Bulgarian capital city Sofia has become a much more popular and preferred tourist destination, with a stable increase in tourism – about 13 per cent growth in the number of tourists and 15 per cent in the number of nights spent, both in 2016 and 2017.
This is according to the Sofia Tourism and Air Transport Report 2018, produced by the Invest Sofia Agency.
Sixty-five per cent of all visitors to Sofia came from abroad. The top source countries were Italy, the UK, Germany and Greece.
The report contains data, analysis and conclusions on the tourism sector in the capital as of September 2018.
“In short, for another year in a row, we are in the midst of an unprecedented tourism boom that shows no signs of slowing down. It is visible on the streets and in coffee shops and it did not finish with summer’s end,” Invest Sofia agency said.
The increase in number of foreign tourists in Sofia in 2017 alone was 18 per cent.
The highest increase of visitors in 2017 was recorded among the tourists from the Netherlands (57 per cent), Spain (51 per cent), Ireland (51 per cent), China (48 per cent), and Belgium (40 per cent).
Sofia Airport launched 42 new routes between 2015-2018, including new direct flights to such destinations as Baku, Nice, Malaga and others.
The number of passengers at the airport increased by the record 30.3 per cent in 2017 to a total of 6 490 096. More than 58 per cent of the passengers serviced at the Airport in 2017 flew a low-cost airline.
As of spring 2018, there were about 4611 four- and five-star hotel rooms and more than 10 five-star hotels in Sofia, some of which belong to the biggest hotel brands worldwide. The number of four- and five-star hotel rooms in the city of Sofia is expected to double by 2021 due to several big international hotel chains entering the market.
Bulgaria’s Presidency of the Council of the EU was the largest Congress event in the history of Sofia and a great opportunity for the city to gain more exposure as a business destination, the report said. More than 40 000 delegates and journalists from all around the world took part in 284 events, 12 informal councils and five high-level parliamentary dimension meetings held in Sofia.
Photo: Clive Leviev-Sawyer
According to the Invest Sofia report, the trend of an increased number of tourists in Sofia will likely continue in the coming years, though at a lower rate. “2018-2019 can be even better after the EU presidency that both created increasing demands for the hospitality industry in Sofia and helped the city to develop its international image and gain popularity as a destination for leisure and business tourism.”
The growing number of tourists in Sofia is expected to have a strong positive effect on the further growth of the sector, including the modernization and development of the offered services and the elimination of the currently existing gaps in the overall tourist product in the city.
The hotel market in Sofia has been demonstrating a stable growth in the number of arrivals, the number of nights spent and the revenues from nights spent since 2009. The trend was particularly notable in 2016-2017 and is expected to continue in 2018-2020, the report said.
Museum of Socialist Art, Sofia. Photo: Clive Leviev-Sawyer
The Congress and MICE (Meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions) tourism are expected to play an increasingly important role in the coming years. The establishment of the Bulgarian Convention Bureau, the renovation of the National Palace of Culture, the biggest congress centre in Sofia, and the expected entry of big hotel brands to Sofia’s tourism market are among the factors facilitating the development of the Congress and MICE tourism in the city and the attraction of events with global reach in the future.
The popularity of shared economy platforms like Airbnb will likely continue to grow, the report said.
Improvements in the tourist infrastructure, the continuing urban rejuvenation projects and the construction of the Metro Line 3 connecting Sofia Airport’s Terminal 1 to the city will make Sofia a more attractive and easily accessible tourist destination.
There was a staggering growth of 48 per cent in the number of Chinese tourists visiting Sofia in 2017, the report said, adding: “The attraction of more Chinese tourists can play an important role for the development of tourism in the city”.
However, Sofia is yet to be popularised as a business and leisure destination and to gain recognition among Chinese tourists. The launching of a direct Sofia-Beijing route (expected in 2019) is likely to further facilitate the development of tourism between Bulgaria and China, the report said.
Listing what it saw as the challenges ahead, the report said that the current boom is, to a large degree, driven by the increase of the number on low-cost flights to Sofia Airport. In 2017 the biggest number of passengers at Sofia Airport flew with the Hungarian-based low-cost carrier Wizz Air.
“According to experts, Sofia Airport is reaching its capacity and an expansion of Sofia Airport in the coming years is of crucial importance.”
Sofia is yet to fill-in some gaps that still exist in tourist industry offerings and needs to add more experiences and activities, the report said.
“Sofia’s hotel market remains relatively immature compared to other major European cities. The supply of brand name hotel rooms in Sofia is still limited and the presence of international hotels is among the lowest in Europe.
“The share of branded rooms, however, is expected to increase by 2021,” the report said.
Sofia’s spa and mountain tourism are still underdeveloped. “In the long run, the city could benefit from its over 30 thermal springs and rich mountain resources by expanding the currently existing infrastructure and by offering new types of tourism products and experiences.”
“A lot has been achieved with the improvement of the urban environment but there is still a lot more to be done.”
Increasing competition in the traditional tourism and hospitality industry comes from the shared services sites and platforms.
“The local stakeholders and the Municipality will have to collaborate in order to adopt new business models and to come up with new ways of regulating these platforms,” the report said.
(Main photo, of Sofia’s landmark Alexander Nevsky cathedral: Clive Leviev-Sawyer)