Bulgaria’s 2020/21 ski season: Optimism or pragmatism?

As the first snow of the year appears, thoughts at this time of year usually turn to the forthcoming ski season, but this year is of course somewhat different than anyone can remember and the thought of whether to ski or not, let alone where to ski, is more than likely on the back burner.

The summer resorts on the Black Sea made a decent attempt of rescuing some sort of business, despite the deck of cards being stacked against them.

Just how successful or not they were is left open for discussion as the usual press releases from whatever Ministry is responsible that usually start with “this year XXXX was per cent higher than the same period last year”, regardless of what they were referring to, seem to be noticeable by their absence. This year that template has most definitely gone out of the window.

So now we come to the ski season and the main resorts of Bansko, Borovets and Pamporovo are no doubt chewing their finger nails as to what the winter holds in store for them.

The one thing that is for sure is that winter will be a battle for survival and that battle is not being helped by the governments of Germany, France and Italy proposing to the other EU members that their ski resorts remain shut until January. Austria is against this suggestion and so too is Bulgaria.

The Bulgarian Ministry of Tourism, perhaps rightly, arguing that the Bulgarian ski resorts are meeting all the criteria laid down with regards to sanitary and the general health of safety of people using these resorts. To this, one cannot argue.

However, when it then says that the resorts will rely on domestic tourists and tourists from neighbouring countries, then that is the time to start to worry.

Skiing is not a cheap pastime and the ski resorts may well not be helping themselves either. The cost of skiing at the three main resorts will roughly be the same as last year but how many families can afford the 50—60 leva per adult per day just for the ski pass? Plus the cost of possible equipment hire and then there is the cost of accommodation and the cost of food in what are generally overpriced (by the national standard) restaurants who aim or prefer to service the unknowing foreigner.

That’s not to say there aren’t good restaurants in Bansko etc, as there are many, but these often remain a well kept secret for those in the know and do not rely on the foreign tourists.

Anyway, we digress: the domestic tourist is significantly keener on taking a summer holiday than a winter one: the same tourist also has a wide selection of Black Sea options from cheap to expensive in both accommodation and places to eat; the ski resorts do not necessarily follow the same pattern of thinking.

So will the tourists from the neighbouring countries take up the slack? Unlikely is the simple answer.

They too will be faced with unknown travel restrictions, pressure not to travel and the new state of normality that has already seen them miss a summer holiday overseas so missing a winter one will not be earth shattering. This is aside of possible financial limitations the new state of being may have also created for potential tourists.

Much is made of the fact that (apparently) some 100 000 Bulgarians travel across Europe for ski holidays each winter season.

The hope of the Tourism  Ministry seems to be that rather than spending a week in Austria or Italy etc, these people will spend a week in the Bulgarian ski resorts and spend the same amount of cash.

It seems that the habits of skiers are not understood. These same people will, almost certainly, ski in Bulgaria: they always do, every year; but this is for the weekend or the odd day every other week and does not generally see them willing to or wanting to spend a week in a ski resort they can drive to in one hour or so and where the size of the ski area is miniscule to the ones offered in the likes of Austria and Italy, which is the reason they travel there in the first place.

Bansko, Borovets and Pamporovo have top class European standard facilities and pistes, what they don’t have is size to keep the avid skier interested.

Figures can and do paint whatever picture is intended for them and the latest bullet point figures that the numbers for the winter season are 40 per cent down on last year, really needs to be qualified.

At this time of year, it may be that usually only 10 or 20 per cent of the people that intend to go skiing have actually made firm plans.

Thus, another way of looking at the figures might be that so far this year only six or 12 per cent of the usual total year-on-year bookings have been made!

If the ski season ends up with only a 40 per cent decrease, then this will be fantastic news for the ski resorts.

The reality is that seeing that there are very few flights that will operate this winter from the key source markets such as Germany, the UK and Spain and that the charter flights will be non-existent, the hole that these absent skiers leave cannot ever be filled, despite the optimism.

Everyone hopes that those involved in the ski sector survive to fight another day. One can be optimistic but it is perhaps currently better to be pragmatic and to think and plan accordingly.

(Photo: Lance Nelson of banskoblog.com)

Mark Thomas

Mark Thomas is Managing Director of Jamadvice Travel / BCD Bulgaria, one of Bulgaria’s leading Travel Management Companies with 28 years market leading presence on the Bulgarian market.