickets v pre bookable seats v XXXXX  is mind boggling and perhaps the same airlines could run courses to explain them?

Einstein’s theory of relativity is easier to comprehend.


As safe as – Air travel

Commercial Air Travel had its safest ever year in 2017 with just 10 accidents resulting in 79 fatalities. This comes from 36.8 million flights. Five of the ten accidents were on commercial passenger planes and the other five were on cargo planes.

Compare these figures with the fatalities on Bulgarian roads where 678 people died during 2017 Some consider this an improvement as in 2016, there were 703 road deaths. The bottom line however is that Bulgarian drivers seem, yet again, to be the worst in Europe when it comes to measuring road deaths per head of population. No surprise there then.


Amsterdam restrictions

Amsterdam has joined the likes of New York, Paris and London in restricting the times people allow their dwellings to be used by the likes of Airbnb. The city is blaming Airbnb rentals on overcrowding in the Dutch City and has limited Airbnb hosts to a max of 60 days’ rental per year.

Expect more cities to follow suit.

BA to straighten seats

British Airways are to imitate Budget carriers such as Ryanair and Wizz by introducing seats that don’t recline when new Boeing 737’s and Airbus 321’s enter their fleet later this year. Whilst some would view this as bad news because at the same time they will squash in an extra two rows of seats, whilst at the same time reducing the space available for their passengers; others might view this with relief as arguably one of the biggest dislikes of passengers who travel regularly is the inconsiderate person in front of you who reclines his or her seat to the maximum causing your cup of hot tea to spill all over you. Even though a knee strategically placed into the mid seat area in front of you usually remedies this situation. It is, nonetheless, a nuisance to put it mildly.

Back to the BA side of things, traditionalists at BA have long suspected that their new (ish) Spanish  CEO with his Spanish Low Cost airline background had been appointed for one reason and one reason only: to help BA morph down market.

Battle for Vienna

Austrian Airlines, both pre and post Lufthansa ownership has long been many local business people’s carrier of choice when it came to hoping around meetings across Central and Eastern Europe; the same is true of Vienna Airport which ticks many of the boxes airline passengers want from an airport. Austrian Airlines own success has been supported by the fact that Vienna as its main hub, has had little serious competition down the years. News then that Wizz Air are planning big things at the airport will have both Austrian and their German masters twitching nervously. WIzz Air, as we all know, are not some small new kid on the block that can be scared or forced out of the game via politicking etc.,

It will be interesting to see how quickly Wizz expands in the Austrian capital and how that impacts the size and shape of Austrian’s own future plans.

For local travellers this can be a two edged sword: Austrian currently operates numerous times per day to and from Sofia giving choice and convenience to those who use the airline. Wizz Air flying to Vienna would no doubt force fares downwards but would this then, in the longer term, force Austrian to reduce their operations to Sofia meaning less flights per day and thus less choice?

It’s all theoretical at the moment but Varna is one of the destinations Wizz Air will be starting with from their new Austrian base.

American Stupidity

Security at airports the world over is no laughing matter, even if at times, the authorities make a mountain out of a mole hill. Pretending you have a gun or a bomb is not treat lightly and a custodial sentence usually ensues. Thus the stupidity of a film crew at Newark Airport in the USA takes some believing. Apparently news channel CNBC contracted the crew to try smuggle a mock bomb through security whilst covertly filming. Whilst this might have made a good TV expose, it is still an incomprehensible stunt in this day and age. Sadly, for the film crew they got caught and even more sadly for them they risk hefty fines and even a prison sentence for causing false public alarm, conspiracy and interfering with transportation.


Tax on nothing

The (small) city of Oakland in Oregon, USA must be incredibly forward thinking. The local council which represents its 1000 inhabitants has just voted to impose an 8% occupancy tax which will apply to hotels and other accommodation rentals. Except there are no hotels in the community!

The local council, who clearly must be a sandwich short of a lunch box explained that they were simply preparing the rules if, in case, someone did open a hotel there.

No comment.


Don’t count your Niki’s before thet are hatched

Following the demise of Air Berlin, the world’s media reported that BA’s parent group, IAG had agreed to take over its Austrian subsidiary NIKI and whilst terms had apparently been agreed, it seems that BA’s lawyers were not the smartest kids on the block. They apparently had agreed wi the wrong people: the deal had been done  with Air Berlins German administrators; except that not one but two German courts agreed that the proceedings should be heard in the home country of NIKI which is Austria and not Germany! Guess what…..the Austrians decided that the deal with the airlines former owners (pre Lufthansa) Niki Lauda (don’t get confused) was a better one!

So the name NIKI will live on as opposed to disappearing into the nest of BA’s sister airline Vueling. Lauda himself said the airline will be merged into another of his companies and operate holiday flights to Turkey, Greece and Spain.

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