Almost five years have passed since European Union membership was granted to Bulgaria, but the question of joining the Schengen visa zone is still an item on the EU agenda. The Schengen Area operates like a single state for travel with border controls at the border of the area but no internal border controls. Last year, the EU postponed Bulgaria’s entrance to Schengen zone because of the perceived risk of mass migration to European countries. This week it was decided to postpone entry until September at the earliest, something that was met with fury in Bulgaria. The hold-up, which also affects Romania, is due to the Netherlands continued insistence the two countries have not made enough progress against organized crime and corruption. However, when it comes to tourism the decision means a potential double-edged sword, it means the difficulties for some Western tourists to visit Bulgaria will be alleviated; conversely it could lead to increase in problems for visitors from the emerging Eastern tourism market. In 2010 alone, Russia accounted for the fourth highest number of visitors to Bulgaria with 378,382 tourists flocking to the country.

Obstacles to visa-free regime

While the EU has concluded there has been a lack of measures to fight against corruption and organized crime in Bulgaria, other opponents, including Germany, Netherlands and France, have also shown resistance due to a possible increase of illegal migrants to Europe through Bulgarian borders. “We doubt quality of control on this border,” French Minister for European Affairs, Pierre Lellouche, was quoted as saying. France and Netherlands, in particular, expressed concerns about safety of EU borders and Bulgaria’s migration policy, giving both countries strong reason to oppose Bulgaria’s pretensions to Schengen membership. Along with the problem of EU borders security France posed the question of corruption in Bulgaria. EU expects “visible and steady results” to be achieved in a fight against corruption to establish visa-free regime in the country.

EU suggestions

The EU hasn’t been completely without praise. Bulgaria was complemented for the introduction of special court to combat organized crime. Unfortunately, the EU claims these measures have not gone far enough for Bulgaria to join the Schengen zone. The EU further recommends Bulgaria take a set of measures to get a positive answer from EU members. According to an EU report, the country still has to adopt laws on confiscation of stolen property and maintain transparency in state business, such as tenders.

Changes to visa policy: Bulgaria and CIS countries

It’s not all bad news, the EU doubts still place Bulgaria in good stead. Tourism to the country is greatly influenced by travelers from neighboring countries and members of the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), such as Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. In 2010, Bulgaria changed its visa policy for these countries making it much easier for nationals from them to visit, this led to a flood of tourists from Russia who accounted for the fourth highest number that year. Prior to this change, it was necessary to wait from 10 to 30 days to receive a Bulgarian visa, the new rules slashed that waiting time to just 10 days. This step fueled an increase in CIS tourism to Bulgaria and proved a windfall for the country’s economy.

Unfortunately, tourists from the CIS could run into problems, if and when Bulgaria enters the Schengen Area. Meanwhile, a visa-free regime for visitors from the Western world will rule out the need to obtain an additional Bulgarian visa.

By Olga Leleka, who is part of a team of writers at hotel reservation website www.booked.net. The website includes a comprehensive listing of Bulgarian hotels.