Learn how the Balkan nation emerged as a hub for spas and wellness centres in Europe

Published: Mon 7 Feb 2022, 4:09 PM

Last updated: Tue 8 Feb 2022, 9:14 AM

Bulgaria has a long history in the field of balneological treatment.

Some of the baths and spas, known from the Thracian and Roman periods, are: Augusta (Hisarya), Pautalia (Kyustendil), Thermopolis (Burgas Mineral Baths), Germany (Sapareva Banya) and others.

Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia, originated and developed thanks to its mineral springs, because of which Emperor Constantine the Great said: “Serdica is my Rome!”.

The largest Roman bath in the Balkans is located in Bulgaria. The Roman baths in Varna were built in the late second century.

Specialised balneological centres were built by emperors such as Maximilian, Trajan, Septimius Severus and Justinian.

During the Ottoman rule, Turkish baths were actively built, most often on the remains of Roman baths.

In 1885, the first Bulgarian Catalogue of Mineral Waters was created. The first chemical analysis of Bulgarian mineral water (from springs in Hissarya) was carried out in 1882, after which the “Regulations for the operation of Hissar baths” were introduced. It is believed that this is the official beginning of modern spa treatment in our country.

In the early 1950s, several spa resorts were established and profiled by the groups of diseases they could cure.

The presence of balneology in Bulgaria was the focus of the Bulgarian event at Expo 2020 Dubai called “Health & Spa”.

Khaleej Times spoke with Nikolina Angelkova, former Minister of Tourism of Bulgaria and a member of the Bulgarian Parliament, and Associate Professor Rumen Draganov, Director of the Institute of Analysis and Prognosis in Tourism at the University of Library Studies and Information Technologies, Bulgaria.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

What are the major tourism destinations in Bulgaria?

Nikolina Angelkova: Bulgaria ranks third in Europe after Italy and Greece for cultural monuments and artefacts. Bulgaria is a successor of ancient civilisations – Thracians, Romans, Byzantines, and proto-Bulgarians have left exceptionally valuable artistic and architectural evidence of their advanced culture.

They are scattered throughout the country and make it one of the most attractive destinations for people interested in history and culture. Besides these treasure troves, Bulgaria is proud of its pristine nature and amazing biodiversity, which is preserved in the parks and reserves of the country.

Despite the fact that the country occupies only two per cent of Europe’s territory, about 40,000 historical monuments have been registered in Bulgaria. These include prehistoric finds, Thracian tombs, sites from the Greek Age, Roman fortresses, and historical monuments from the time of the First and the Second Bulgarian Kingdoms, and architectural landmarks from the Age of Revival.

Visitors will find much to interest them in the country’s history, culture, ethnography, religion, architecture, and the arts. Unique archaeological sites abound throughout the country – ancient settlement mounds from the Neolithic age, Thracian sanctuaries, and tombs, remains of Roman cities, Byzantine and Mediaeval fortresses, architectural reserves, ethnographic complexes, churches and monasteries, Tekkes (mosques), among many others.

Bulgaria is an all-year-round destination for summer, winter, culture, health, SPA and wellness, and ecotourism, among others. For the winter lovers, who dream about hitting the slopes, now is the perfect time to visit Bulgaria and have an adventure-filled holiday in our top winter resorts Bansko, Borovets, or Pamporovo.

Bansko is one of the best ski resorts in Eastern Europe, annually hosting world sports fora, such as the Ski World Cup in 2021, Borovets has proudly hosted the World Alpine Ski Cup and the European Cup 12 times and Pamporovo is a smaller, more family-friendly resort, with approximately 36 kilomtere of pistes and 270 days of sunshine each year — the perfect place to learn to ski. Our winter resorts offer excellent skiing facilities, slopes, and lifts, where diverse winter sports can be practiced — from skiing, snowboarding to night-skiing, cross-country skiing, biathlon, ski jumps, etc.

Of course, for those seeking unforgettable sunsets, salt waves, and golden beaches, the Bulgarian Black sea coast offers 378km of shoreline and world-class resorts, such as Sunny Beach, which is the largest Bulgarian Black Sea resort, Nessebar — Unesco World Heritage Site with more than 3,000 years of history, Pomorie, famous for the medicinal qualities of the mud extracted during the production of salt in Pomorie Lake ever since ancient times, and Sozopol, among the oldest Black Sea towns, known as one of the cultural and artistic hubs along the coast.

Thanks to its extraordinary natural resources — Bulgaria is Europe’s second-leading country for thermal springs, not to mention its seaside and mountain tourism – the country offers a wealth of high-quality services in the areas of SPA, wellness, and health tourism.

Ancient Thracians used mineral water and the Romans on our lands subsequently built bath complexes around the mineral springs to restore health to soldiers recovering from battle. Among the most famous resorts for SPA, wellness and health tourism are Velingrad, which is the SPA Capital of the Balkans, Sapareva banya, where it is located the only geyser in the country and in entire continental Europe, with a temperature of 103 degrees Celsius.

