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January 2024 Newsletter

Editorial

A New Start

News that Bulgaria has, in part at least, been granted accession to the European Schengen scheme has sent local giddy with joy, whilst at the same time, the general public seem to say “so what” to the move, a move that has been delayed time and time again by other European members. Ask a hundred people what joining Schengen means and no doubt almost all will scratch their heads, the only obvious benefit for most people is that one day they will have the ability to drive to Greece much faster. The border fortress that once upon a time stopped Bulgarians from joining the land of the free and now simply slows down the process of driving to one’s holiday, will be changed to a white line across the road (more or less) with Bulgarian written one side of it and Greece the other. Schengen accession comes in March of this year but wait, there is string attached: the initial phase means that only Bulgarian Airports and Sea Ports will be ‘’Schengen enabled”, not road traffic, this means that particularly only air passengers will have the benefit of – nothing particularly! Actually, this is not true as travellers will find the security and border checks a bit easier but that’s about it. As for the news itself, its also provided a sounding board for what seems to be nonsense. Local media quotes from government employees include; “300,000 Polish citizens will feel the benefit” (of Bulgarian Schengen accession), ”it will have a positive effect on 80% of passenger flow from Germany” and “80,000 Turkish citizens who have Schengen visas will have the right to visit Bulgaria”. If the positivity is solely that the border control will be easier, then one would agree with the aforementioned comments and indeed anyone with a Schengen visa can now visit Bulgaria as well as or instead of going to Spain, Greece or Italy etc., but will they?! No-one connected on the front line of travel and tourism knows of any holiday selection decision that is influenced by whether a country is in Schengen or not, spin the positivity about being a Schengen country as you like. Just to re-iterate the local benefit will 99% be devoted to being able to drive to Greece faster (eventually) and if a few extra visitors arrive due to holding a Schengen visa, then great but don’t take it for granted.

Aside of the noise surrounding Schengen there is potentially a far greater worry for those involved in the tourism product within Bulgaria and that revolves around the winter ski season. The expression on just about everyone’s lips when it comes to skiing in Bulgaria is (quote) “it’s cheaper in Europe“ (Austria and Italy).  Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with this comment the fact is that the cost of skiing in Bulgaria is at best, the same as say in Italy or Austria and at worst, it is in fact cheaper in those countries. A UK survey on the cost of skiing which had Bulgaria as the best value in Europe for a decade, now has Italy has the cheapest destination. Of course, the attributes that make up a great ski holiday are different among people and cost is not always a high priority but even then, the factors that ski travellers look for when choosing a ski destination can show when apples are compared with apples.

Bansko and Borovets are small ski resorts by comparison with other European resorts. The piste area of our two main ski resorts (Pamporovo excluded as its too small in the bigger picture) is circa listed as 75km and 58km pisted area supposedly. There are hundreds of similar sized areas across Europe. The main European ski resorts will generally advertise well over 100kms of piste and even these are considered smaller resorts. Keen skiers are attracted to areas that have well in excess of 200kms of marked piste with many of the larger ski areas reaching over 400kms and even extending up to 1000 kms. The irony is that the cost of lift pass for a day’s skiing in Borovets and Bansko is now pretty much the same as any of the much larger European resorts. If you also factor in cost per km of piste available than obviously the European resorts work out cheaper.  The cost of food is also a factor in peoples decision making process when choosing any holiday and Bulgarian based skiers who travel to Italy and Austria are shocked when eating either in a mountain chalet at the top of an Austrian or Italian mountain or down in resort; its invariably cheaper than at home and the food quality is massively better (let’s face it, it couldn’t be any worse). Hiring ski equipment is also roughly the same cost, perhaps a fraction more pricey in Austria or Italy than here, but that’s debateable, particularly when the hire shops in Austria and Italy have the very latest new equipment and not something that did the rounds 5 years ago. As for accommodation, the cost comparison is an open question but again the variety and price range of good or decent accommodation close to the slopes in Austria and Italy holds up well compared with anything similar in Borovets or Bansko. Anyone who thinks the Bulgarian Ski resort Hotels are cheap should try book one of the main units at the end of February and then make a judgement.

