Same Trade Different Era – BALKAN NEWS MAGAZINE

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A quarter of a decade ago when first arriving on these shores, I was amazed by the official statistics showing the numbers of tourists visiting the country annually. It wasn’t as if these had been published in the local rag based on what someone had said over a long lunch in a smoke filled restaurant. No, these figures were meticulously obtained directly from the National Statistics Institute located near the Levski Monument.

For some strange reason I remember it well as scores of Bulgarian flags were draped around the statue in preparation for the March 3rd holiday. These figures stuck in my head, or should I say had me scratching my head, as they were barely believable or certainly not to be believed if, as a westerner, we perceived overseas tourists to be foreigners coming to the country for the beach, the snow or some sort of relaxing leisure break.

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Perhaps what I should have factored into the equation was that tourism could also mean ‘”business tourism’’ although even that would still not logically balance up the numbers. Months later and still scratching my head over the figures and with business now in place I quickly realised that any statistic that came from the government was total nonsense. This was particularly true of tourism figures, an area where I had core knowledge of how the industry worked and how the numbers stacked up. I recall the first ski season spent in Bulgaria when in early December, the State run Balkantourist office announced to the gullible that ‘”all the hotels for the forthcoming ski season were fully booked”.

When this was discussed with local friends who didn’t doubt the states’ voice piece I asked them ‘”then why can you or I walk into any travel agency in the UK and book a ski holiday to Bulgaria for any time this “forthcoming winter?   One could hear them thinking the thought through, but no answer was forthcoming. Even as recent as a couple of few years ago, Sofia was ranked something like 40th most visited cities in the world with figures not based on any independent measuring authority but based on Government statistics. Whilst this in theory could be true, it would have required numbers akin to the Normandy Landings in 1944 to reach the numbers being thrown around, let alone an extra 200 flights per week arriving in the capital: bare in mind this was for Sofia not the Black Sea or for ski resorts! Still, as long as people believe this nonsense does it really matter whether the facts are true or not?

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Anyhow, back to the point; the figures from 25 years ago (as I soon sussed out when I crossed neighbouring land borders) actually included absolutely anyone who came across the Turkish, Serbian and Macedonia borders. Thus the huge tourism figures would include ethnic Turks residing on the South East of the country and it would also include the masses of day trader’s et al who commuted from Serbia and Macedonia to Bulgaria to stock up their bags with whatever they could sell at a profit in their home country. A staple part of this trade was cigarettes. Little wonder then that Bulgaria indeed did have massive ‘”tourism’’ numbers> Strictly speaking, these people were indeed tourists albeit ‘’not as we understand it‘’.

To some extent the same practice still takes place today with day traders coming into the country and plying their trade in what is a modern day evolution of this very same concept, a concept which invariably revolves around tobacco.

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We have reported recently on the rise and onward and upward rise in both the numbers of Low Cost Airlines arriving in Bulgaria, though mainly in Sofia, and the huge increases in passengers that results from this phenomenon. One can readily obtain a ticket for 10 Euro (or less) per way to numerous countries but in particular to the UK and Germany; so let’s set the scene on what happens next in today’s world of entrepreneurs.

Transporting tobacco or cigarettes in whatever quantities one wishes is perfectly legal as long as it’s for personal use, only when the authorities suspect that cigarettes are being transported for commercial purposes do the alarm bells ring. Stories abound of local customs people opening suitcases stacked full with tobacco products at airports and thus thwarting people’s attempts to make a quick buck. This usually a plan hatched as they returned home after a week or two spent on the Black Sea where the opportunity presented itself. The situation now though, is that people travelling on the new breed of airlines often just have hand luggage with them as opposed to checking in suitcases which they would have to pay extra for an airline. Indeed, they may well be only hours in the country before their flight home, so no need for checking baggage.

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So the ‘entrepreneur’ gets his 10 Euro flight, comes to Bulgaria with hand luggage, containing nothing more than a toothbrush, and change of underwear – or maybe not even that, although going through an airport scanner with a totally empty bag is somewhat suspicious!  – then, once airside, prior to the flight home, and when all the various checks and scanners have been gone through, the person heads straight to the duty free shop – which is not really duty free, but never mind – then crams in as many cartons of cigarettes into his hand baggage as is possible, safe in the knowledge that no further checks will ensue before he gets onto his plane! Quite a simple process really.

Just to do the economics on this; a packet of cigarettes in Bulgaria costs 2.5 Euro (one of the more expensive ones), the same brand in the UK (for example) costs 11.00 Euro. Our traveller then sets about cramming 20 cartons of cigarettes into his hand luggage or at least as many as he/she can squeeze in there and not forgetting that any purchase made in ‘”duty free” can also be carried onto a plane in a ”Sofia Airport’” plastic bag. The purchase cost of the 20 cartons is around 550 Euro; the selling price in the UK is 1650 Euro, allowing for a profit of 1,100 Euro excluding any discounts the entrepreneur may give to get rid of his wares. All this for what amounts to a day’s work!

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This scheme will only work when flight costs are low such as at this time of year and indeed for six months of the year the air fares, even on Low Cost Carriers might prohibit the entrepreneurial spirit! However, when the fares are low what is stopping our traveller doing two or even more trips per week? Booking the travel well in advance allows for cheaper travel and a nice little earner. It might indeed turn out to be full time employment!

Perhaps the bottom line of all this is that the advent of Low Cost Travel in and out of Bulgaria facilitates all kinds of new openings: some obvious, such as short break tourism, whilst some opportunities are merely the revival or the evolution of an age old entrepreneurial spirit.

By Mark Thomas CEO Jamadvice HRG – Bulgaria

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