Many of our summer resorts are also popular SPA and wellness destinations with mineral springs, such as Albena, Golden Sands, Pomorie St. Constantine and Helena.

How many tourists did Bulgaria attract in 2019 and prior to the Covid-19 pandemic?

Angelkova: Tourism inflows grew increasingly in Bulgaria for the last seven years. At the end of 2014, we established the Ministry of Tourism as a separate administration focused on the development of the sector and legislation.

For the period from 2015 to 2019 national and European statistics showed 31 per cent growth in international tourists and 34 per cent in tourism revenue. In fact, 2019 itself was a record year for Bulgarian tourism with over 9.3 million foreign tourist visits to Bulgaria, over BGN 8 (Dh17.18) billion in revenue and over 27 million overnight stays.

Of course, this holds on to the joint efforts of the government with Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, the team of the Ministry of Tourism, and the successful Bulgarian tourism business. The international tourists prior to Covid 19 were coming mainly from Europe, as 62 per cent were from the country members of the European Union (EU).

How has Bulgaria been able to attract tourists from the UAE and the wider region?

Angelkova: Bulgaria has always had fruitful bilateral cooperation with the countries in the region. In fact, Dubai has been among the most popular travel destinations for Bulgarian tourists for the last couple of years.

We aim at extending our partnership and that is why during my tenure as a tourism minister, the negotiations for a Memorandum of Understanding between the Bulgarian Ministry of Tourism and the Ministry of Economy of UAE started, and I expect the document will be signed in the near future so that both countries use the untapped potential of their tourism cooperation.

Bulgaria has excellent tourism cooperation with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), Jordan, and Israel. In 2016 and 2019, we signed cooperation agreements with KSA and Jordan, respectively. Jordan is a preferred destination for cultural tourism for Bulgarians, while thousands of Israeli tourists visit Bulgaria, especially during the summer and winter season, for its beautiful beaches, snowy mountain peaks, luxury hotels and unique cuisine.

Strengthening our tourism cooperation with the UAE and the wider region has always been a priority for our authorities and tourism business.

In 2019, Bulgaria’s revenue from tourism had reached $5 (Dh18.36) billion. How has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted its tourism?

Angelkova: Tourism is a priority sector for the national economy of Bulgaria accounting for up to 12 per cent of the Bulgarian GDP. Thus, the Covid-19 outbreak had a devastating effect on the whole tourism value chain.

For example, the travel restriction measures imposed since the beginning of 2020 affected air transport and led to its drastic drop — in the state of emergency in April 2020, the total number of flights on the territory of the country was down 81.2 per cent, as compared to 2019.

According to our National Statistical Institute, the international tourist visits in March and April 2020 saw an unprecedented decline. The annual rate of decline in international tourist visits in April 2020 amounted to -88.9 per cent, and in total for 2020, the decrease amounts to -60.4 per cent.

Last year, for the period January-November 2021, the total number of international tourist visits was 3,504,729. The increase for the first 11 months of 2021 is 36.1 per cent, as compared to 2020.

How did Bulgaria manage to emerge as a tourist destination with a safe travels stamp accorded by the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) amid the raging Covid-19 pandemic?

Rumen Draganov: Bulgaria is part of the tourist destinations with a safety and hygiene travel stamp, as per a statement from the WTTC from 2020. The organisation is designing a special Safe Travels stamp to enable travellers to identify destinations and accommodations around the world that have applied high standards of safety and hygiene.

The purpose of these protocols is to introduce action plans to optimise business efforts to rebuild the sector after the Covid-19 crisis. Currently, the protocols cover hotels, restaurants, aviation, airports, tour operators, outdoor shopping, convention centres in Bulgaria, taking into account the recommendations of the World Health Organisation (WHO), and were updated regularly by a change in the epidemiological situation. Due to the growth of patients with Covid-19, the anti-epidemic headquarters in Bulgaria ordered temporary measures for restaurants, cinemas, and theatres — from January 27 to work with up to 50 per cent of its capacity and no later than 10pm.

All measures taken by the government are an effort which makes our country part of this initiative. It is also supported by the World Tourism Organisation, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), and others. We expect a very active summer season on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast this summer and the seal is vital to restoring consumer confidence.

How are Bulgaria’s tourist attractions different from its other Balkan neighbours?

Draganov: Turkey, Greece, North Macedonia, Serbia, Romania, and Bulgaria have a shared history on the Balkans with historical ties due to the mere fact that they are neighbors, and because those peoples are so intertwined.

For ages Balkans have shared geography and culture so visitors could not split the area and sometimes understood where they were just reading the tour itinerary by the tour operator: “It’s Friday, so we are in Sofia”. It is impossible to not see the similarities between the cuisines, cultures, and peoples.

Especially the similar parts that are situated in the historical Thrace, Macedonia, Moesia, and Dacia. The same laid-back attitude of people, genuine smiles, hospitality, and the same laughter and joy are everywhere to be seen. Of Course, any region has its specific highlights.