This is not meant to demean the excellent progress the Bulgarian ski resorts have made over the last decade and a half and the huge investments made into it. The pistes in Borovets and Bansko are well groomed and can compare with rivals anywhere. Hotel infrastructure has improved no end and so too has the lift infrastructure, though the rather large elephant in the corner as far as Borovets and Bansko are concerned are the gondolas that create a bottleneck and huge queues at rush hour for skiers; these queues do not exist in Europe’s main resorts as the ”uplift” capability is something that was focussed on several years ago. Serious skiers facing the prospect of long queues go to alternative resorts or countries; social media takes care of that.  The bottom-line question for the local ski product is “’what is your USP (unique selling point)?” It used to be the excellent value for money in a modernised ski infrastructure. That price advantage has now been lost, what will be the marketing message to attract the next wave of skiers. If and when Bulgaria joins the Euro zone, this price comparison will become ever more apparent. The local ski industry has come a long way, lets hope it continues its progress and doesn’t stagnate.

Mark Thomas

Managing Director

Jamadvice Travel  |  BCD Bulgaria

A Quality Battle

Knowledgeable petrol heads, aka car enthusiasts, will tend to shy away from buying a new car manufactured in USA as the hushed perception is that their quality leaves a lot to be desired. Of course, the American manufacturers will argue the toss but the buying public will be the ultimate judge. In the same manner, might the point be fast approaching where airlines judge their potential purchase of new planes not just on political factors and price, but also on quality? Whilst this would seem obvious from the outside looking in, the perception of the normal worlds two aircraft manufacturers Airbus and Boeing was that they were offering similar products at similar prices with similar build quality (i.e. good quality). Yet another serious episode involving a Boeing plane may start to a) make passengers look what fleets an airline operates and b) make airlines wary of reputational damage if their name is associated with malfunctioning plane types. Airbus is European and Boeing is American.

The question of airplane safety once again comes to the fore following yet another Boeing 737 Max plane episode when a door plug (a panel put into an airplanes body where the option of having an additional emergency exit door is located) blew out mid-flight. The fact that the plane had only just taken off and therefore the air pressure was not as big as it would otherwise have been at cruising altitude, meant that through a massive slice of luck, there were no serious casualties. Minutes later and the story could have been very different. Subsequent inspection of other similar type planes with the same door plug revealed the same problem i.e. bolts not fitted correctly. This can only be down to a) bad workmanship and b) inefficient quality control and inspection process.

Boeing Max planes were involved in two fatal crashes in 2018 and 2019 involving planes operated by Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines and in both cases, the manufacturer tried to blame pilot error to deflect attention away from itself. The manufacturer also tried to get the court case heard in Africa where they felt the financial compensation thy would have to pay would be less. In the end American courts forced Boeing to pay out 2.5 billion USD in compensation and fines. Much of which went to the victim’s beneficiaries. With the latest episode, the operating airline Alaska Airlines offered affected passengers who were on board the flight, 1500 USD! Oh yes, plus a refund for the flight. This offer came from the airline who perhaps were trying to help out Boeing as ultimately it will be Boeing who will foot the compensation bill and that amount initially offered would appear to have a couple of zeros missing at the very least. As for Boeing, the prospect that buyers will shy away from operating their products is still a way away, however anymore events like the recent one and it will be the fare paying public that force purchasing decisions. Three strikes and you are out: Boeing are perhaps two down with one to go.

Fancy a Change?

Anyone fancying a career change and the prospect of racking up the miles, then a job being part of the cabin crew at Emirates might be just for you – as well as 5000 others. That’s the number of additional cabin crew the airline is seeking to employ following on from the 8000 it recruited last year. The reason for the new push is the airline needs the new crews to man the new fleet additions of 65 Airbus A350’s, 205 Boeing 777X’s and 35 Boeing 787’s. The number of crew already in employment is a massive 21,000.

