Bulgarian Eco Tourism - Dream or Reality

By Boryana Bachvarova

Eco tourism has lately become the centre of so much hopes for economic improvement among the Bulgarian public that it is high time to ask whether the expectations could really be fulfilled. And what is being done on the issue. The Labour and Social Policy Ministry views the sector as a source of employment for the regions with high unemployment; the Agriculture Ministry views it as a salvation for the villages in mountain regions; the Environment Ministry looks at it as a way of financing environment protection initiatives; and the Ministry of Culture believes that eco tourism will be the source of funding for maintaining monuments of culture. Among the Bulgarian public, eco tourism is synonymous to anything differing from sea and ski tourism, be it rural, cultural, adventure, cognitive, religious or even spa tourism. The Bulgarian perception of eco tourism is a compromise with the meaning of the word accepted abroad. In order to be able to speak of eco tourism, entrepreneurs should have environment-friendly thinking. In addition; there should be a philosophy of constructing and running hotels, of energy saving, low water consumption and waste recycling. Tourism programmes should also be made with respect to environment, local culture and traditions. There should be no aggression or plundering of resources for the sake of tourism, the head of the Bulgarian Alternative Tourism Association, Lyubomir Popyordanov, said. The basis of eco tourism is a cultural programme with environment occupying the prominent place, a programme in which tourists fit in the overall picture. In Bulgaria eco tourism is most often connected to rural tourism, Popyordanov added. Eco tourism accounts for 5.0 pct of global tourist trips. Countries such as Costa Rica, Australia and Brazil have been extremely successful in developing this niche. No country in the world, however, has succeeded only on the basis of eco tourism, and Bulgaria should not rely solely on this type of tourism either. Eco tourism, however, is an opportunity for people from the small towns and villages, who have been neglected by the macroeconomic and political system. These people have no other opportunities, Peter Hetz who takes part in a bio-diversity protection project implemented by the US Agency for International Development (USAID). Eco tourism in Bulgaria is at the stage of inception. It has generated gross revenue of 550,000 euro for the rural and mountainous regions in 2002, the alternative tourism association said. Still, several success examples can be quoted. A case in point is the bird-spotting centre set up in Madjarovo (a town in a desolate mining region in the southern Rhodope mountains). The project set off eight years ago under a debt-for-environment swap between Bulgaria and Switzerland. Before 1994, hardly anyone in Madjarovo could have thought that the vulture population in the region held opportunities for developing a business. Some 36 kinds of birds of prey can be spotted in the region now, including the rare imperial eagle, griffon vulture, black vulture and Egyptian vulture. The region boasts the only population of griffon and black vultures in Bulgaria. People are now coming back to buy flats in the old blocks where miners used to live, and are upgrading them for the tourists. A hotel has sprung up and cafes are opening doors. The locals, 90 pct of whom are unemployed, are getting used to the presence of environmentalists and the arrival of foreign groups and buses with children. People are starting to see a real opportunity in tourism. Another successful example is the village of Sokolovo, between Bulgaria's Black Sea resorts Albena and Golden Sands (Zlatni Pyassatsi). A pensioner has set up an attractive "Bulgarian style house" in his own house with minimum funds. He dressed 15 grannies in traditional Bulgarian costumes, and assigned them various typical tasks, such as making banitsa (a kind of pastry which is made of several layers of rolled out dough, stuffed with cheese or fruit and baked in a dish), selling honey or presenting traditional Bulgarian handicrafts. He has also hired two horse-drawn carts to transport the tourists. One tour operator alone took 700 foreigners to this house in the summer of 2002, the company said. Trigrad, a village in the western Rhodope mountains, is lately experiencing a boom in tourists, thanks to the initiative of Kostadin Hadjiiski, a former guide in the region's caves. Hadjiiski started his business by renting out two rooms in his house, went on to rent out the entire house and spread to a second one. He employs locals as travel guides for the caves, drafts tourist routes, offers horse riding and attracts investors from Plovdiv. He is currently developing the Haramiiska cave as an adventure tourism site. Trigrad currently offers more than 100 beds to tourists and hosts festivals. Eco tourist initiatives have lately sprung up from the most unlikely sources ranging from hotel owners and tour operators, through municipalities, national parks, branch associations and NGOs to something akin of a nation-wide movement. Experience shows, however, that isolated small-scale eco tourism initiatives are not quite successful, as they cannot reach the national market, Kamelia