WELCOME TO THE BULGARIAN ALPS?

by Konstantin Ivanov

Plans to build new ski runs and resorts enter a critical phase

"Bulgaria: Austria of the Balkans." This sounds like an alluring idea – especially if you're thinking in terms of infrastructure, standard of living and architecture. However, the people pushing this slogan are investors with a different agenda – they mean Bulgaria to match Austria by length of ski runs. Even Bulgaria's most famous resorts, including Borovets in the Rila, Bansko in the Pirin and Pamporovo in the Rhodope,don't come even close to such a comparison. So despite the financial crisis, several projects to build new ski resorts are in advanced stages of development.

A poll conducted by Alpha Research, a market research firm, showed that three out of four Bulgarians disapprove of building new hotels and ski runs in Bulgaria's high mountains.

Protests by environmental activists have become almost a daily occurrence – a further indicator of how these ventures stand in the eyes of the public. Yet investors – most often offshore firms or large construction companies – have not given up on their plans, which are usually supported by local authorities tempted by the dangling carrot of job creation.

The Rila, the Pirin and Stara Planina's central part are national parks, which means they are exclusive state property. Construction of new chair lifts and ski runs there is – in theory – forbidden. The facilities that already exist in these regions were built before the law was harmonised with the respective EU regulations.

One of the most extreme proposed projects is the Panichishte-Ezerata-Kabul ski zone, which is to be built above the resort town of Panichishte in the Rila. It would be very close to the Seven Lakes, one of Bulgaria's most famous and beloved natural attractions. In 2006 the Environment and Waters Ministry returned plans for the complex for reconsideration, since some parts of the project fell within Rila National Park. The investor explained that a high-profile foreign company was reworking the plans, and partial construction continued.

The local Sapareva Banya town council used its own funds to pave the mountain roads leading to the base of the new ski lift. Three "anti-fire corridors" have been cut through the woods near Panichishte, which coincide suspiciously with the planned trajectory of three of the ski runs.

Environmental activists responded with several protests in downtown Sofia. The only result was the dismissal of the director of Rila National Park and a series of interviews with Saparevna Banya Mayor Sasho Ivanov, who argued that the ski zone will not damage nature and will create jobs.

There are several other ski zones in Rila National Park and the buffer zone around it. The Iskrovete-Govedartsi-Malyovitsa zone has an average elevation of 1,500 m, or 4,921 ft. The government has already helped out investors by swapping state forest land in the region for another terrain. This practice, which may soon be outlawed, is widespread and facilitated the runaway construction on the Black Sea coast.

Briefly, it goes like this: First, a company buys small plots of private, low-priced forestland in parts of the mountain that are unattractive in tourism terms. Then the company swaps these plots for the same amount of state land in a much more desirable location. Finally, regulations are passed giving the investor the right to cut down the forests and develop the area. At the moment the European Commission is looking into complaints from environmental organisations as to whether these practices are in fact unregulated forms of state aid to private businesses.

The third ski resort planned in the Rila is Kartala, in the Bodrost zone above Blagoevgrad. The town council and a private company expanded the existing ski run and replaced the old tow rope with a second-hand cabin lift. This took place despite the fact that the plans still haven't undergone the required legal procedures, including a full environmental impact assessment. This didn't seem to bother Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev when in September he climbed into the "new" lift along with other officials and journalists – and got stuck in midair for more than half an hour.

Kartala fell within the suggested buffer zone in the Rila of Natura 2000, the EU network of protected areas. The Bulgarian Government, however, did not include the zone in the final list of protected areas. The decision could also have something to do with the construction of another resort on the other side of the mountain. Last year, Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev and Simeon Saxe-Coburg, the leader of the co-ruling NDSV, attended the groundbreaking ceremony for the Super Borovets resort above Samokov. The project is financed by the Sultanate of Oman and an investment fund.

The Pirin, Bulgaria's second-highest mountain, is also on investors' maps. The Bansko ski zone, located on its northern slopes, enjoys the reputation as Bulgaria's best ski resort at the moment – despite the fact that according to environmental activists, many of the ski runs there were built without the necessary permits and against the law. The ski zone's concessionaire dismisses these claims. It's a little-known fact that when the government allowed the construction of new ski runs in Pirin National Park in 2002, it stipulated that the number of tourist beds in Bansko – at that time 7,000 – not increase. In early summer 2008, the Mayor of Bansko officially announced that the town boasted 15,000 hotel beds, while others were under construction that would bring the total to 25,000 – not counting the number available in apartment complexes, which is still unclear. These statistics are for the town itself and do not account for the surrounding valley, which includes Dobrinishte, Razlog and all the hotel complexes between. In 2007, the Dnevnik newspaper estimated that in five years the number of tourist beds in the Razlog and Bansko regions would reach 200,000.

Two new ski zones are in the works near Bansko – one above Dobrinishte and the other in Kulinoto near Razlog. Both locales currently have just one old run apiece, but every expansion will lead to the clearing of forest land and violations of Pirin National Park's protected status. But local authorities welcome these projects, hoping to get at least a small cut of the tourism windfall that Bansko has enjoyed so far.

Also the Vitosha is part of the plan to turn Bulgaria into "the Austria of the Balkans." The mountain near Sofia is a natural park, and construction of new ski runs and lifts there is forbidden. However, a legal loophole allows the "modernisation" of existing facilities. In October the company who owns the ski lifts (but not the ski runs, which belong to the National Forestry Fund) hacked out a new ski trail connecting without permission two of the existing ski runs. Environmentalists worry that this is the first in a series of steps towards expanding the existing ski zone. On their part, the investors don't deny that a detailed plan for a new ski zone is being prepared.

The plans for the Rila, the Pirin and the Vitosha are small fry in comparison to the Super Perelik megaproject in the Rhodope. If it is finished, it will include more than 200 km, or 124 miles, of ski trails. Bulgarians – and foreigners – love the Rhodope for its timeless atmosphere, traditional villages and pristine forests. Any construction there will lead to the destruction of forestland protected by Natura 2000. Yet land ownership of the bulk of this mountain has already changed hands, thanks to the infamous "swaps." Locals fear that the new ski zone will put an end to their dreams of developing rural tourism. The project developers say that they aim to create the "greenest" ski resort in Bulgaria, and even promise to have it certified to international standards.

A couple of proposals for new ski zones have targeted also Stara Planina. The Berkovski Balkan project has already divided residents in the mountain city of Berkovitsa. Ideas are also floating around expanding the ski runs in Uzana near Gabrovo, and planned runs in a proposed ski zone above Tryavna would be built at elevations as low as 1,100 m, or 3,609 ft.

It remains unclear just how many of these planned ski zones will actually result in real-life tourists whizzing down powdery slopes. Their fate depends on the economic crisis, the credit crunch, Brussels, environmental protests and – last but not least – climate change. Despite investors' rhetoric, Bulgaria will never have Austria's altitude or latitude, leaving it more vulnerable to climatic whims, as was the case with the 2006–2007 season, when unusually warm weather left the slopes – and investors – high and dry.

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