Recruitment drives will take place across 460 cities worldwide and the employment requirements are to be able to speak and write English and have at least one years’ experience in the hospitality or service industry, as well as being over 160cms in height.

Lufthansa logo

Pay or Else

The UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has pressurised Wizz Air to finally pay out some 1.24 million GBP (1.44 m Euro) in compensation to passengers whose flights were cancelled or delayed. The airline had been delaying processing payments and even refusing claims in breach of clear EU rules and the pay-outs come following a long-standing battle between Wizz and the CAA.  Cash would appear not to be a problem for Wizz as they reported a circa 400m Euro profit in the six months to the end of September 2023; better the cash in their bank account than someone else account perhaps is the motto. Bottom line suggestion for Wizz is perhaps to use some of that cash to improve back-office functions such as in call centres and in handling disputes.

It’s Back

Those who were hoping that travel would never be seen again at the same level it was pre-covid will be distraught to hear that the in the European Union, the number of nights spent in tourism establishments in 2023 reached 2.92 billion and exceeds the number of 2019 (the last “normal” year) when the figure was 2.87 billion; a 1.6% increase. Just for comparison, the figure ten years earlier in 2013 was 2.33 billion. The largest increases were seen in Malta and Cyprus which exceeded 20% followed by increases of over 10% in Slovakia, Latvia, Bulgaria, Austria, Czech Republic, Portugal, Romania and Greece. In absolute numbers the largest increase in actual nights was seen in Germany with 32.8 million extra nights and Spain with 32.3 million additional nights.

So, the bottom line is that the desire to travel, be it for business or pleasure, continues unabated despite the deliberate and often crude attempts to hinder its evolution.

Hotel Rates Rise

As those who have travelled during the last year or so will tell you, the rise in the cost of hotel accommodation has been both noticeable and often eye watering. This would appear to apply not only to the cost of staying in a hotel in a key business city but also in leisure destinations. From a business travel perspective, it is worrying to see that many companies unaware of this development and then baulk at the costs of accommodation when sending staff to work or to attend events overseas. As a rule of thumb, in cities such as London and Paris, any decent hotel available for less than 150 Eu per night is an absolute bargain and indeed, the budget should be set circa 200 Eu a night to be realistic. Anyone still shocked by such numbers should try book themselves into a hotel in Bansko or Borovets during a weekend in winter to see that the new order in pricing also applies to Bulgaria.

Just to confirm the aforementioned comments and as the financials in the industry start to appear in the media., the figures for London reveal a record-breaking December with the average room rate for December showing 208.90 GBP per night (243.42 Euro). At the same time, London hotels showed a 80.5% occupancy which is the highest in December since 2018. Clear proof that travel is back big time.  Generally, hotels are now less focused on getting people through their doors as they are on focussing on maximising revenue from the rooms that are occupied; less occupants means less costs which in turn can mean larger profits providing room rates can be either matched or increased.

Also out of interest, the average cost for a hotel room in London during New Year was 287.25 GBP (334.72 Euro). All eyes will be on Velingrad next New Years as they seek to price match.

Security Farce

“Your safety is our main concern” or words to that effect are an overused cliché within the travel industry when really the honest comment would be making profit is our main concern. However, leaving the cynicism aside, just how safe we are made to feel with all the security features we now see when booking our flight tickets, checking in our baggage and passing through security and passport control is perhaps made more for image and perception than practicality. If this were not true, how could a passenger travel from Copenhagen to Los Angeles without a flight ticket, passport boarding pass nor any record he had in fact got on the plane? This is what actually occurred in November.

The passenger, an Israeli – Russian dual national has no recollection (apparently) of being on the plane though CCTV tracks him onto it. This episode goes alongside UM’s (unaccompanied minors) being put on the wrong planes in the USA and even UM’s being temporarily lost by their guardians.

