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What do you picture when you think of a winter holiday in Bulgaria? Perhaps somewhere a bit cheap and cheerful? Somewhere with rather a lot of building work going on? That you might get pressured to buy an apartment? Maybe somewhere that’s ok for beginners but not good skiers?
I have to say that much of the above is sadly true. On my recent trip to Bulgaria, I visited the three key resorts of Pamporovo, Bansko and Borovets and yes – particularly for us exchange-rate challenged Brits – it was relatively cheap. There were lots of apartments unfinished and for sale (though no-one tried to sell me one) but there was no actual building work going on – the recession has put a stop to that. The piste skiing was – well – yes, better suited to beginners and intermediates.
In fact, there was a certain sadness about the ski resorts. They were developed on a model similar to that which was successful for many resort developers in the United States - based on real estate sales. That model, so dependent on a buoyant economy, has shown its flaws. It has resulted in the loss of a lot of land, ghost towns of unsold apartments that even when sold would have remained empty for much of the time and probably a fairly ‘bland’ international experience with ‘enclaves’ of tourists kept separate from the villages and locals.
Additionally, there are disputes locally about the boundaries of the ski resorts and national parks and Unesco is considering withdrawing its Biosphere accreditation for the uniqueness of national park around Bansko as the developers cut into and destroyed centuries old forests.
Not really Responsible Skiing is it?
However, what I am really pleased to report is that there is another completely different side to Bulgaria – waiting to be discovered....
Well, firstly some fabulous family run hotels where you are treated to some wonderful local delicacies – and the food is delicious – though it’s probably a good thing I didn’t stay too long – I was in danger of getting seriously addicted to Bulgarian bread! And in case you were thinking the standard might be lacking – definitely not so – all were spotless with modern bathrooms and seriously comfortable beds and one even had a wellness area – very Austrian.
Secondly, wonderful hospitality from everyone I met – keen to share the beauty and potential of their country – and their plum brandy!
Thirdly, some beautiful landscapes – wild and untouched – unlike some regions of the Alps that are almost overmanaged for tourism.
Fourthly, snowshoeing – a wonderful way to explore the mountains – in peace – and away from the hoards and ski touring for the more adventurous.
Fifthly, a culture that I knew nothing about; from the Thracians to the icon artists who pre-empted the Renaissance to the ornately decorated churches.
Sixthly, some wonderful taverns down cobbled streets with regional food and richly decorated local pottery.
Seventhly – is that a word? Well, I could go on and on....
Now we’re talking Responsible Skiing – Bulgaria has so much potential and so much to delight the international traveller in search of the authentic and so much to offer for a real winter holiday.
Bulgaria has both extremes of tourism development – the best and the worst.
It is also suffering a hangover from the communist era of corruption, new capitalist opportunists, a lack of planning control and a lack of direction and strategy. However, the good news is that there are glimmers of hope that things might change. I spoke at a conference funded by the EU, to introduce CSR and Responsible Tourism into the golf, sea and ski markets earlier this year. It was attended by many in government and tourism positions and, together with help from the EU, there seems to be a move to change the direction of development for Bulgaria. Most are appalled by much of the development and, with a little help from the recession, hopefully that tourism model will cease.
We need to keep our fingers crossed they take a new path....
Veronica Tonge Graduated 2007