Bulgaria is recognised as a garden with a fresh atmosphere and magnificent views of the forest in the mountains around and prepares its own in-house meals rich in healthy herbs and products while relishing the clean air. The hotels and guest houses in the mountain villages and resorts are mostly crafted in wood, the tradition is everywhere and the rooms are just amazing. What one could see and what makes sense is the traditional product in a traditional environment.

Visitors could visit gorgeous orthodox churches, full of colour and grandeur, and a lot of other historical sites. Many Bulgarian cities are recognised as a spa destination for a reason that some 2,300 years ago were visited by Thracians, Romans, and all, for a healthy reason, and the clean air refreshing as always was used as climate therapy. Most of the visitors (some 72 per cent of all visitors per annum) nowadays visit the Bulgarian Black sea coast in summer.

Sunny days, warm and safe water and a lot of attractions made the season very popular for all ages. Some 350 tour operators from Europe and the world are in competition to bring tourists, mostly via charter flights to Sunny beach, Golden sands, Albena, and most of the 50 very popular cities and villages on the seaside coast.

The suggestion for those who would like to visit Bulgaria and the Balkans is, to visit their local travel agent or to use Google if they would like to make an independent trip. There are many opportunities for travel but the most important is that Bulgaria is a very safe destination for travel.

How is Bulgaria focusing on sustainability while promoting tourism?

Draganov: We’re focused on traditional products in a traditional environment. Holistic medicine known in our lands by the Thracians and Romans relies on highly effective and completely harmless therapeutic methods based on a holistic approach and the healing power of nature.

Because it is both curative and prophylactic, it remains true to the principle of not harming the patient – “Primum non-nocere”. The Romans created the large settlements of Serdika (Sofia), Diocletian (Hissar), Dezudava (Sandanski), Ulpia Pautalia (Kyustendil), and many others. Balneological centres were built by the emperors Trajan, Septimius Severus, Maximilian, Justinian.

At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, these spa and health resorts became very popular not only among the Bulgarian population but also among the European nobility and the growing European middle class. This period became the renaissance of the holistic approach of Bulgarian spa destinations, which today can be seen by visiting beautiful buildings, beautiful parks, and cultural facilities built at that time.

Famous from the time of the Thracians and Romans thermal spas and wellness centres in Bulgaria not only invite you to visit the history of the rich spa and wellness tradition but also offer modern spa and wellness treatments in an environment and infrastructure dedicated to Roman roots: rest, relaxation and well-being for body and soul. Bulgaria is also one of the first places in the world in the variety of herbs with excellent healing properties. This huge wealth of natural factors, combined with modern hotels and spa centres allows for year-round treatment and maintenance of health. Bulgarian spa resorts are a combination of a great climate and an abundance of mineral springs.

The climate is continental and Mediterranean but without the severe storms of Northern Europe and the Saharan heat of the Mediterranean. The combination of mineral springs and healing mud is favourable for healing, recovery, and rest throughout the year. Bulgarian mineral waters have a diverse chemical composition, mineralization, temperature, gases, and microorganisms.

Bulgaria has a number of beautiful, richly landscaped resorts with valuable mineral waters. They have a spa and physiotherapy, sanatoriums, clinics, beaches, swimming pools and last but not least – modern hotels for recreation.

Today the big balneological centres are Sandanski, Velingrad, Hissarya, Kyustendil, Kostenets, Devin, Sapareva Banya, Varshets, and others.The Black Sea resorts with a rich opportunity for spa, spa, and wellness tourism are Albena, Golden Sands, Riviera, Sunny Day, St. Constantine and Helena, Pomorie, Sozopol, Nessebar, and others. There are rich opportunities for holistic treatment and recreation in the mountain resorts of Borovets, Bansko, Pamporovo, and others. The magnificent nature, the clean air, the mineral waters are their invaluable riches.

The main and very important factor is the climatic conditions. Pleasant and healthy climate all year round. Among the first in Europe in terms of richness and diversity of hydrothermal waters and organic climatotherapy.

Over 661 mineral springs, in operation with a flow rate of about 5000 in a second, from cold to water with temperatures up to 103 degrees Celsius. Bulgaria is among the first in Europe in the richness and diversity of hydrothermal waters and bio-climatic treatment. On the territory of the country, there are five deposits of estuarine mud by the sea in the central part of Western Bulgaria, and two with spring-peat mud in the central and southwestern part of the country.

A total of 164 are certified SPAs, wellness, and thalassotherapy centres in the country. Their number is expected to increase, as an expert commission at the Ministry of Tourism promptly inspects on-site sites that have applied for certification. The number of nights spent in them in 2021 exceeds 6.7 million and marked a positive increase of 4.7 per cent, as compared to the previous year.

Over 87 per cent trips to spa destinations in Bulgaria are related to domestic tourism. Domestic tourism in Bulgaria is expected to double the intensity of free travel over the next three decades and by 2050 domestic travel to reach 38 million trips per year or an average of 6.3 tourist trips per person, with a travel duration of 2.8 days and industrialised tourism related to organised packages.


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