Long overshadowed by "Old Europe" for tourism, the Balkans are emerging as the center of "New Europe." But you better book now since the travelers' secret is out.
Fifteen years ago, freshly out of cubicle culture, I made the bold decision to start a travel blog. I felt travel was on the verge of a transformation and wanted a URL to reflect the changing times. But I soon found my first choice — newtravel.com – was already taken.
By some travel agency in Bulgaria.
Those days before Twitter and Facebook feel as ancient as the Dewey Decimal System now, but I’m fascinated that Bulgaria stumbled onto that phrase first. And shortly after missing on newtravel, I began covering Bulgaria for Lonely Planet. Its 19th-century revivalist architecture, cheap local wines sold from empty jugs on street corners, and quiet roads crisscrossing mountains immediately wooed me. (The ketchup-on-pizza thing was less convincing.) Eventually I even ventured into the energetic newtravel.com office, aka Odysseia-In, which has since changed its site to hiking-bulgaria.com.
Bulgaria, which joined the EU in 2007, is never going to rank with France or China or the USA in terms of top travel destinations. But it’s become an anchor of what could be called the hottest part of “New Europe,” the Balkans.
Over the period from 2005 to 2015, tourism arrivals to Europe rose from 452 million to 605 million, a rise of 33.6 percent (per WTO reports). Looking at individual country stats, one finds a bulk of this spike is centered in Balkan Europe – defined here as Bulgaria (where the namesake mountains crash into the Black Sea) and the countries of the former Yugoslavia (Slovenia, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, Albania and Macedonia).
Bulgaria’s tourism boom over these ten years (46.8 percent) doubled the rise in the UK and quadrupled France’s. And other Balkan nations are climbing even faster. Croatia rose by 63.8 percent, Slovenia 74.8 percent, Macedonia 147 percent, Bosnia and Herzegovina 212 percent, and Albania by a whopping 502 percent.
Tourism growth there has created nearly a half million jobs, and by 2027 the number — per the economic forecast by the WTTC — will rise by 20 percent. Bulgaria will see the region’s biggest jobs boost, with 51 percent more created (about three times the rate of Britain or Germany).
It’s been interesting to watch this gradual “opening” of the region personally, as I’ve been regularly going to Bulgaria over the same period. During my first visit in 2004, a TV station in the town of Dobrich got wind of a travel writer covering their nation – and couldn’t believe it. A middle-aged reporter, with dyed purple hair, interviewed me on air with skepticism.
“Why,” she kept asking, “why would someone want to visit here?”
Well, she should have known beaches in Bulgaria have long been a draw.
The Red Riviera
During the Soviet days, Bulgaria became the “Red Riviera,” a destination of choice for communist dignitaries with the most medals on their chest. In the years after the USSR’s collapse, former state-run resorts pawned package trips to Western Europeans (and the number of beds at Sunny Beach grew by 100 times in the 1990s and first decade of the 2000s). For most visitors, this overdevelopment has all but destroyed any beach appeal.
For me, the best of Bulgaria, as with elsewhere around the Balkans, is found inland — quaint villages with 19th-century taverns cooking grilled meats and serving shopska salads of cucumber, tomato, onion and local feta cheese. It’s here that even leftovers of communism, like paint-splattered monuments or shabby hotels, can be seen as windows to a disappearing past. Best is Buzludzhka, a dramatic UFO-shaped communist meeting spot on top of Shipka Pass. It was already closed off in 2004 (and vandalized), but secret entrances led to dilapidated mosaics of faded Marxist dreams. (I wrote about this recently for my new site, aajaggers.com.)
This side of the Balkans remains less visited.
The Balkans’ most popular country is Croatia, which welcomed 12.7 million visitors in 2015 (Bulgaria sees the second-most, with 7.1 million). Croatia’s appeal has come with a price though.
The reason is cruise ships.
The city of 42,000 sees nearly a million visitors a year, 80 percent of which come for a few hours from cruise ships and pour onto Dubrovnik’s cobbled streets at numbers of over 10,000 a day. The situation recently prompted Unesco’s director Mechtild Rössler to hint that this overcrowding could threaten the city’s heritage status. Meanwhile, the Croatia Traveller blog cheekily posts cruise schedules so savvy travelers can avoid the masses.
Another option is skipping Dubrovnik completely.
While on a road trip from Slovenia to Greece two years ago, Dubrovnik was absolutely my lowlight. It is gorgeous. But, although traveling in low season of early December, my visit coincided with hordes of cruise passengers trolling Dubrovnik’s 16th-century alleyways.
Literally everywhere else, from Ljubljana to Prizren, it was essentially just us and locals. So we opted instead for more time in Bosnia’s sublime historic city of once war-torn Mostar (a couple hours inland) and the stunning walled city of Kotor, Montenegro (a couple hours south). I found that same intimacy riding through Kosovo’s snow-capped “Alps,” or overnighting in cobbled hilltop Hum, Croatia, which considers itself to be the world’s smallest village.
In Search of Bulgarian Journals
All this is likely to change as travelers probe deeper into this rising region.
One small barometer of change I keep thinking of regards journals. For years, I always sought out locally made journals to record my notes on location. (I remember waiting for a monk to choose a pen at a stationary shack in Battambang to get my tiny Cambodian notebook in 2002.)
Finding a Bulgarian-made journal was hard, even 14 years ago. After a week I finally found a yellow, pocket-sized spisanie, not in the capital Sofia but the small town of Shumen. On my two returns to Shumen, I found the shop only stocked Chinese notebooks – then none at all. By then it had become a fancy shoe store selling high-end imports.
The Balkans may comprise a “New Europe.” But the travelers’ secret is going beyond the ports or beach resorts before it all becomes imported shoes.
Just remember to pack your own journal.
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Photo Credit: Bulgaria has been experiencing a tourism boom in the last decade. Pictured is Sofia, Bulgaria. Deensel / Flickr