ECONOMY

Bulgaria turns to golf, hoping for bigger tourist revenues

SOFIA – In a country where the game of golf was practically unknown until recently, golf courses are sprouting up everywhere across Bulgaria, as the government considers ways of luring bigger-spending tourists. «Golf tourism is extremely important for attracting the more affluent tourist,» says Kancho Stoychev, who hopes to open a brand-new golf course near Balchik on the Black Sea in June. «If a regular tourist usually spends about 50-100 euros a day, a golfer might spend 400-500 euros,» Stoychev says. Stoychev asked Gary Player, arguably one of the greatest golfers of all time, to design his new course. In a recent newspaper interview, Player suggested that golf was a way to woo rich businessmen «who might later decide to invest in the country,» which is currently among the poorest in Europe. Without golf courses, Bulgaria would probably remain a cheap tourist destination, drawing lots of people, but no real economic effect, Stoychev argued. Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast and ski resorts have long been popular among tourists from both Western Europe and the former communist bloc countries and Russia. And while that has led to a boom in the construction of low-cost hotels, the better-off visitors have gone elsewhere in search of resorts that are quieter and less overcrowded. It is foreign investors who are scenting Bulgaria’s golfing potential, with its mild climate and varied scenery offering an alternative to, say, Spain. «When I first saw this patch of hilly land overlooking the sea, I knew it was made to be a golfing course,» said British investor David Newman, who is building a golf course near the village of Kableshkovo. The site, originally marked out to be a refuse dump, was a «fantastic location, has a fantastic view and is very close to a big airport. It’s just perfect,» Newman told AFP. »I remember what the Costa del Sol in Spain – now known as Costa del Golf – was like 15 years ago. Bulgaria is now what Spain was back then,» he said. Big attraction Golf tourism was still in its infancy in Bulgaria, Newman said. But there are a lot of golf courses being built and «golf in Bulgaria can become a big tourist attraction,» he said. The excellent climate would stretch the golfing season out to eight or nine months a year, he said, deftly whacking balls downhill as he tried to persuade a bunch of elderly villagers to also try their hand. Traditionally soccer-mad Bulgaria has hitherto had little time for sports such as golf or cricket, which have a more exclusive air about them. But three golf courses are now in operation, with 15 more being built. The government is even considering pushing the sport. It sees the construction of golf courses as an alternative to the construction boom on the Black Sea and in mountain resorts. One proposal is to offer free state land to investors so that they can turn it into golf courses. «The aim is to turn Bulgaria into a competitive golf destination, attracting richer tourists. Golf tourism is one of the most profitable around the world,» a recent strategy paper stated. Nevertheless, such proposals have been put on ice in view of the storm of controversy surrounding them. The left-wing daily Sega slammed the idea as «an eccentric whim,» while the business weekly Capital urged Regional Development Minister Asen Gagauzov «to attend to the hole-perforated roads instead of setting out to perforate lawns.» The mass-circulation daily Trud took the same line. «The holes on our roads are several times more than the holes on all golf courses in the world. No toff is going to risk driving along our roads,» it said. Investors also pointed to the need to improve infrastructure around the projects. «It is absolutely crucial that infrastructure be improved so it can support the tourism they’re projecting,» Newman said. «If there are 4.5 million tourists today and they want 12 million, that would mean a lot more cars, people, demands on water, sewage, electricity. It all needs to be improved.» More than 5 million foreigners visited Bulgaria in 2007, with tourism generating nearly 16 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, according to official data. At the same time, the small Balkan state with population of 7.6 million is the poorest in the EU, which it joined in 2007.