Balkantourist – An Airbnb Before Its Time

Contrary to popular belief, the Airbnb travel model wasn’t invented in the 2000s. Examples of it can be found 60 years earlier with Balkantourist, travel agent in communist Bulgaria.

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woman lay on sand on beach
Relaxing on the beach on the Black Sea was made more accessible in Communist Bulgaria thanks to tour operator Balkantourist. Photo: Michał Kułakowski / Forum

Post-World War II, the People’s Republic of Bulgaria needed to make money to run their newly created communist country. Former business owners in Czechoslovakia expected compensation for their companies, which the communist state had taken over. The solution: in 1948, around 800 former business owners received reimbursement in the form of the first-ever, post-war, Soviet-organized holiday to the famed Bulgarian Black Sea coast.

To meet Soviet demands, the Bulgarians arranged to have guests accommodated in private homes, where hosts ran shared bed and breakfasts and were provided with extra food to suit the tastes of foreign tourists. Petur Doichev, a pre-war waiter at the famous Palma Café in Varna, a beach town on Bulgaria’s Black Sea Coast, was tasked with tuning Balkan cuisine to meet European standards. He met the challenge and fed nearly a thousand guests with only horse-and donkey-drawn carts and Soviet flatbed military trucks as logistical means.

Thanks to this success, Balkantourist, the soon-to-be leading communist tour operator, was established. Its main goal was to meet cash flow needs and create a – literally – sunny image of socialism. The agency began developing hotels and restaurants along the beaches of the Black Sea. Consequently, it quickly turned Bulgaria into the ultimate Comecon (the Soviet-led communist countries commonwealth) tourist destination and a shining example of Central Eastern European foods. In fact, Stalin’s fourth Five-Year Plan, ending in 1953, expected Balkantourist restaurants to serve almost 100 mln meals to incoming tourists.

Communist travel industry

Even through tough financial times in the 1970s and ’80s, Balkantourist maintained its leading role in the Eastern Bloc travel industry. Additionally, it sustained the image of Bulgaria as a country of innovative cuisine – probably the most important of all Doichev’s tasks. Millions of incoming tourists from all over the Eastern Bloc generally were refused travel to the West.

Instead, they had the unique opportunity to taste “international cuisine.” Such delicacies as a roast lamb leg or baked mussels often remained their only “exotic” food experience. Čevapčici, shopska salad, or tarator (cold, tzatziki-style cucumber-yogurt soup) became widespread substitutes for the flour-and-lard-based diet. This often remained their singular “exotic” food experience.

Przemysław Bociąga

is a Polish journalist and essayist based in Warsaw. An anthropologist and art historian by education, he specializes in combining cultural phenomena with compelling narrative. He has authored and co-authored several books covering lifestyle and history. The most recent of them is “Impeccable. The biography of masculine image”. He has contributed to many leading magazines, both in print and online, and teaches cultural anthropology to college students.

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