Bulgarian property boom harming environment

BANSKO, Bulgaria – The citizens of Bansko, a ski resort in Bulgaria’s Pirin mountains, are selling their land with gusto to buy fancy cars and replace communist-era furniture. The same is true of other mountain resorts, as well as Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast, as foreigners snap up cheap second homes, sending the price of resort and farming land to -250 a square meter from just -20 five years ago. But this growth comes at a cost. The once idyllic little town with cobblestone streets and traditional architecture, which in the 1980s was popular among skiers and hikers from the former Soviet bloc, has changed beyond recognition. It is now crammed with concrete hotels. Roads are damaged, infrastructure is insufficient and pressure over water resources is growing. Dozens of aging, roaring trucks carry concrete and bricks over unpaved tracks to Bansko’s mushrooming new districts. Dust and huge cranes mar the view to the mountain. «Our beautiful Bansko has been spoiled. Look at all these blocks and buildings,» said 83-year-old Danka Spaseva, who has lived in Bansko through world war and communism. The cost also includes corruption, illegal land deals and construction of ski pistes involving local officials and property developers. «Corruption is rampant. The state has abdicated its functions to exercise control and the rule of law,» said Ivan Sirleshtov, 60, a member of a local civil group to fight graft. «Bansko is being built in a very barbaric, outrageous way. There is no urban planning whatsoever,» said Sirleshtov, who once published newspaper ads to lure tourists to his town. The tale of Bansko is a microcosm of the property boom in mountain resorts and along Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast, where corporate appetites grow and laws, rules and environment protection are often compromised. The promise of high profits after the Balkan country joined the European Union in January has lured investors from Britain, Ireland and Russia to buy property at a fraction of the price they would have to pay in Spain or France. Pristine nature and sunny weather in what was once the favorite holiday destination for former communist countries are also strong magnets. Visitors are amazed to discover that Bulgaria, relatively unknown in the West, has 220 kilometers of Black Sea beaches, and its mountains boast 130 peaks over 2,000 meters with excellent skiing and hiking. But the flourishing corruption means many hotels, holiday homes and other investments are built on illegally acquired land or without the necessary permits. «In all too many cases, foreign investors from Great Britain and other countries are silent accomplices,» environmental group WWF said in an article aiming to raise awareness among buyers. Real estate agents in Bansko say many foreigners buy property via the Internet and try to rent it without ever visiting the resort. The names of politicians, businessmen and even criminal groups who invest in real estate and bypass the law are an open secret in Bulgaria, but court charges are very rare. The EU has repeatedly criticized Bulgaria for its ineffective judiciary and lack of vigor in fighting graft. «For a mayor or a town architect, the more construction there is, the more bribery opportunities exist,» said Toma Belev, who heads the association representing Bulgaria’s nature parks. In many cases, mayors give away construction permits before roads, sewage and water infrastructure are in place. The mayor of Bansko, who has issued over 400 construction permits, had to impose a two-year building moratorium this summer because of lack of infrastructure. The rush for quick profits is also affecting quality. Over 130 foreign holidaymakers were evacuated when the roof of their newly built hotel in the Black Sea resort of Golden Sands collapsed in September. Such incidents are not isolated. Nature parks targeted Property developers are now casting their eyes on Bulgaria’s protected areas. Conservation groups that have repeatedly challenged the construction of ski facilities in Bansko say half of them were built illegally on the territory inside the Pirin Nature Park, a UNESCO world heritage site. Several consecutive governments, which made tourism a priority, have promised to crack down on illegal building but little has been done in practice. «It is very difficult to exercise control at this stage,» said Valeri Vulchinkov of the Environment Ministry. But some note that external factors may put a damper on development. Bansko was unable to fill its 100,000-bed tourist capacity last winter, as unusually warm weather brought too little snow, while over the summer in Black Sea resorts many hotels were unfilled and suffered a sharp drop in revenue.