Is it too late for Bulgaria to avoid the Spanish tourist industry's pitfalls? No, says Norwegian Per Svensson, overdevelopment may still be avoided
A Norwegian who has spent most of the past 40 years in Spain, but has nevertheless been appointed a knight by the King of Norway, Per Svensson is the secretary of the national association of foreigners in Spain, Ciudádanos Europeos, or European Citizens. The association was formed in 1992 following decisions in the Maastricht agreement to foment European Citizenship and works on a non-profit basis to protect the interests of European citizens in Spain.
“I have been active in the foreigners' community because I believe we must integrate into Spanish life,” Svensson says. In addition to maintaining his own web blog, periscope.a4r.org, he is a major contributor to the association's website, c-euro.org, where you can read some witty observations on golf course developments and those “meetings of walls” along the Spanish coast. Visiting Bulgaria for a week, Svensson toured most of the mountain resorts, and said the local tourist industry might be able to avoid some of the mistakes made in Spain. In his opinion, developers could soon be reaching their limits in Bansko, and should sit down and rethink the situation. And they were not the only ones who ought to do that.
How do you view the recent property boom in Bulgaria?
Having foreign investors coming to Bulgaria is a very good thing, basically. The tourist industry and selling property to foreigners is a great incentive for the local and national economy, as Spain's experience indicates. Therefore, you must not do anything to deter foreigners. However, I think you would be very wise to draw some lines, make some restrictions, and tell them what they are permitted and not permitted to do, and then keep those boundaries. If you do not stop them or show them the limits from the beginning, you have lost the battle.
Has Spain lost this battle?
The construction business is probably the most powerful economic machine in Spain and today they do what they like. For instance, the building lobby took power over the municipality of Marbella and built 30,000 illegal dwellings. Two of the local mayors are now in prison, the third has died, otherwise he would also be in prison. They had amassed enormous quantities of money through corruption, but will spend a good part of their lives in prison. It would have been wiser, however, if the Spanish government had stopped them at the beginning rather than use the courts to act against them. In another example, in one municipality on the Costa Blanca, it has come to light that 1,200 illegal villas were built on farm land without any planning permission. The government has now intervened and taken away the powers of urban planning for that municipality. In addition, the foreigners who have bought the land and built their villas there stand to lose their lifetime's savings. Incidents like this are very bad publicity for Spain, and put off many new buyers. It would be wise for Bulgaria to keep this in mind.
How can Bulgaria minimise the risks?
You have to have laws, the mechanism of control. People in Bulgaria must be determined to intervene from the beginning against property developers and local administration when they allow illegal practices by developers, and channel their economic energy into legal activities. You can learn from the experiences of other countries, and you shouldn't be afraid. In Spain, it started with us, foreigners, because we are accustomed to protesting whenever we disapprove of something.
Did the government listen?
I'll give you one of the most important examples: last year we collected 30,000 signatures against a law in the region of Valencia allowing big promoters to go into an expropriated property belonging to small, local landowners. We took this to the Spanish government; they didn't pay attention. So we took it to the European Parliament, and the European Parliament listened, taking it very seriously and sending in two investigating commissions. The issue was debated in the European Parliament, and a resolution against that law was adopted with 550 votes in favour, 45 against and 25 abstentions. If the regional government in Valencia does not change its attitude, it will be taken to the European Court in Strasbourg. So it is possible to change things, and Europe can play a very positive role.
Is the construction business a long-term endeavour?
For property developers, it is a short-term business, they want to make their money as fast as possible and move out. The problem for Bulgaria, as it has been in Spain, is that many of the property developers are foreigners. It is much easier for foreigners to pack their suitcases and leave when something starts to go wrong than it is for the nationals. So maybe you need to stimulate the locals to do things and not leave so much to foreigners. The construction business is not continuous, it does not last forever, because good land for such purposes is limited. You should take care of the land you have and plan well for the future.