Georgieva from a project for bio-diversity protection and economic growth said. The people taking part in the project are looking for ways of funding national parks through eco tourism. They have tied together piece by piece the parks, municipalities, ministries and existing regional and branch organisations. The project also organised the first eco tourism forum in Bulgaria. A sizeable number of representatives of international organisations from this sector and a significant government participation were recorded at the forum - something which has not been achieved so far by the Bulgarian tourism industry, despite the fact that tourism is a national priority and is generating $1.2 bln worth of revenue annually. As for the government representatives, it would be interesting to note that all of them except PM Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and Environment Minister Dolores Arsenova were members of Bulgaria's predominantly ethnic Turk Movement for Rights and Freedoms. The MRF part of the cabinet was represented by Agriculture Minister Mehmed Dikme, Deputy Economy Minister Dimitar Hadjinikolov and Deputy Environment Minister Fatme Iliyaz. They later said that the strong MRF presence was not connected to the programme for economic development drafted by the MRF. A draft strategy for the development of eco-tourism was presented at the forum for the first time. The economy, agriculture and environment ministries signed a protocol for co-operation in this field. Hadjinikolov discussed the development of game-hunting tourism and investment in state-owned hunting grounds with Deputy Agriculture Minister Meglena Plugchieva. The agriculture ministry is developing a plan for the Rhodopes with the support of the UN Development Programme (UNDP). The EU SAPARD programme and the future Parks Fund will also lend a hand by envisaging possibilities for funding such projects. A proposal for establishing a link between the micro-credits extended by the government and the SAPARD funds was made by Labour Minister Lydia Shuleva at the cabinet meeting in Kardjali in the beginning of November 2002. The government seemed to understand the fact that the state should invest in infrastructure, while the private sector would carry the cost of investment in hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions. The perception that tourists would flock to a place where they could sleep in haystacks and see donkeys has been cast off. Eco tourism could develop only if the tourists are offered living conditions at least as good as those they have at home. The current state policy of favouring large-scale investors and tour operators in the sector also poses obstacles. Bulgarian tourism stands a chance in the face of competition by the German tour operator giants only through consolidation, Hadjinikolov said. The latest government ordinance in this field gives a boost to the idea. In order to receive a tour operator licence, companies should have at least five employees and should be run by someone with at least a 10-year experience in the sector. Start-up tourist companies are unable to meet these criteria and the alternative tourism association was, quite logically, the first to protest against these provisions. By nature, eco tourism is a small and medium-scale business, in which tour operators work with small groups of tourists. Moreover, it is usually people who do not rely on it as the main source of income who start dealing in this field. It is a fact that the established players on the tourism market have already stopped spurning eco tourism, as demand in this sector is rising on a global scale and it is an ideal complement to sea tourism. Under the current situation, most tour operators do not neglect it any longer, but have not got mature enough to espouse the idea. The government institutions in the tourism sector also treat the issue in a controversial way. Hadjinikolov believes that niche tourism gives Bulgarian tour operators an edge over the German ones, which have pushed them out of the mass sea tourism field. Bulgarian tour operators know their country best and should start working on eco tourism packages. Moreover, prices in this field are higher and the sector allows more links to be part of the tourist chain. Hadjinikolov also said that he had asked German tour operators TUI and Thomas Cook to include eco tourism programmes in their packages for Bulgaria. The two German companies, which together with ITS are the largest tour operators present in Bulgaria, have turned towards detour tourism. Both companies recently opened their first countryside hotels, in Tryavna, central Bulgaria. It is also well known that they dominate the Black Sea coast and have almost entirely pushed Bulgarian tour operators out of the region, so the invitation extended to them to advance into the country's interior sounds strange. The MRF ideas for developing eco tourism are not well targeted. The MRF plans to develop alternative agriculture which goes hand in hand with eco tourism. The projects, which have been discussed so far, however, are of the Syutka type: the construction of a mountain resort near Velingrad, which has been keeping green activists on edge for the last two years. This is exactly the opposite of what eco tourism preaches.