Foreign tourists lured by low prices and tales of friendly locals can find themselves treated like dirt - anywhere from resorts to retailers
Issue 21, June 2008
by Libby Andrews; illustration by Hristo Komarnitski
Bulgaria, a beautiful country with a friendly and hospitable population, fits most expats' description of their ideal host nation. Most of us have been welcomed into our neighbours' homes to be fed on local produce and plied with lashings of rakiya. The lack of a common language is no barrier to these people's generosity. Yet as Bulgaria competes for a larger percentage of foreign tourism, you wonder how many visitors actually leave this pleasant land with warm memories of a kind, generous nation always happy to help. Like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, those same friendly neighbours turn into monsters when behind a shop counter or waiting tables. More than just an inconvenience, the abysmal state of Bulgarian customer service is crippling Bulgaria's attempts to increase tourist revenue.
Hit the road, Jack
The lack of personal service often begins with the flight to Bulgaria. Those who take advantage of Bulgaria Air's services may have encountered grim-faced cabin staff who strut up and down the aisles. They seem to be counting the seconds until they touch down and are freed from the forced smiles and canned pleasantries which they consider affected and unnecessary.
Think again. Skytrax, a website (www.airlinequality.com) featuring airline and airport reviews for and by consumers, rates Bulgaria Air as a two-star airline. One repeated complaint from passengers is the cabin crew's unprofessional attitude and the lack of communication between the airline and passengers. Stories abound about crews on long-haul flights who serve a single drink and meal, and then retire to business class - where they spend the rest of the flight consuming duty-free alcohol. Peter Sykes from Manchester comments, "It did not help that Bulgaria Air staff were less than honest in the information they gave out, indicative of a general contempt for passengers. This is an attitude that we hoped had disappeared with Communism. This airline has a long way to go before it can stand shoulder to shoulder with other companies." John Saville from London maintains, "Bulgaria Air expects its customers to put up routinely with things that most airlines would not consider doing." So rather than receiving a congenial welcome and efficient in-flight service, many visitors are treated with contempt or indifference.
An official Bulgarian welcome
While you're probably not naïve enough to expect a Hawaiian-style welcome with leis and hula dancers, you might still count on a smile at the very least. Your greeting comes from the often surly customs official who, rather than welcoming you to the country, eyes you suspiciously without a nod or smile.
Your first encounter with a real Bulgarian in a non-official capacity will more than likely be a taxi driver, who will use all his foreign language skills to lull you into a false sense of security - before he stings you for double the fare. Those who catch the tour coach from the airport to their accommodation will be spared this brush with local conmen. In that case, your first engagement with these kind and affable folk will be during check-in at your hotel. Some of the big international hotels persevere with staff training and insist that all guests are welcomed with the warmth and professionalism befitting the chain's reputation. Yet many establishments, particularly those in holiday resorts, treat guests with bureaucratic indifference. Complaints about facilities meet with derision and restaurant service is lacking in any social graces.
70 years ago, on 10 March 1943, Bulgaria's pro-Nazi government decided to defy Berlin and halt the deportation of Bulgaria's 50.000 Jews. This was down to the actions of one man - Dimitar Peshev. Just two years later he faced Communist justice and found himself on trial for his life. His niece Kaluda Kiradjieva remembers