Lifestyle & Culture

Sun, spas and spies: Post-COVID, health-and-spa tourism is the new focus in Bulgaria

Bulgaria has some of the most elaborate and affordable spas in Europe.

(Editor’s note: Terry Boyd also contributed to this post on health, wellness and spa tourism in Bulgaria. Bulgaria is opened to tourists from the European Union as well as to Americans who can prove they’re fully vaccinated.)

After the pandemic, spy scandals and disillusionment with tourists coming for boozie holidays on the Black Sea, health, spa and wellness tourism is the new official trend in Bulgaria. Mineral water, curative mud and mild climate have made this Balkan country an attractive destination for centuries. In post COVID-19 times, health is an increasingly important tourism draw. In Bulgaria rehabilitation and balneology is done in specialized hospitals for rehabilitation, or SBRs, at modern 4-star hotels.

Many spa hotels host medical centers that offering high quality rehabilitation with actual physicians, most of whom are multi-lingual. And most are on their own green spaces with trees, pools, sports facilities and quiet, all for a fraction of the cost of hotels and spas in northern Europe.

A new focus in a changing world

Yes, the change in strategy is partly due to COVID. But there are other trends at work – and lots of international intrigue – that lead to this big change in focus in a country with so much to offer tourists.

Here’s what happened:

• Due to COVID-19 in 2020, Bulgaria’s hotels, restaurants and bars closed. Tourism in Bulgaria went into a death spiral. So, on the governmental level, officials decided to further develop health and spa tourism, and travelers can come and – with doctors’ orders – put some of the treatments on their national health insurance. Prices are already affordable, with one euro buying about two Bulgarian lev, so hotel and spa rates are much, much lower than in other parts of Europe.

• Second, to compensate for closed borders, the official focus shifted to attracting more staycation tourists to Bulgaria’s attractions.

• Third, even before the pandemic, another problem hit Bulgarian tourism – the disappearance of Russian
tourists, representing their largest market, due to a spy scandal with Russian spies caught and expelled. Last February, Bulgarian officials arrested six people accused of being part of an espionage ring run by the Russian security services. Prime Minister Boyko Borisov warned Kremlin officials his government has had enough.

“Stop spying in Bulgaria,” Borisov said, according to the New York Times.

Russia designated Bulgaria as a foe and stopped the flights with Russian tourists to Bulgaria. Russians who bought real estate in Bulgaria, including vacation homes, have begun selling.

• Fourth, Black Sea resorts such as Sunny Beach started cracking down on drunk and unruly tourists, and Bulgarian officials increasingly are going after the excesses of unregulated clubs. The problem is that Bulgaria became a destination for alcohol tourism. Drunk Brits on Sunny Beach, drunk Germans on Golden Sands.

In this situation, officials decided health tourism is a quite reasonable way to attract Europeans with health insurance to Bulgaria’s specialized rehabilitation hotel. German and Austrian retirees have come to Bulgarian rehab and spa centers for many years.

Medical & health tourism in Bulgaria

Bulgaria already is a popular destination for health tourism and wellness. The country has a rich traditional background. Many spa resorts across the country offer a variety of specialized professional services. “Bulgaria is among the countries combining low prices for medical services with experienced medical personnel and has the potential to become a destination of choice for the so-called ‘health tourists’,” according to a report by Reuters’ Economist Intelligence Unit.

Spa resorts

Hundreds of health resorts and specialized rehabilitation centers are making health tourism popular. Specialized services in lung, bone and skin diseases, as well as beauty and spa centers, are designed to help improve your overall physical and mental state.

The popular term “spa” is one of the first associations that come to mind when it comes to relaxation, rehabilitation and beauty treatments. Spa tourism dates from ancient times and is only one aspect of health tourism services offered in Bulgaria.

Though the concept goes back to Roman times, luxury spas are a 19th-century invention combining health, beauty and relaxation tourism and treatments – the most popular sections of health tourism worldwide today. Major attractions include alternative healing and rehabilitation practices, yoga, sports, exotic massages, ultrasound therapy, mud therapy, acupuncture, hypnotherapy and whatever is trending at the moment.

Bulgaria has long been a destination for therapeutic mud treatment, reputed to have a detoxifying function, improving blood circulation and restoring the chemical balance in the body. Summertime is the time for beach lovers, so combining sunbathing with spa and rehab is now the focus of tourism officials.

The truth is that at all-inclusive 4-star spa hotels, you can have a quite luxurious spa vacation. Nesebar, Albena and St. Constantine and Elena are green and calm seaside resorts.

