High-Altitude Tourism: Shouldn't It Come Back to Earth?

Novinite Insider » DESTINATIONS | May 19, 2005, Thursday // 00:00| Views: | Comments: 0
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High-Altitude Tourism: Shouldn't It Come Back to Earth? Photo by www.odysseia-in.com

By Milena Hristova

Legend has it that when God handed out land to different peoples, he forgot about the Bulgarians. To set things right, he took a piece of paradise and gave it to them. Bulgaria is a holiday address, destined by nature and it is a spur of the moment affair to pick the timing for a visit here. Yet fears that improper management of resources and poor strategy drag Bulgaria down to the club of the cheapest tourist destinations in Europe, have been recently getting the upper hand.

"Bulgaria is already failing to stay abreast with competitive destinations due to a loss of quality human resources and quality services," says Lyubomir Popyordanov, chairman of the Bulgarian Association for Alternative Tourism (BAAT) and company manager of Odysseia-in Ltd, leading Bulgarian adventure and special interest tour operator.

"The curve of an ever-increasing number of tourists in Bulgaria has already reached its peak and may slump as early as this summer with a spade of complaints," he adds in a grim forecast.

A comment in stark contrast with smug official figures about the increasing number of foreign tourists here. But in line with the news - German tour operators dumping plans for huge investments in Bulgarian resorts, brisk supply of beds dumping prices, foreign tour operators catalogues dumping Bulgarian hotels along the coastline because of their "overurbanized" location.

Bulgaria's coastline is no longer than 380 kilometers, while its beaches account for less than 150 kilometers. The country has no glaciers and its peaks are lower than 3,000 meters, which is generally considered as highly unattractive for investments. A small country that faces the risk of quickly running out of resources by overconstructing and urbanizing the landscape, overpopulating the regions of cultural monuments, exhausting human resources and waters.

Could healthy official figures bid well for Bulgaria's tourism?

"Quality indices - like the number of foreign tourists visiting Bulgaria - can not be indicative for a small country like Bulgaria," says Lyubomir Popyordanov. "What is important is the benefit they bring to the locals and the relevant services of telecommunications, agriculture, food industry, construction, etc., which form the consolidated balance in tourism."

Paradoxically, this is exactly what supporters of the governmental policy in the sector claim to have been achieved in the winter resort of Bansko in the Pirin mountain and the project, dubbed Super Borovets, in the Rila mountain, which was given the final go-ahead by the government last week amid controversies over an alleged breach of law.

Enthusiasts point Bankso and Borovets as examples of successful investments (EUR 40 M invested in Bansko's ski center alone, the Super Borovets project is worth EUR 300 M). They say the investors' enthusiasm is contagious and fuel the property market and the interest of other major investors. Mayors can't help having even greater expectations as they see in the projects a way out of economic backwardness and soaring unemployment rates. Real estate agents are more restraint in their projections, while environmentalists vehemently slam the projects.

"Nothing can justify the building of such huge infrastructure at the expense of the natural landscape and for the sake of a skiing season stretching over no more than four months," says Popyordanov.

According to him Bansko has no chance to become an expensive world-class resort with its authenticity and charm destroyed by overconstruction.

"The rich people would never go to a nature-turned-desert for their vacation. And nobody would pay three times higher prices in order to provide a living for the locals during the eight months when the resort is dead," says he and recalls that summer trekking tourism has been the main source of money for the people of Bansko by the early 90s.

Summer tourism has been dominant in Bulgaria over the last fifty years and some say that ski tourism - which now accounts for no more than 15% of the annual revenues in the sector - should speed up and catch up.

BAAT head however insists that the ski tourism should not make that jump.

"Bulgarian mountains just do not have the resources to compete with those in Europe, Northern and Southern America."

Global warming aggravates the situation and puts into question even the four months of skiing season. Investors in their turn are tempted to head for the highest of peaks, encroaching into the five percent of protected areas in Bulgaria.

Right here alternative tourism comes into the picture to lend a hand.

"Bulgaria's tourism sustainable development should not focus on major resorts, but should allow tourist industry to regenerate and develop its resources - human, natural and cultural-historical," says Popyordanov.

"Bulgaria must develop mountains tourism beyond the ski tourism. There are many examples worldwide of developing year-round destinations, which are not connected with the construction of ski runs and lifts. Develop the inland, stop the construction works along the Black Sea and make Bulgarians spend their holidays in Bulgaria - they are the best investors after all!"
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