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Bulgaria's empty Black Sea resorts brace for tough summer

SUNNY BEACH, Bulgaria (Reuters) - Sunny Beach, Bulgaria’s largest Black Sea resort known for its vibrant night life and packed coastline, is like a ghost town.

Slideshow ( 4 images )

After the coronavirus pandemic closed borders, grounded flights and forced people to stay home, just a handful of holiday makers sunbathe among hundreds of unopened umbrellas and untouched sunbeds on its 5 km stretch of golden sand.

“I do not remember anything like that,” said Rumen Monchev, owner of a seafront hotel. “If we break even this year, then we will be super good.”

Monchev has cut his prices, invested in screens to separate tables in the dining area and employed a “COVID-19 sheriff” to ensure his hotel is a safe place amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Still, out of 160 Hungarians he was expecting last week, only 33 came.

Tourism accounts for about 12% of Bulgaria’s economic output and provides a lifeline for thousands of people in the European Union’s poorest member state.

To salvage something from the summer holiday season, the government has offered subsidies for charter flights and slashed concession fees so beach operators can offer cheaper sunbeds while keeping the coasts safe and disinfected.

Bulgaria, which has a relatively low number of coronavirus cases, has opened its borders for leisure travel to most countries in Europe since early June.

Still, the pandemic has cut planned charter flights to Bulgaria’s Black Sea gateways at Varna and Burgas for the season by 35% compared to 2019. A similar drop is expected for regular flights, Tourism Minister Nikolina Angelkova said.

Over 9 million foreign tourists visited Bulgaria last year and Angelkova had been planning for 10% growth in 2020.

“We were expecting the best summer yet. Unfortunately, this is no longer on the agenda,” she said. “Let’s hope we can kick-start the season from July, spin the wheel and build on that.”

On Thursday, the country registered 128 new cases of the coronavirus, bringing the total to 4,242, including 209 deaths.

For now, about 60-70% of the hotels in the two main Black Sea resorts -- Sunny Beach and Golden Sands -- plan to open in the coming days, betting on the resumption of charter flights from the Netherlands and Germany later this week.

“I have long stopped even looking at the bookings ... We are all on standby,” said Teodor Pastarmadzhiev, managing member of the Union of hotel owners in Sunny Beach.

He hopes leisure travel restrictions will be lifted for key markets like Britain, Russia and Ukraine next month and holiday makers will start arriving en masse in August.

Additional reporting by Angel Krasimirov; Editing by Mike Collett-White

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