RESPONSIBLE TOURISM IN BULGARIA

In certain sections of Sofia, Bulgaria shines as an EU star; however, outside of the capital, you’ll find some of Europe’s poorest people. Rural regions, especially, are struggling to cope with sustaining themselves purely through farming. Tourists tend to flock to the Black Sea in the summer and ski resorts, like Bansko and Borovets, during winter, meaning that folk living in the mountains barely get a look in when it comes to benefitting from the tourist industry. However, the times are a changing. Villages, like Leshten, Dolen and Yagodina, are beginning to provide curious travellers with a charming look back through the ages as well as injecting a much needed financial boost to rural economies. Visiting ski resorts outside of winter, for mountain hikes, allows for a year round approach to tourism rather than further stretching resources at peak season. Bulgaria also has some of the freshest, free, spring water in the EU so bring a refillable bottle, alongside a stowaway shopping bag, to help prevent plastic pollution.
For more responsible tourism issues concerning Bulgaria, and what you can do to help, read on.

PEOPLE & CULTURE IN BULGARIA

Rural poverty

Agriculture is hugely important to the Bulgarian economy; however, many people living in remote rural areas are struggling to make ends meet. Outside of farming there are few employment options for young Bulgarians, so often the bright lights of Sofia and Black Sea beach resorts tempt teens to look for work elsewhere. Bulgaria is the EU’s poorest nation with a lack of qualified workers and an ageing population, on pitifully poor pensions; 60 percent of Bulgarian pensioners are considered to live below the government's poverty line.

There is little or no interest in allowing immigrants or refugees to come and settle in Bulgaria. The Turkish border made Bulgaria an ideal passage for refugees seeking safety in Europe but a 30km barbed wire fence put paid to that. As in many countries, Bulgarian nationalists view refugees with suspicion, at best, and fear overcrowding will push already inadequate infrastructure to breaking point. The irony is that the UN predicts that Bulgaria’s population will actually shrink by two million in the next 30 years to a staggeringly low 5.2 million.
Bulgaria's northwest region, especially, is cited as the poorest region in the EU. The city of Vratsa was once an industrial epicentre for Bulgaria, but now it's fallen into decline. A lack of jobs coupled with a lack of skilled labour and a declining population leads many to believe that it won't be long before Vratsa becomes virtually extinct. Summer and winter create work for local people on the coast and in the mountain resorts but there is a limited tourist industry outside of these months. This is despite locations like Rila National Park, about an hour's drive south of Sofia, having a vast network of well marked walking trails and chairlifts still running outside of winter to whisk walkers to higher ground.

Source: The Economist

What you can do
Visit Bulgaria with a tour operator that employs the services of local people and invites travellers to stay in locally owned accommodation. Mountain villages, like Leshten, Gorno Draglishte and Dolen, don't get much tourist trade. By staying at a small guesthouse not only will you be experiencing a completely authentic way of life but you'll also be placing your holiday funds into the pockets of those who need them most.

WILDLIFE & ENVIRONMENT IN BULGARIA

Cheap as chips ski resorts are pretty hard to come by in Europe which is why Bulgaria's Bansko has become one of the country's biggest success stories. However, if you're hoping for a happy ending you may want to look away now. A proposed expansion that includes hacking out over 300km of new ski slopes and installing more than 100km of chairlifts is all set to turn what was once a tiny mountain village into a mega mountain resort. The environmental impact on the UNESCO protected Pirin National Park would be catastrophic. This is the home of wild bears and wolves that have gravitated to the region in order to escape urban expansion and now live within the ancient old growth forests beside gorgeous glacial lakes. Commercial logging may also be allowed across more than half of Pirin National Park to help make way for the proposed expansion plans. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and WWF have both expressed significant concern for the Pirins. Bansko also generates a huge volume of artificial snow. This uses up an excessive amount of spring and drinking water, which is not only wasteful but also impacts on indigenous flora and fauna.

