Friday, February 23, 2007

Macedonians Wait Months for Bulgarian Visas

It sounds speedy enough. You dial 05805855 on a February morning and book an appointment with the Bulgarian consulate - in May.

This is how Macedonians have been obtaining visas for Bulgaria since January 1, when Sofia introduced travel restrictions on entry from non-EU countries.

Until a month-and-a-half ago, Macedonians traveled freely to Bulgaria. But after Bulgaria joined the European Union, it was obliged to harmonise its border policy with that of other member countries.

Sofia delayed enforcing the restrictions until the last moment. It also promised to compensate for the new impediment by introducing a free, easy, fast-track visa procedure for neighbours from Macedonia and Serbia.

But the thousands of Macedonians who have been trying since January to obtain visas from Bulgarian consulates say the procedure is neither simple nor fast. Obtaining individual tourist or business visas now involves submitting lists of documents and takes more than two months.

The only alternative is to use the services of travel agencies who claim they can get visas in days.

After the stressful start to the new regime, which saw long queues stretching outside the consulates, the Bulgarian consulates set up the call centre so that people could avoid queuing.

But callers have been disappointed to find out that the next available appointments with the Bulgarian consular officials are usually no earlier than April if they are using the consulate in Bitola and May if they are applying to Skopje.

The result has been a drastic fall in the number of Macedonians traveling to Bulgaria by a factor of about 80 per cent.

Data that Balkan Insight obtained from the border police at the three check-points shows about five times more people crossed the border in December 2006 than in January 2007.

About 73,000 Macedonians passed through the Deve Bair checkpoint, for example, in December, while in January the figure was only about 13,000.

While businessmen on both sides of the border believe the hiccup is likely to be temporary, Bulgaria's tourist industry, in which Macedonians are important clients, is suffering severe stress.

In 2006, almost 550,000 Macedonians entered Bulgaria as tourists, according to the Bulgarian Tourism State Agency. But many Macedonians have now canceled bookings at the Bansko ski resort, where they were regular visitors. Others have cut off their weekend shopping trips to the border towns of Kyustendil, Blagoevgrad and Sandanski.

Donco Nacev, of the ARBO tourist agency in Skopje, says this sector of the industry is facing a slump. "Customers [for trips to Bulgaria] have dropped by 90 per cent," he said, even after a drop in prices.

Maria Govedareva, a hotel manager in Bansko, said only half her usual guests from Macedonia had arrived in January. "Those who did come said they had troubles getting visas," she added.

In Kyustendil and Blagoevgrad, the situation seems even worse. "Our Macedonian and Serbian customers have simply vanished," said Angelina Hristova, manager of a restaurant and hotel in Kyustendil. "I miss them."

Hristova said many people used to come to the town for weekend shopping and would drop by to chat even if they were not staying at her hotel. Since the beginning of 2007, they had disappeared.

Bulgarian and Macedonian companies are less stressed. They see the current problems as an unpleasant but temporary obstacle, pending the hoped-for introduction of new multi-entry, one-year visas for business travelers.

Trade between the two countries remains brisk having almost doubled over the last 10 years, reaching 319 million US dollars in 2005 and 380 million dollars last year.

In the meantime, Macedonian businessmen like Skopje-based Sasho Avelovski struggle with the new bureaucratic procedures just like the rest of the population.

To obtain a Bulgarian visa, Avelovski has to submit his contract with his Bulgarian partner, an invitation asserting that he works with the country on regular basis and proof of travel insurance.

Avelovski said he applied for his first visa on January 15 and was asked to supply his documents on February 15. He was lucky he had only to wait for one month.

To lessen the burden of the visa regime on the Bulgarian embassy in Skopje, the Bulgarians opened a new consulate in Macedonia in Bitola last December.

It is now clear that this measure alone was not enough and that the two Bulgarian missions lack the staff to cope with the thousands of Macedonians seeking entry permits.

Miho Mihov, Bulgaria's ambassador to Macedonia, said the two consulates were acting scrupulously in processing visas and with "an absolute order and responsibility towards the European Union".

But he admitted that the two offices issued only a combined total of 340 visas per day, well short of what is needed, given that about 2,000 Macedonians entered Bulgaria daily in 2006.

Nacev blames poor organisation in the consulates. "It looks as if the visas took Bulgaria's understaffed embassies by surprise," he said. "They could have been prepared better, so the [number of] tourists would not have dropped so much."

Nacev said at least for travel agencies, the situation was improving. "We have priority and can get the visas in one or two days," he claimed.

If this discrepancy continues, travel agents stand to do good business in future, handling the needs of all those who cant afford to wait months for visas.

Vasil Gaytanov, a Bulgarian tourist agent, agreed that the Bulgarian authorities had been wrong-footed.

"The situation is another version of what the Bulgarian authorities experience each winter, when the snow takes them by surprise," he said. "The [problems over the] introduction of visas were as foreseeable as heavy snow in January. In the same way it has - absurdly - left the state looking flabbergasted."

1 comment:

Geoff said...

Wow as an Australian Passport holder we just were able to enter without a Visa and got a think it was 90day stay.
Actually went there to buy a house which was so easy.
So this blog was a suprise