by Ani Ivanova; photography by Dragomir Ushev

Wellness tourism could become a major growth industry, says Sylvia Paskaleva, a leading doctor and health expert

Sylvia Paskaleva

Juggling varied demands comes easily to a dynamic individual like Sylvia Paskaleva. A doctor, a health manager and a PhD student, she also heads the Sports Rehabilitation Complex of Sofia's State Administration Ministry. As such, she's ideally placed to gauge Bulgaria's future as a destination for tourists seeking restorative treatments.

Dr Paskaleva studied medicine at Sofia University, qualifying in 1990. As a GP, her first assignment was in a physiotherapy and rehabilitation department. She joined the team at the Sports Rehabilitation Complex in 1994, when it became a self-sufficient, club-like centre, and has been chairwoman of the Bulgarian Balneotourism Association since 2000.

Already armed with degrees in health management and marketing and advertising, she is also a PhD student at the University of National and World Economy. The success of the Bulgarian presentation at London's World Travel Market last year convinced her that the country has a promising future as a balneological and spa resort. As a result she's currently writing a thesis on the country's development of spa and wellness tourism as part of her studies.

A graduate of specialist courses at elite spa and health centres in Switzerland, Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Italy, Dr Paskaleva believes that investment in staff training – as well as innovative equipment and treatments – is vital to improve the quality of patient care.

Balneology, spa and wellness are already lucrative industries in the rest of Europe. Bulgaria, although steeped in resources and with a long history of balneology and herbal medicine, has lacked a strategy for their development. Dr Paskaleva plans to change this.

Balneology, spa and wellness receive extensive coverage nowadays. What exactly is balneology?

Balneology is a traditional kind of treatment using mineral resources – like mud, salts, lake brine and high or low temperature mineral waters – that are rich in certain curative properties. The benefits depend on the duration and sequence of the treatments. A stay of about 20 days is recommended. Balneology dates back to Roman times when settlements were set up by thermal springs. Bulgaria was no exception: the Roman towns of Augusta, present day Hisar, Pautalia, present day Kyustendil and Odessos, present day Varna were famous for their thermal spas.

What is the difference between balneology and spa?

Spa, an acronym of the Latin Salus per aquam, or “health through water”, links all three. Water has curative properties even without being mineral. Hence, some spa centres are built on sites without mineral resources. You don't have to stay there long for the treatments – even a weekend is enough to feel a therapeutic effect. Spa treatment is mainly geared to preventative health. Unlike balneology, spa centres usually have less specialised equipment and staff.

What is the purpose of wellness centres?

Wellness is an English word that has infiltrated the Bulgarian language. It denotes a newer, lifestyle concept related to modern living.
In this hectic world people need a break where everything on offer – including food, drink and recreational pursuits – promotes relaxation, rejuvenation and pleasure. Such a holiday may be costlier, but it reaps immensely restorative effects. Although wellness centres are still a novelty in Bulgaria, they are taking off.

Is Bulgaria rich in resources?

Absolutely – we have about 520 mineral springs but only a quarter of them are used. The most popular ones are in Hisar, Sandanski and Velingrad, followed by Varshets, Narechen and Pavel Banya. The Black Sea coast, especially its northern part from Balchik to Varna, and all the Rhodope Mountains house such springs. But the most important thing is their variety and the hydrogen sulphide and high thermal waters which are not common elsewhere. In addition to providing treatments and bathing, most are suitable for drinking too. The country also offers some distinctive products and treatments with Bulgarian roses, essential oils and herbs like geranium, thyme and mursalski tea (Sideritis scardica). The Bulgarian Academy of Sciences has conducted research proving that the mud and lake brine in Pomorie, on the Black Sea, are richer in magnesium than those in the Dead Sea. So Bulgaria has the right resources – we just need to exploit them more.

You mentioned the mud and brine of Pomorie. Could you expand on these?

These are the products of Pomorie Lake where the water is saltier than that of the Dead Sea. The high levels of magnesium in the mud and brine which – in addition to hydrogen sulphate, chloride, calcium, sodium, sulphate and iron compounds – account for their rich curative properties. The healing properties of Pomorie Lake were acknowledged by the Thracian settlers and the Romans who used to call it “the sacred lake”. Today Pomorie Lake mud is considered among the most valuable in the world. Both the mud and the brine are suitable for locomotory and respiratory diseases, peripheral and central nervous system problems, skin diseases, and men's and women's reproductive system diseases.

How can we take advantage of them?

We are lucky as Bulgaria's first modern balneology hotel opened in Pomorie in May. The five-star Balneohotel Pomorie&Spa is located on the shore of the lake and just yards away from the Black Sea coast. The hotel offers up-to-date balneology – a modern clinic, mud baths and treatments, brine treatments, physiotherapy with cutting edge equipment, and highly qualified medical staff. The balneological unit is able to provide hundreds of treatments daily and is open not only to tourists staying at the hotel, but also to anyone staying in the town of Pomorie. The hotel also boasts a modern spa centre with hot indoor and outdoor pools, a salty one included, steam baths and dry sauna rooms, various massage therapies – from classic healing therapies to the latest Asian massages such as Ayurveda, hot stone and shiatsu. The hotel's spa centre is the only one along Bulgaria's Black Sea coast to provide hydro-colon therapy that fights toxins in your body. It also offers a rich variety of face and body treatments. In other words, you get a high quality service and a high quality product in a very modern environment.

Italy, Austria and Slovenia all have rich traditions in balneology. Why would anyone choose Bulgaria for treatment?

Bulgaria is unknown territory to most visitors. All tourists enjoy exploring new cultures, so they can combine therapy with cultural, rural, mountain or seaside holidays. If only one family member needs specific treatment, the others can enjoy a more conventional holiday at the same time. You can also choose a certain type of mineral resource, uncommon elsewhere, like the high thermal water in Sandanski, for instance, to treat certain illnesses. Prices are generally half the cost of those in Slovenia, Austria and Italy, and good value for money.

Where do you take your overseas friends?

Places are tailored to different needs. If they are here for medical reasons, I recommend balneology in Hisar, where they treat kidney, liver and gastrointestinal illnesses. Narechen is suitable for stress, Pavel Banya for diseases of the locomotory or nervous systems and Pomorie for problems of the locomotory system. If it's the seaside, you can try Nesebar; if you want to be in the country, go to Kyustendil. The latest wellness centres are in Pomorie, Sunny Beach and Razlog. New spa centres crop up all the time, so it's a matter for your discretion.

How can one relieve stress?

I'd recommend a three-step approach. Start with a water treatment in a bath, shower, Jacuzzi or swimming pool, then have a massage – but not one on a beach – and, finally, undergo cosmetic treatment for your body or face.


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