Here are some hotels and SBR that offer spa and rehabilitation on the sea in my area of Varna.

Saint George Hotel and Spa, Pomorie near Burgas

The specialty here is mud … mud baths and facials. The special therapeutic mud at most of these spas is believed to boost the immune system (hence the popularity in the epidemic) and even slow the aging process, which we’re all for.

The Saint George has everything from single rooms to studios with access to the spa. There, treatments include massages and facials.

Rates and packages start at about 70 Bulgarian lev per night, or about 35 euros.

Estreya Residence Hotel And Spa, Saints Constantine and Helena, Varna

We Varna citizens … we like to go Saint Constantine on the weekends for the hot water pool. Saints Constantine and Helena is the oldest Bulgarian Black Sea resort complex, which began the business of apitherapy and other remedies. St. Constantine offers a picturesque coastline, beaches, fresh air and healing power of the sea, the climate and the mineral waters. The combination has a beneficial effect on the overall state of mind and body, strengthens immunity, reduces stress and fatigue. And all that makes you look healthier and more attractive.

Surrounded by greenery, near the monastery of St. Constantine and Elena, are the Estreya
Palace (four stars) and  Estreya Residence (four stars)

Guests have access to an indoor pool with mineral water, two outdoor pools with mineral water, main restaurant with large terraces, pool bars, playgrounds, a winter garden, two wineries, a large green garden and a guarded fenced area.

On the grounds of Estreya Residence is located a large spa center and the Clinic of Physical and Rehabilitation Medicine at the University Hospital St. Marina, Varna. The clinic offers sea treatment, climatotherapy, balneology, SPA, mud therapy, medical therapies and programs for complete recovery, rehabilitation, health and beauty care. Patients are treated by qualified doctors, rehabilitators, physiotherapists and nurses.

SBR Termal Golden Sands, Varna

Next to SBR Termal is Cabacum Beach – the favorite beach of Varna locals.

Hotel Termal is on the edge of Golden Sands, the largest resort on the northern Black Sea. It’s about 250 meters from the beach in a park. In addition to sea views, it’s surrounded by green space. The pleasant atmosphere of the Termal Complex combined with beautiful nature contribute to a pleasant and relaxing holiday. 

SBR Termal is a three-star hotel with 60 rooms. Guest rooms are equipped with all the modcons, but this is not a luxury hotel. Rather this is about spa treatments and health treatments.

There is a 120-seat restaurant with summer garden, lobby bar, pool bar, solarium, sauna, Turkish bath and mud treatments. Hotel Termal is also a specialized facility for treatment of various diseases and for relaxation and recreation. It offers mud and lye treatment, physiotherapy and electrotherapy, manual therapy. There are programs for the treatment of neurological, orthopedic and gynecological diseases. 
SBR Termal offers for year 2021 balneological program (therapeutic bathing) for people who recovering from coronavirus.

You can book here.

Azalia Hotel Balneo & SPA, Saints Constantine and Helena, Varna

This four-star sea & spa resort hotel is directly on the beach, and you can check out a 360-degree virtual tour here. The Azalia has a mineral spring and offers a variety of treatments, and while this complex has won awards as a luxury destination, the focus is definitely on the medical/therapeutic side, catering to Germans with national health insurance.

Multi-day packages are about 200 euros and you can book here.

Medical Center Mesemvria Estreya, Nessebar

It was a pleasant surprise for me to visit Nessebar, a first-line seaside hotel – furnished Italian style – which is, in fact, Medical center Mesemvria Estreya!

Situated on the south beach in a new section of the ancient town of Nessebar in the south near Burgas, Medical Center Mesemvria Estreya is a modern luxury hotel on the Black Sea. The center offers high-end rehabilitation and spa with massage, exercise, yoga, sports. The medical staff includes young highly qualified specialists.

Bulgaria is the perfect place to spend summer vacation at a reasonable price. The bargain is that with
health insurance, spa and rehab vacation at a quite reasonable price can be spent in Bulgarian spa

You can see an overview of all the spa hotels here.

For more on the spa scene in other areas, see my earlier post here.

About the author:

Kalina Varbanova freelance journalist based in Varna, Bulgaria. Kalina’s interests include culture, tourism, archeology and politics.

See all of Kalina’s posts from Bulgaria here.

Also, see why we love Bulgaria here.

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Kalina Varbanova freelance journalist based in Varna, Bulgaria. Kalina’s interests include culture, tourism, archeology and politics. She's been a Dispatches contributor since 2017, and has written some of our best-read posts.

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