ARTICLES 
BULGARIA SHAKES OFF GRIM IMAGE TO BECOME TOP HOLIDAY CHOICE
Fiona Govan, Daily Telegraph (11 Jan 2004)
It was once the epitome of grim Communist uniformity, but Bulgaria is emerging as this year's hot destination for British tourists.

Sales figures indicate that up to 200,000 Britons will travel to the Balkan nation's Black Sea resorts this summer, where the attractions include cheap drink, large sandy beaches and temperatures in the 80s.

One British tour operator has already named Bulgaria as the top place to visit this year, while a report in America last week also named it as being among the 10 best international destinations.

The emergence of Bulgaria, and its 240-mile long "Black Sea Riviera", has been helped by the euro's rising value against the pound. This has made holiday spots such as Greece and Spain far more expensive for Britons than non-euro countries.

Thomson Holidays, Britain's largest tour operator, said that it had included Bulgaria in its brochure for the first time this year.

The country, where a seven-day holiday in a three-star hotel, including bed and breakfast, costs from £259 per person, was already one of its three best-selling destinations, along with Florida and Cyprus.

"Bulgaria's biggest selling points are the great beaches and sunny climate combined with attractions including wine tasting, aqua parks, ancient monuments, nature parks, music and flower festivals," said a spokesman for Thomson.

"It's also really cheap when you get there - a pint of beer is 50p, a meal for two can be had for under £5, and a decent bottle of wine for around £2. The holidays are considerably cheaper than the equivalent in Spanish, Greek or Portuguese resorts."

Bulgaria's Black Sea resorts boast white sandy beaches, warm seas and temperatures that average 80F (26C)during the summer.

The country, which is roughly half the size of Britain, also has mountains and lakes and claims to be the motherland of the mythical songster Orpheus and of the gladiator Spartacus, who led a slave revolt against the Romans.

The principal Black Sea resorts in Bulgaria are Albena, Golden Sands and Sunny Beach. Golden Sands lies close to Varna, another resort where Leonid Brezhnev, the former leader of the Soviet Union, holidayed during the Communist era. Todor Zhivkov, the former Communist leader of Bulgaria also used to take his holidays on the Black Sea, at the resort of Evksinograd.

Sean Tipton, a spokesman for the Association of British Travel Agents, said that Bulgaria was the fastest growing holiday destination for 2004 and that at least 200,000 Britons were likely to visit this year - nearly double last year's total.

"Previously holidaymakers have been put off from visiting the country because it has been difficult to get there and because the accommodation was not up to standard," he said. "All that has changed in the last few years. At the moment it is fantastic value for money, but it won't stay that way for long."

First Choice Holidays, which has offered package holidays to Bulgaria since 2000, said that the country was its "star performer".

Richard Curtis, its spokesman, said: "At a time when holiday bookings are down almost 25 per cent on last year to destinations across the board, Bulgaria's performance is phenomenal. We have already increased our sales of holidays to Bulgaria by 100 per cent and it is only the second week in January."

A report in the The Washington Post last week named Bulgaria as one of the world's top 10 international destinations of the year, alongside more predictable choices such as Botswana, the Bahamas and Ecuador.

The country is not only attracting package holiday makers: the capital Sofia is luring weekend visitors with its historical churches, museums and boulevards.

Marin Dimitrov, a spokesman for the Bulgarian Embassy in London, said that his country welcomed the influx of British tourists.

"Bulgaria has a rich cultural and historical background that has a great deal to offer foreign holidaymakers," he said. "We are delighted that people are recognising this and coming to visit our country. This is a very good thing for Bulgaria."

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