Bulgaria is likely to establish a direct flight connection with the UAE by the middle of this year as an extension of its bilateral trade relations, said Bulgarian Consul-General in Dubai Zdravelin Georgiev, on the eve of the country's National Day.
A delegation, he said, had visited the UAE in January in hopes of reinforcing bilateral trade and tourism exchange, and discussions included a budget airline service as well as flights by large operators.
He said Etihad and Emirates airlines have been very aggressive in their expansion strategies.
Georgiev said a direct flight between Bulgaria and the UAE will help stimulate tourism and commercial exchange.
Trade between the UAE and Bulgaria in 2008 is estimated to be $80 million (Dh293m), from 2007's figure of $41m.
"These figures are not much. The volume of mutual trade is not very huge," said Georgiev. "With a direct flight, Bulgaria is relatively closer to the UAE than other traditional exporting countries such as the US, Western Europe countries, Australia and New Zealand."
Georgiev said Bulgaria is still not very popular in the UAE as a tourism destination. "This is due to the lack of direct flights and effective country advertising."
Currently, the Bulgarian consulate issues around 2,000 visit visas per year. UAE nationals comprise 10 per cent, while the rest are UAE residents.
Meanwhile, with its population of 7.5 million, Bulgaria boasts of attracting around two million visitors per year from other parts of the world.
"Unfortunately, I haven't seen any major tourism agency in the UAE that organises special tours to Bulgaria or includes it in its packages. Yet, many who go for a visit would want to go back again.
"I come to realise that the country is not well marketed in the UAE. It is not very popular with local tour agents and this is one of the defects we are trying to mend, by supplying more information and offering some tours to Bulgaria."
He said: "With summer being the high season, we are hoping to have some tours in place this next season for UAE tourism operators to discover Bulgaria."
Georgiev saw the global crisis as an opportunity for tourism in Bulgaria. According to him, being an affordable tourism destination with many natural and historic attractions, Bulgaria offers people trying to cut on their vacation expenditure an option to go for less money and see a new place.
"If you want to attract tourists to a certain market you usually create incentives and offer price reductions. In Bulgaria, we do not have to do anything extraordinary. It is still Europe, but less expensive than other destinations. Thus we are still very much affordable in comparison to traditional Europe such as Spain, Italy and Greece."
He said an advertising campaign is now in the planning stage. "We hope the global crisis is not going to cut deep into our government's budget. Eventually, advertising expenditure tends, though not immediately, to bring substantial returns, which will be a good injection to the economy."
Previous plans to draw around $1 billion UAE investments into the Bulgarian real estate sector in 2008 have been frozen due to the global crisis.
"We have had some plan of investing in the real estate sector in the pipeline. I am afraid all those projects are being frozen for the time being.
"Inevitably, we are going to have a rethink period until the market picks up again. We are still going to look for niches to bring investors in the two countries together," said Georgiev. "We are not a huge market and not a huge recipient of foreign capital either. Small investors have better opportunities, including clean energy sector, gas and petroleum pipelines and agriculture."
- The Bulgarian community in the UAE is between 6,000 and 7,000 people, working mainly in the real estate business and the hospitality sector.
- Despite the economic downturn, the growth rate in Bulgaria is expected to be 2.4 per cent. Bulgaria has achieved an average of five per cent growth in the past few years.