Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Developers Spoil Bulgaria's Black Sea Coast
For five years now Bulgaria's Black Sea resorts have enjoyed year-on-year boom, bringing more and more visitors, money and jobs to the local economy.
But this year, signs of a reaction are setting in. The apparently unrestricted construction of hotels, summer homes and resort complexes has begun deterring visitors - with prophets of doom warning of a threat to the very life-blood of the tourist industry.
As resorts resembling small cities multiply seemingly without limit and remaining green areas vanish under concrete, observers say the Black Sea coast is becoming too crowded and too urban to sustain five-star hotels or attract high-paying tourists.
Ominous signs include increasingly negative articles on Bulgarian resorts appearing in the travel pages of the international media and on leisure websites.
Bulgaria is a relatively new tourist market, which few EU citizens discovered before the 1990s. Since then, numbers have soared. By 2004, almost 4.5 million foreign tourists visited Bulgaria - more than double the 1998 figure.
The seashore, which had been only partly built up by the early 1990s, underwent a dramatic change. Resorts such as Slunchev Bryag, Zlatni Pyasitsi, Albena and Dyuni - built in the communist era for group tourism from the Soviet bloc - were privatised. With their large green spaces, they turned into mini cities, some of which have increased the number of tourist beds by a factor of 10.
The boom goes on. More than 120 hotels are under construction on the Bulgarian Black Sea, 40 alone in Slunchev Bryag and in the neighbouring settlement of Vlas. Seven more new hotels are going up in Zlatni Pyasutsi, while Primorsko municipality last summer issued permits for 30 new small hotels.
Nesebur and Sozopol, founded by the Ancient Greeks and with old town centres of considerable architectural value, have also seen massive construction.
The frantic pace of building work has already provoked tourist discontent, with a number of negative reports appearing last year in the international press, warning Europeans to be careful before booking visits to the Black Sea.
Last year, the mass circulation British tabloid The Sun published a feature on British visitors whose holidays in Bulgaria had been ruined by the relentless construction.
One couple was quoted as saying that "the windows vibrated all day from the sound of drilling", while another described a holiday spent in a partly finished hotel with an empty swimming pool and no beds for their children.
The Sun reported separately on the plight of a third couple in Bulgaria "dumped in a hotel 150 miles away", as the headline put it, after being taken to a hotel three hours' drive away from the resort where they had booked to stay.
Similar hostile reviews have become plentiful on travel internet websites such as holidaysuncovered.co.uk and holidaytruths.co.uk. On one site a British visitor compared Zlatni Paysutsi to "a war zone".
Another described arriving in what was advertised as a fully completed resort, only to find many facilities unavailable. "The indoor swimming pool and gym had not even been built," this disappointed visitor wrote.
The wave of negative reports about allegedly overcrowded, shoddily-built and half-built resorts has started to affect the image of the tourist industry.
One of the biggest tour companies that specialises in bringing German, British, Belgian and Dutch tourists to Bulgarian resorts told IWPR bookings this year were down by 15 per cent on last year.
"The main reason is the construction, which last year continued all through the season," said Svetla Panayotova, general agent in Bulgaria for Thomas Cook.
Two other major tour operators, Kur Club and ITS, had threatened to cancel their April and May bookings, fearing ongoing construction work would spoil their customers' holidays.
According to one press report, around 2,000 Austrian tourists have cancelled planned vacations this year in Bulgaria for the same reason.
It is not only noise that worries travel operators. A major concern is that the construction work is ruining existing infrastructure, leaving luxury hotels marooned in the midst of chaos.
"Parks, gardens, lanes, pools - everything literally vanishes under new construction," said Panayotova.
One of the main roads running from Varna to Zlatni Pyasutsi collapsed only days ago as a result of massive local building, which had undermined its foundations.
About 30 hotels are for sale in Sluntchev Bryag, according to the local media, after their owners became desperate about the loss of tourists as a result of constant building work nearby and the accompanying dirt and noise.
Panayotova said she was in contact with local and national authorities to try to deal with the problems but without significant success.
Architects and ecologists warn of a repetition in Bulgaria of the planning disasters of Spain's Costa Brava and Costa del Sol in the 1970s. Those coastlines saw massive development to meet increasing tourist demand, only for many new high-rises to become redundant blots on the landscape as tourists then turned elsewhere.
In the early 1990s, Bulgaria still had planning and zoning rules, inherited from the communist era, obliging developers to include a certain quantity of green area around each new hotel - to be factored in on the basis of the number of beds.
But the rules were dumped as the decade progressed. By 1996, according to Ivan Banchev, an ecological activist in Varna, the amount of green area per bed fell from an average of around 20 square metres to about six and then to around one.
Ecologists have repeatedly expressed concern that construction is also expanding into what were supposed to be protected areas.
One prominent example is the Aquapark in Zlatni Pyasutsi – an amusement park with pools and slides - recently built on what was a protected hillside forest in the Varna area. Ilian Iliev, of the Blue Link ecology organisation in Varna, said, "The municipality tried to stop the construction and were even seeking our support at one time but it was all in vain."
Vladislav Nikolov, a Sofia-based architect who has worked on many development projects in the Burgas area, says local authorities and ecological protest movements are powerless to stop the process. "It is like a steam-roller free-wheeling down a hill," he said.
Nikolov explained that most of the land now belonged to private owners, many of whom had borrowed large sums to buy it and now they wanted a clear profit. "People need a rapid return on their investments and there is a sharp conflict between the private and public interest," he said. Nikolov added that in the conflict between landowners and the local authorities, the former were almost bound to prevail.
The government appears aware of the brewing crisis, though it is unclear what measures it can take, or whether it has the determination to stand up to the entrepreneurs.
A newly appointed minister of tourism, Nina Chilova, has said she will seek an end to further construction work at the seaside resorts. To boost the tourism industry as a whole, she released 2.8 million leva (about 1,5 million euro) to support 31 infrastructure projects – only a few of them on the coast.
But she will have difficulty restraining the process of seaside over-development. Significantly, parliament has repeatedly delayed adoption of the Black Sea Coast Act, which would limit construction on a 2 km-wide coastal belt. The local municipalities also remain slack about imposing planning laws.
Some say the only hope is if the hotel owners themselves become more aware of the financial interest they have in promoting ecologically sensitive tourism.
According to Banchev, there are huge potential funds to be tapped in ecological tourism both from the government and the EU, and so-called "green" tourism may eventually become important enough to act as a counter-weight to the conventional leisure interest.
If not, Bulgaria's Black Sea resorts seems likely to go the way of Spain's east coast – now considered a byword for how not to develop a sustainable tourism industry.
Albena Shkodrova is IWPR’s Bulgaria programme manager.
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