It's not just the winter season that has seen significant changes to the natural environment in Bulgaria. The Black Sea beaches, too, have suffered from overdevelopment. Sunny Beach resort, in particular, has been attracting tourists since the early 1980s. Inexpensive accommodation, sunshine, sea and wonderfully wild sand dunes provided a huge draw for wealthy holiday makers from Western Europe. Fast forward a decade and Sunny Beach changed from being naturally attractive to completely overdeveloped. Cheap booze and an all-night party scene have led to crazy times on the coast – way beyond anything the infrastructure and the environment can handle. Up the coast to the north the resort of Golden Sands offers a slightly more salubrious experience, although overdevelopment is still certainly an issue.
What you can do
Visit Bulgaria's main ski resorts outside of winter for a hiking holiday. Or try snow shoeing in Rila National Park during the winter. This mountainous region has barely been touched by tourism. Snowshoeing and winter walking cause little or no damage to the environment and follow already existing tracks. Skiing and snowboarding, on the other hand, require graded runs to be carved out of a mountain slope, often at the expense of trees. Artificial snow is also required to prolong the winter sport season and provide cover when there’s a lack of snow. Find out why we say no to fake snow.

The more responsible travellers who stay in Bulgaria’s national parks and remote mountain areas, the more local people will benefit financially. This will then show the Bulgarian government how the natural world generates income on its own merits without the need for logging to expand ski resorts.

If you're going to the beach, get as far from resorts close to Varna and Burgas, as possible. Seaside towns like Dyuni and Ahtopol, close to the Turkish border, have few crowds, not much development and intact sand dunes, alongside an authentic laidback ambience.
PLASTIC POLLUTION
Another negative impact of too many tourists and a lack of infrastructure is that Bulgaria's Black Sea coastline is one of Europe’s most polluted. Plastic waste, especially, stays around for an eternity and microplastics can easily be mistaken by marine animals for food. Although Bulgaria now charges for plastic bags in its shops there’s still a worrying level of plastic entering the Black Sea from the land and adjoining rivers.
Three tons of plastic end up in the Black Sea
every single day.
– Greenpeace Bulgaria
Environmental and sustainable tourism issues in Bulgaria need to be addressed. The current Bulgarian Environment Minister, Neno Dimov, a renowned climate change sceptic, has so far ignored calls by activists to limit plastic and pollutant use.

Source: The Guardian

Find out more from Friends of the Earth about Bulgarian activists' efforts to reduce plastic in their country.

RESPONSIBLE TOURISM TIPS

Stick to designated walking paths – there are lots of them – and make sure you leave no trace by taking rubbish home, including cigarette butts, chewing gum, orange peel and banana skins. Always ask first if you're planning on taking a photograph of someone or their property. The same is certainly true if you're close to a military installation. Stay in small locally owned accommodation in rural regions such as the Rhodope Mountains. This is the best way to have an authentic experience. You will taste the difference when it comes to meal times, as dishes feature ingredients that have been grown literally a few yards from the kitchen. Eat at local restaurants and opt for open markets rather than international food chains and supermarkets. Support traditional Bulgarian cottage industries by buying local handmade products as souvenirs. Always check for authenticity before buying wood carvings in Bulgaria. Avoid 4WD tours in the mountains and opt for a walk instead – much healthier and more rewarding. Don’t visit the dolphinariums on the Black Sea coast. Dolphins are kept in small indoor tanks and 'perform' for the public six days a week. Bulgaria is the EU's only country to exclude dolphinariums from the requirements of the Zoos Directive. Instead, it regulates them under legislation for circus and theatre performances, meaning they have removed the means of protecting dolphins held in captivity.
Written by Chris Owen
Photo credits: [Page banner: Detelina Petkova] [Melnik, Pirin: Jeanne Menjoulet] [Poverty: Marcin Grabski] [Skiing - Bansko: www.bdmundo.com] [Plastic pollution: John Cameron] [Market: Donald Judge]
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