The battle over Bulgaria’s Bansko

Business and local authorities in Bulgaria’s winter resort of Bansko who want the go-ahead to build a second cableway have confirmed political backing from those in power for the project, over the objections of a group of environmental conservation NGOs.

Bulgaria’s current ruling party, Boiko Borissov’s centre-right GERB, has a long history of backing the project.

The first term in office of a GERB government saw statements of support from Borissov and the country’s economy minister at the time, as well as participation in a 2012 public protest demanding the second ski lift by then-interior minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov.

The departure from office of the GERB government in early 2013, when Borissov resigned after an incident in violence in Sofia when protesters clashed with police during a demo on cost-of-living issues, led to further developments in the saga of the plans of the Yulen company, concessionaire of the Bansko ski zone.

The 2013/14 government that was in place because of a mandate handed to the Bulgarian Socialist Party agreed, soon before it was to leave office, to extension of the Bansko ski area, while also saying that the holder of the concession would have to pay a 50 per cent higher fee to the state for using the area.

That cabinet decision, assigning to the environment minister the task of an agreement on an amendment of the concession contract on state property forming part of Pirin national park to allow building and operation of Bansko ski zone, fell away on technical grounds, and was formally cancelled by the new Borissov government at a meeting on January 7 2015.

At that January meeting, the government said that the position of the environment minister of the time and the decision adopted in August 2014 did not comply with the applicable legislation.

Annulling the August decision, the cabinet agreed to PM Borissov being authorised to set up an inter-agency working group “to examine issues related to the contract and to propose possible solutions”.

Expectations are that the current government will issue on or by February 15 its own decision on the concession in the Bansko ski area, which environmental conservation groups say is substantially larger than that allowed under the existing concession contract.

On January 9, speaking to Bulgarian National Radio, Bansko mayor Georgi Ikonomov said that the inter-agency working group being set up by the Prime Minister would clear up the unresolved problems of the past few years.

Ikonomov reiterated his call for amending the management plan for the Pirin national park to remove the ban that stands in the way of a new cableway and other facilities in the area.

Apart from further protests in support of extending the facilities at Bansko, more top-level statements of support followed, from those in power.

On February 4, the same day that a protest was organised by the Union of the Tourism Business in Bansko to demand the go-ahead for new ski runs and the new cableway, there was support from Bulgaria’s tourism and sports ministers.

Speaking at a meeting of Parliament’s committee on youth and sport, Sports Minister Krassen Kralev described the long queues in Bansko for the existing lift were bad for Bulgaria’s image abroad.

According to Kralev, there was “no other EU country” where an entire mountain had been declared a protected area. He described the protection decision, made 30 years ago, as unreasonable.

He told the committee that a check had found that the ban on construction had been imposed not at the request of Unesco, but at Bulgaria’s own initiative. The national park contained no protected species that could not be found elsewhere, Kralev said.

Kralev expressed hope that by mid-February, the problem of the concession contract for the use of part of Pirin national park would be resolved.

The same day, Tourism Minister Nikolina Angelkova said that her ministry stood firmly behind the possible second lift in Bansko, “subject of course to national and European legislation”.

Angelkova said that Bulgaria should take advantage of its potential for mountain tourism that attracts high-end tourists, instead of standing and observing what other countries were doing. Bulgaria should be in top stop, rather than “in time our children going skiing in Turkey or Greece,” local media quoted her as saying.

Earlier, Mediapool reported that Environment and Water Minister Ivelina Vassileva had expressed backing for the second cableway in Bansko.

The reported statements by Kralev and Angelkova drew a sharp reaction from the “For the Nature in Bulgaria” coalition of environmental conservation NGOs and civic groups.

The coalition said that the statements by the two ministers showed that the inter-agency working group was nothing more than a formality and “pathetic attempts” were being made to conceal the fact that the government already had made up its mind.

Bulgarian law forbade the construction of new sports facilities in national parks.

According to the environmentalists, the investment plans for the expansion of the Bansko ski area were not based on any market research or on occupancy of hotels in the resort, and would not create sustainable jobs in Bansko.

The conservation coalition said that they were ready for protest actions, in defence of national and natural parks in Bulgaria and against monopolistic economic circles in winter sports in Bulgaria.

Meanwhile, in a high-profile move, mayor Ikonomov came to Sofia on February 5 for a series of meetings with top government and state officials, including the President, Prime Minister and Speaker of Parliament.

Ikonomov said that his delegation was calling for a decision by the end of February, to establish the exact area of the concession and in parallel, a decision on amending the Pirin national park management plan to enable the new cableway.

President Rossen Plevneliev, according to a statement by his office, said that development of tourism shoulc consider sustainable protection of natural resources. Bulgaria should use its tourism potential and ecological and economically good solutions for the Bulgarian regions shoudl be sought, he said.

Municipalities with the potential to develop winter tourism should be given a chance for economic prospects and Bulgaria should be given a chance to establish its name as a serious international destination offering quality and varied mountain tourism, Plevneliev said.

Tsetska Tsacheva, Speaker of the National Assembly, also voiced support, saying that a second gondola lift in Bansko could become a reality, but all European norms and directives should be observed.

The Bansko issue should be solved immediately because it was the centre of winter resorts in Bulgaria, Tsacheva said.

She called on the representatives of Bansko and Dobrinishte to present proposed amendments to the Forestry Act, local media reports said.

Meeting the Bansko delegation, Borissov undertook to keep to the deadlines regarding government decisions on the issues regarding the Bansko ski area.

“The environmentalists should be your partners, draw them into the discussion and persuade them with arguments of the need to build a second gondola ski lift in Bansko,” the government media office quoted Borissov as having told the Bansko delegation.

“Construction of the ski zone in Bansko 15 years ago was a big compromise itself,” Konstantin Ivanov, representative of the World Wild Fund for Nature (WWF), said on February 6, according to a report by local news agency Focus.

He said that Pirin was a national park, exclusive state property, and thus the property of all Bulgarian citizens.

“Even back then the contract on the concession clearly stated that the number of the beds by that date in the past – about 7000 to 8000, should not be exceeded.

Nowadays, we know that there are around 18 000 beds in the hotels, without counting the number of apartments for rent,” Ivanov said, adding that the Bansko mountain resort expanded much more than the initially allowed under the concession contract.

“Under the law, it is impossible to further expand the ski zone,” he said, adding that currently there were already several additional facilities built, which were not mentioned and allowed under the concession contract.

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The Sofia Globe staff

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