Terrorist attack puts Bulgaria in uncharted territory

By bne IntelliNews July 19, 2012

Andrew MacDowall in Belgrade -

July 18's deadly terrorist attack on buses carrying Israeli tourists is grim new territory for Bulgaria. The country has been deeply shaken by the tragedy, and its reputation as an ultra-safe and carefree tourist destination - one of the few bright spots of its beleaguered economy - will take time to recover.

By the next morning, July 19, at least eight were confirmed dead and 34 injured after a blast on a bus at the airport in Burgas, a city on the Black Sea coast that is an important entry point for nearby resorts. Investigators were working on the theory that a suicide bomber was responsible.

Israel has immediately blamed Iran for the attack, which came 18 years after the bombing of a Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires, Argentina that was blamed on Hezbollah and Iran.

Bulgaria had stepped up security for Israeli visitors recently after a suspicious package was allegedly found on a bus carrying tourists from Israel in the country in January.

Bulgaria's president, prime minister and interior minister all swiftly arrived on the scene. Interior Minister Tsevtan Tsvetanov said that the authorities had had no warning of the attack.

Weakest link

Political terrorism has been unheard of in Bulgaria in the post-Communist era. Clashes between the government and the Turkish minority in the 1980s led to a number of bombings, which have variously been blamed on Turkish terrorists or the Bulgarian security services, but tourists have not been successfully targeted before. Small bombs have been placed in the country in recent years, but these were linked to mafia turf wars and caused very few casualties. The country has a fearsome reputation for organised crime, but this never impacts on tourists. Violent crime is negligible, and violence rare - in four years living in Bulgaria, your correspondent saw not a single fight.

Fundamentally, this attack was about politics in the Middle East, rather than Bulgaria. But it will leave deep scars on the Balkan country nonetheless. "Bulgaria was probably chosen as the weakest link," Petar Karaboev, a Bulgarian journalist, tells bne

The country has a strong reputation as a cheap beach and ski tourism destination, and attracted 8.71m foreign tourists last year - a figure that is probably inflated by Turks of Bulgarian origin visiting family and shuttle traders, but one that is nonetheless impressive for a country of just over 7m people. Tourism directly and indirectly contributes upwards of 10% of GDP. The country is particularly popular with Europeans on budget package holidays.

Tourist arrivals last year included 138,613 Israelis, up 6% on 2010, according to official figures. According to Karaboev, Bulgaria is particularly popular with Israelis for a number of reasons, including that many Israelis of Eastern European origin are familiar with the country from Communist-era visits. Bulgaria is seen as a cheap place to gamble for some, while it has also established a reputation as a low-cost place to have a Jewish marriage. The recent worsening of relations between Israel and Turkey, particularly over the 2010 Gaza flotilla raid has also led some Israelis to opt for Bulgaria instead.

"Frankly, this is something very new for us, and I could only speculate about the effects of this act," Daniel Smilov of the Centre for Liberal Strategies, a Sofia-based think-tank, tells bne. "This seems to be different from other acts of international terrorism in Europe. Thus far, such acts have taken place in cosmopolitan cities, capitals of big European states, and so on. With the act in Burgas, it is obvious that the target has been chosen on the basis of vulnerability and security considerations. If this is really organised in one way or another by Iran, this will be the first internationally sponsored terrorist act on the territory of Bulgaria (at least since the times the Communist International was influential in the country in the 1920s and 1930s). We of course fear a negative impact on Bulgarian tourism, but these are rather secondary consideration for the moment."

That the attack is likely to have been a one-off may not filter through to the tourism industry and prospective visitors. Cancellations are likely. Bulgaria suffers from the fact that its tourism proposition is not unique and tends to compete largely on price: sun, sea and sand, and skiing are available elsewhere. Cultural, outdoors and spa tourism, while they have great potential, are underdeveloped and largely limited to a minority of adventurous visitors.

In time, the sector should recover, though a repeat of the July 18 attack, while unlikely, would be disastrous. The Bulgarian government, and the tourism sector, will have its work cut out reassuring the world that the country remains an extremely safe place to visit. Bulgaria was also one of July 18's innocent victims.

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