Tourism to Bulgaria is big and the reason is FRAPORT and their unique approach. All this would not work without Burgas and Varna airports. Ulrich Heppe is the Chief Executive Officer of FRAPORT Twin Star Airport Management in Varna, Bulgaria. eTN publisher Juergen Steinmetz caught up with Mr. Heppe and the head of global communication for FRAPORT Mr. Robert Payne at the recent ITB trade show in Berlin.
Mr Heppe said: “We are extremely satisfied with 2017, because in 2016 we saw 22 percent growth in Burgas and Varna airports, and everyone was a little bit afraid 2017 might be a dip, but it did not happen. On the contrary, in Burgas, we kept this very high level. We had another 3.6 percent growth and in Varna 17 percent.
Two years ago, we started a new aviation market and strategy, which was called Twin Star 25. We convinced Ryanair to use Varna airport as a base what assured year-round traffic in 2017. This is one of the major drivers and the reason we saw 17 percent growth.
Having 8 new destinations in 7 new countries is really good for the Varna region, and in Burgas we also convinced Ryanair to open a base in the beginning of 2018. At the end of March, they will base a plane there which will bring significant growth this year.
We are really satisfied with the development, and the good news is that after a successful 2017, we can look forward to a positive 2018. It’s still a little bit early to see what will happen in the high summer season of 2018, but we expect another double-digit growth – something between 10 to 12 percent for Burgas and Varna together. So, traffic wise we are on the sunny side again.
In 2017 we had minus 11 percent in Russian traffic. So, the Russians that were big drivers for incoming tourism in 2016, went back to Turkey or Egypt in 2017 what was painful for us
Did the requirements for Russian to need visas for EU play a role in traffic loss?
No, in 2016 there was a conflict between Putin and Turkey after Turkey shot down the Russian aircraft. Putin stopped all traffic to Turkey, and a lot of this traffic came to Bulgaria.
Nevertheless, in 2017 although we had the Russian decline, other nations compensated for it with Germany being strong, and Poland the Czech Republic as the new rising stars and also the UK and other destinations. So, I am happy for my colleagues in FRAPORT in St. Petersburg, Russia, that they had a spike, even though the ruble is not so strong any longer.
We operate airports at 30 FRAPORT Groups, so we have this nice synergy when one destination is suffering then another one is profiting. In Bulgaria, which is all I can really speak about, we are quite happy with the developments.
eTN: When you say a base for Ryanair, it means they use it as a connecting point to other destinations?
Base means they put one aircraft there, and this flies 3 times a day, and they hire Bulgarian staff, Bulgarian pilots. Same with Wizz Air – they based an aircraft in Varna, and they haven’t done this before. With Ryanair, it is their 87th space in Europe, and with Wizz Air this was their 28th space. If you’re an airport operator, you want to convince airlines to base aircrafts, because once they base an aircraft, they stick to you.
Without base they might come to you 2 times a week unless they base an aircraft there, then they arrive 3 times a day which creates lots of opportunity for the people living in these areas.
Just to give you an example, after Wizz Air came to Varna, my neighbor – a Bulgarian guy with a wife and a young child – told me in the past 3 months, we flew to Monaco, we flew to Munich, we flew to Milan. He never would have done there if he didn’t have this Varna based aircraft. They just don’t have the connectivity there.
eTN: So, it helps outgoing and also incoming tourism. Did the tourism increase then in Varna and to the area?
Yes, the big part of this 17 percent growth in Varna in 2017 is driven by this.
eTN: It’s such a big economical factor and provides job security.
Yes, it is good for business, not only for tourism, especially in Varna where it is a really attractive business destination, but the businesses have always complained that they could do much more and attract even more international investment if we could have the connectivity. So, this also is about to change, not only with a positive impact on tourism, but on business and industries, so I am very happy for the region and the city.
eTN: Is Varna competing in a way with Sofia?
Not so much. I would say that Bulgaria splits into 2 parts. You have the eastern part, which is Varna and Burgas, and you have Sofia and the western parts, which is the other half of Bulgaria. In the eastern part of Bulgaria, the product is different. It is more about beautiful summers and sandy beaches, but also beautiful landscapes and mountains, and fine cuisine and wine, along with hunting. Sofia is more of a city break and skiing in the surrounding mountains.
Varna is also a student university town, and there are also a lot of German students there.
We have 5 universities in Varna and lots of foreign students who are here to attend the medical university of Varna with hundreds of German students studying there.
If you don’t know this, you wouldn’t believe this, but everyone who doesn’t get into a university in Germany and doesn’t want to wait, they go to Varna and do their first 2 years of medical study in Varna, and then they move back to Germany for years 3 and 4. Some choose to stay because it is a very pleasant place to live in Varna.
The young people love to do these city-hopping trips, especially with low-cost carriers. Varna attracts more of the younger people and it’s a student town anyway, while Burgas is more family oriented.
Originally Varna was a traditional beach vacation place for Eastern Europeans and Russians, but it has become much more than that now. It is one of these hidden destinations that is becoming known that people want to visit.
It’s unique selling points is that Varna is safe. On the United Nations Global Peace Index, it ranks much higher than other destinations, specially comparing it to Turkey, Egypt, and Russia. Also, it is nearby – a 2-hour flight from Germany, 3 hours from all over the EU countries. It is very beautiful and is still a good value for money. Bulgaria has great food and wine, and mineral springs.
There are UNESCO Heritage sites, and it is also big on cultural and historical tourism. Golf is becoming quite popular, and Varna has 3 golf courses at the European top level. They are as good as the Scottish golf courses but with better weather and lower prices.
eTN: So, people that go there, do they rent cars?
We have a car rental businesses at both airports. It’s good to drive there; the streets are fine.
Individual traffic is also increasing thanks to the new connections of Wizz Air and Ryanair, but also Turkish Airlines, Austrian and other scheduled traffic. The dependency on package tourism is no longer an issue.All-inclusive tourism is still popular, but individual traffic is also increasing.
Trying to get more people traveling beyond the traditional tourism months is developing very well. It took us awhile to convince airlines to come also in the spring, autumn, and winter, but now they are coming with a good seat-load factor of about 85-90 percent. They are being very smart about yield management, so if they see their aircraft isn’t full, they lower the prices to attract more people.
eTN: So even if they go with low prices during the low season, this is still sustainable for the airline?
If the aircraft is full, then yes. Most of the airlines make their big money in the summer months, so in the winter months, this keeps them flowing versus staying on the ground.