Of course, the retort can be that millions of passengers travel through airports each day so some mishaps are going to occur. Whilst such a view is not unreasonable, it is also worth pointing out that millions of normal people in our society are normal but is the odd one in amongst these millions that are the problem for the rest of us.

Lufthansa Swiss logo

The Great Escape

Pictures and videos of the Japan Airlines plane that burst into flames as it landed at Tokyo Haneda Airport earlier this month were both frightening and dramatic. The fact that 367 passengers and 12 crew escaped unharmed is nothing short of a modern-day miracle and the sort of event that inspires books and films. One of the key reasons why the passengers and crew all escaped was the discipline in Japanese society which accepts authority and instruction, as well as the impeccably trained airline crews who are train vigorously for such events whilst hoping they never occur.

The emergency evacuation was done at speed but with precision. One of the key components for that to work is ensuring that passengers don’t try to grab hand luggage from overhead bins etc; doing so would slow down the whole evacuation process and likely cost lives. The Japanese passengers did what they were told: bags can be replaced but human life can’t. One can’t help imagine how that scenario would play out in this part of the world where respect to authority is minimal and the fake Gucci hand luggage placed six rows in front might be the difference between life and a visit to the after world for other passengers.

Getting Better

The death toll on Bulgaria’s roads in 2023 was 521. The figure is the second lowest in the past seven years. The lowest was in 2020 when the death toll reached 466 but this figure was heavily influenced by travel restrictions due to Covid. Bulgaria had the highest road fatality rate in the EU until 2017 when it was surpassed by Romania, a situation that still prevails.

Its not so long ago that the roads were full at weekends with Lada’s and Moskovich’s carrying parcel shelves of eggs with their owners back into the main cities, occasionally these would be joined by a chicken or hen on the back seat. Nowadays its more likely to be a duck in the car, though the cars are all SUV’s.

eatstaylovebulgariaAlmost Normal

The Geopolitical world in which we live certainly makes for an unknown future as political leaders ego takes precedent over the concept of making the world a better place. Thus, saying that the world is returning to normal may be something of a stretch but the world of air travel in November saw figures reach 99% of what they were in 2019; the last “normal” year. That’s globally, in Europe they figures are 97.1% of what they were in 2019.

So best analysed, the world is relatively normal.

Busy

The busiest airport in the world for 2023 is once again Atlanta Hartfield-Jackson International Airport with 61.2 million departing seats.  Dubai came in second with 56 million seats and Tokyo Haneda third with 52.6 million. Just two European airports figured in the top 10: London Heathrow with 49.3 million in 4th place and Istanbul with 46.3 million in 7th.

The busiest international route in the world is Kuala Lumpur to Singapore with 4.9 million seats, followed by Cairo to Jeddah with 4.8 million seats. Hong Kong to Taipei comes in 3rd with 4.6 million.

When it comes to domestic travel, the busiest route globally comes from South Korea with the 13.7 million seats each year that are found on the Jeju – Seoul Gimpo route. Second and third comes the Japanese routes between Sapporo to Tokyo Haneda with 11.9 million seats and Fukuoka to Haneda with 11.3 million.

An American Tale

A news story from Christmas Eve concerned a woman who had a loaded gun in her carry-on bag at Washington Reagan Airport. Whether that particular story grabbed anyone’s attention is questionable but the added facts mentioned in the article and connected to it are certainly eye watering.

In 2022 6,654 firearms were discovered at security checkpoints at airports in the USA. It gets worse though, 88% of them were loaded.

You would have to be seriously stupid to take a gun to the airport but only congenital idiots would take it loaded. Hopefully these people are never allowed to board a plane again.

If you’d like to subscribe your friends or colleagues and for all your travel requirements, reservations or for more information about any of the items mentioned in the newsletter, please contact us:

Tel:+ 359 (2) 943 3011;
Fax:+ 359 (2) 946 1261;
e-mail:mark @jamadvice.eu

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