Romania and Bulgaria Join the EU

Residents of Romania and Bulgaria had plenty to celebrate on January 1, when both countries were inducted into the European Union. For Romania and Bulgaria, entry into the EU translates to economic and political stability. For agents, it means that travel to two emerging destinations just got easier.

A panoramic view of Sibiu, Romania

In addition to the economic and political benefits of joining the EU (both countries hope membership will boost their per capita wealth and eradicate any association with their Communist pasts), Romania and Bulgaria are now also free from customs and passport checks at their borders.

"For many years, access to central and western Europe was a problem," says Simion Alb, director of the Romania Tourist Office in New York. "This may be a bad memory, because aside from roads being built, more budget airlines are serving Romania and increasing their capacity. Access will be faster and less expensive."

In fact, both countries seem to have anticipated an increase in visitors with their accession into the EU. Earlier this month, Bulgaria expanded its Sofia airport with a new terminal, and in Romania, Alb says hoteliers are now focusing on areas outside Bucharest, the country's capital. Investors have taken notice, as evidenced by the Spanish Ferry Group, a family of property development companies that recently invested in expanding a golf course near the Bulgarian capital of Sofia. Plans include a sports complex with pools, tennis courts, a hotel and shopping.

Experts believe it is not only the recent developments that will draw attention to these nations. "Bulgaria has wonderful nature, beautiful mountains and fantastic spa treatments," says Ardemis Massarlian, an American Express travel specialist for Bulgaria and a native of the country. "Visitors are going there to sightsee and also to relax, either at the beach or in the mountains. Bulgaria also has a very rich history—this is an opportunity to see great Christian Orthodox churches, old Roman rotundas, underground basilicas and, at the same time, see a newly developed, democratic European country." Alb adds that from April to October, Romania offers hundreds of heritage-based folk festivals, including one highlighting medieval arts in Sighisoara.

"For three days at the end of July, the city is recreating the atmosphere of old Sighisoara, with live demonstrations of craft making, music, drama and street parades," he says.

For travel agents, the countries should be easy to sell, since each has upscale restaurants and quality hotels juxtaposed with historic churches and monasteries, says Anastasia Mann, also of Bulgarian descent and CEO of the West Hollywood, CA-based Corniche Group agency. "It's been the best-kept secret," she says of Bulgaria. "Where Prague developed a huge market for upscale tourism right off the bat, Bulgaria's been a bit slower to come to the minds of travelers, but it's still an incredible value." How long that value will last, however, is yet to be determined now that Bulgaria and Romania have joined the EU. "They eventually must deal with currency issues, but the Bulgarian lev has been very weak [compared] to the dollar, which is the only part of Europe where you can see that," says Mann. Alb believes neither country will adopt the euro before 2012.

Many tour operators have established programs in Romania and Bulgaria, and both tour offices are making big marketing pushes this year, which will only spur more interest in the countries in the minds of both travelers and suppliers. "The positive side of the marketing campaign is that they are improving the communication and contracts of different vendors," says Massarlian, quickly adding, "but even before the two entered the EU, I had travelers interested in the destinations. These are countries located in the crossroads of Europe and they have always been of interest."

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