The refugees should go, the vacationers should come – this is the Bulgarian government’s plan for the upcoming beach season in a nutshell. Tens of thousands of people who have fled Ukraine are currently living in the hotel complexes on the Black Sea. When war broke out in their homeland, the government in Sofia had an idea: Refugees would occupy the vacant large hotels and holiday homes.
The state pays their operators 40 leva (almost 20 euros) per person per day. This not only helps those who are suffering from Russian aggression, but also the hoteliers who have had to endure a lack of visitors in the past two summers due to the pandemic.
For the Ministry of Tourism, which was suddenly also responsible for war refugees in addition to the hospitality industry, two hardships were alleviated at once.
But by May 31, the refugees should make room so that the beach tourists can check in. Because the holiday guests bring more money into the coffers of hotels, restaurateurs or souvenir dealers.
The decision to stay in hotels “was unconventional, but more than right for many reasons,” said Deputy Prime Minister Kalina Konstantinova in a video address a few days ago. So it was possible “quickly and safely to provide accommodation and food, security and peace”.
But the holiday season is of great importance: “This industry provides the livelihood of many Bulgarians and their families, it accounts for a significant percentage of our GDP, and it is our duty to ensure a successful summer season for Bulgaria,” Konstantinova explained.
Preparations are underway in resorts and restaurants along the Black Sea coast. Everywhere is hammered and screwed, plastered and repainted. At the same time, the move of the refugees is being prepared.
Almost 250,000 people from Ukraine have come to Bulgaria since the beginning of the war. Many of the mostly women with children traveled on, but a good 100,000 plan to stay in the country for the time being. According to official figures, around 60,000 are staying in hotels. Some are fleeing from bombs, others from their everyday lives.
In the hustle and bustle on Sunny Beach, for example, the first groups of young men, often from Great Britain or Germany, who are looking for cheap alcohol and entertainment, meet Ukrainians who are building a new life in Bulgaria.
A young woman is sitting with her mother on the shore of Gold Sands, the country’s most famous seaside resort. At the end of April they fled Odessa. They actually wanted to go to Poland. But the journey there was too unsafe, says Sofia, who only gives her first name. Since then they have been living in one of Zlatni Pjazazi’s bed castles.
The sun loungers are ready in front of the hotels, most of them are still free. Hotel pools are being filled, flowerbeds are being planted along the waterfront. The party mile smells of fresh tar, an open-air disco is testing its sound system.
Sofia is grateful for the help in Bulgaria. It’s okay in the hotel so far, she says, but there is an element of uncertainty in her voice. She would like to go back to Odessa.
She does not yet know what will happen at the end of the month. “Maybe we’ll move to Varna,” she says, to the nearby port city. She just wants to wait and see what will happen.
Many are like Sofia. Some refugees have found work and want to rent their own apartments, while the government will arrange accommodation for others. They are to move to state and municipal shelters.
Where exactly is often still unclear. Apparently, the capacities are not sufficient either. According to government information from the beginning of May, 26,000 places still have to be found.
Among other things, convalescent homes, which the government has maintained since Soviet times, are under discussion. If necessary, sports halls would be considered as accommodation, it is said, but the government wants to avoid this. Hotels in ski areas that are empty over the summer are also under discussion. However, many Ukrainians do not want to live in their seclusion.
Many have found jobs and enrolled their children in schools and kindergartens. Moving would mean starting all over again somewhere else. Some employers in the tourism industry are already counting on the Ukrainians to fill their staffing shortages.
Two towns in north-eastern Bulgaria have asked the tourism ministry to extend the government program – so that the Ukrainians can integrate more easily locally, but also because they are not expecting enough tourists to fill all the beds.
Atanas Rusew, a policy expert at the think tank Center for the Study of Democracy, says it’s better for some to continue receiving money from the state. Due to the construction boom of the past, there are significantly more beds than visitors.
People’s uncertainty, the government’s slow decision-making process and a lack of preparation could lead to “certain tensions at the end of the month”, he fears. He also sees no longer-term strategy for dealing with the refugees.
There is another problem: disinformation that Russia is using in a targeted manner to turn the mood in Bulgarian society against the refugees. The narrative that is haunting social media: instead of supporting poorer Bulgarians in their everyday lives, the state is financing refugees to stay in chic hotels by the sea. Jealous citizens and refugees are being turned against each other, Rusew warns.
The refugee issue is not the only shadow over the summer season. No tourists will come to the country from Ukraine this year. Due to cut flight connections and sanctions, most visitors from Russia are likely to stay away.
It was usually 300,000 to 400,000 per year, almost ten percent of all holidaymakers on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast. Many Russians own holiday properties there, and they will remain largely unused. Some owners tried to sell their vacation homes, the media reports, while others opened them up to refugees.
At the end of April, Deputy Minister of Tourism Irena Georgieva expected “an increase of 30 percent compared to last year” in bookings. This is reason for cautious optimism.
At the same time, complaints are being heard that holidaymakers from Central and Western Europe, who saved some business last year due to the less strict handling of Corona in Bulgaria, are likely to avoid Southeast Europe this time – because it is too close to the Ukraine theater of war for them.
Many on the Black Sea therefore fear further losses in sales even after the two Corona years. A young souvenir dealer in the old town of Sosopol is looking forward to the coming weeks with concern. Russians in particular bought the colorfully decorated ceramic vases, bowls and pots in his shop, he says.
“Actually, things should go uphill after the pandemic,” was his hope just a few weeks ago. “Now it’s hard to say how the season will be,” says the young man. “It depends on the Russians.”
A waiter in a restaurant with a sea view also says: “Russian tourists will be missed. That’s a problem.” They are important for the region, he says. “They like to come and we like them.”