Tourism in Bulgaria provides an important source of employment and economic earnings. In 2019, tourism-related employment supported approximately 236 300 people. The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic saw this fall to approximately 194 600 people in 2020, a decline of 41 700 people.

In 2019, international tourism was the driver of the Bulgarian tourism sector. There were 12.6 million international arrivals who accounted for BGN 8.5 billion, or 88.2% of total tourism spend. The impact of the pandemic saw international visitors fall by 60.4% to 4.9 million in 2020 before recovering to 7.2 million in 2021 – 42.7% below pre-pandemic levels.

Domestic tourists reached a record 4.1 million in 2019. Despite a significant decline in 2020, domestic tourists recovered in 2021, with domestic nights in all means of accommodation reaching 9.6 million, 0.5% below 2019 levels.

Bulgaria expects inbound tourism to achieve 2019 levels by 2025 but the total contribution of tourism to GDP is expected to take longer to recover, returning to pre-pandemic levels by 2025-27.

The Ministry of Tourism is responsible for implementing state policy relating to tourism and co-ordinating the activities of related ministries and other institutions in its implementation. The national tourism policy is formulated by the Council of Ministers.

The Ministry’s main activities include developing and implementing the National Strategy for Sustainable Development, developing short-term programmes and plans, regulating the tourism sector; assisting regional management organisations; national marketing and advertising, international relations; and participating in international programmes.

The National Tourism Council is the consultative body which operates under the authority of the Ministry of Tourism. Its members include representatives of tourism-related ministries as well as national, regional and local tourism associations, transport operators and consumer bodies. Regional authorities are in charge of implementing the national tourism policy at the regional level. At the local level, municipal administrations are responsible for tourism development. The municipal council adopts a tourism development programme in line with the priorities of the regional strategy and in accordance with local tourism resources and needs.

Tourism development is co-ordinated and planned horizontally across sectors, including with the digital transformation of SMEs outlined in the Ministry of Economy’s programme economic transformation and with reforms targeting energy efficiency, regional development, and the digitalisation of cultural heritage in the National Recovery and Resilience Plan.

In 2020, the budget for tourism totalled BGN 19.6 million. An additional BGN 51.6 million was allocated for schemes supporting tourism businesses during COVID-19. In 2021, the budget for state aid amounted to BGN 59.9 million.

In 2022, the Ministry is in the process of updating and adapting the Tourism Sustainable Development Strategy 2030. Upcoming legislative changes will increase the competencies of the Regional Tourism Management Organisations as separate entities (see box below). These provisions should help the DMOs finance their activities and attain financial sustainability in the long run.

As an immediate response to COVID-19, Bulgaria developed a measure for tour operators to stimulate inbound tourism. Those with existing contracts with air carriers were entitled to EUR 35 per passenger taking a flight into Bulgaria through a package tour. Additionally, in response to the suspension of travel, the Ministry of Tourism responded with compensation grants for tour operators and travel agencies to allow them to reimburse customers. There were eight measures in total for supporting tour operators, tour agencies and the tourism sector. Because of the measures, there was no case of tour operators or travel agencies’ insolvency in the last two years.

The most important challenges for Bulgarian tourism are sustainable development and digitalisation. These challenges emerged strongly during the COVID-19 crisis and will be key to the rebound and future development of the sector. Increasing tourism sector competitiveness is a priority in the Tourism Sustainable Development Strategy until 2030. The gathering and sharing of tourism data, sustainable management at the regional level, and enhancement of digitalisation in SMEs will help to resolve some of the most pressing problems in tourism and increase competitiveness while contributing to green and digital transitions.

The main policy responses and initiatives aimed at tackling the key high-priority challenges include:

  • Enhancing institutional capacity building.

  • Encouraging sustainable and effective resource management and measures for climate change adaptation, including using protected natural areas as a resource for the sustainable development of tourism.

  • Improving tourists’ safety in Bulgaria.

  • Upskilling the workforce through higher skills.

  • Stimulating tourism investment and securing access to finance.

  • Continuing the focus on digitalisation and innovation.

  • Controlling air and water quality and achieving sustainable waste and water management.

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