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Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 December 2006, 12:01 GMT
A very Bulgarian building boom
By Simon Gompertz
Business Correspondent, Working Lunch

Simon Gompertz in Bulgaria
Simon in seach of a Bulgarian building boom
Thousands of British property investors have been sinking their money into Bulgarian holiday flats, in ski resorts and on the coast.

So they're particularly interested in the fact that Bulgaria, along with Romania, will be joining the European Union at the beginning of January.

We headed for the ski resort of Pamporovo in the Rhodope mountains near Bulgaria's border with Greece.

It dates back to Communist times but now it's an emblem of the new Bulgaria, of a generation which can't remember the old days and a country gearing up to earn the tourist pound.

Pamporovo has a stunning setting, with peaks and pine-cladded hills stretching for miles around. The only thing missing this year is snow. There are only a couple of weeks until Christmas, yet it still feels like a sunny autumn on the ski slopes.

Good gain

The buyers are still coming, regardless. As we were filming at the top of ski lifts, two of the thousands of British property investors flocking here arrived to inspect the mountain top.

"We always wanted to buy on a mountain but the traditional Apline resorts are too expensive," explained Robert Frost from Ipswich, "And there's the hope of making a good gain."

Bulgarian scene
Bulgaria's population density is lower than the EU average
Beside him, Gillian Haste was encouraged by Bulgaria's progress in the last few years. "It's good value, especially as it's joining the European Union," she added.

Prices for ski apartments in Pamporovo start at 20,000 for a studio in a luxury development.

But the impact of the property lust of investors like Robert and Gillian is a construction frenzy. 60 apartment blocks have been started or finished in the last year, doubling the space available. Around half of the holiday flats are owned by UK investors.

British and Irish

New complexes are almost exclusively snapped up by British and Irish buyers. We visted one with the unBulgarian name of Cedar Heights, being marketed by a UK based agency called Bulgarian Dreams.

When I asked the agency's local representative, Slavi Mihaylov, how many buyers actually came to inspect the site before paying over their cash, he revealed: "Probably 50% come and look before they buy." The rest trust the marketing materials and their own research from home.

But Lachezar Sivkov was uneasy about the rate of construction, even though he is benefiting, as thousands of Bulgarians are, from the jobs and money brought to the area. He manages a rival apartment block which is already up and running.

Lachezar said that 160 development permits have been issued in the last two years, implying a supply of flats with a total 27,000 beds.

Flats being built in Bulgaria
Construction is flourishing in the country
"Bearing in mind that the existing infrastructure, water supply, ski lifts and electricity is designed to support 5,000, that's a problem," said Sivkov.

Infrastructure

The English sales director at Bulgarian Dreams, David Smith, countered that the infrastructure is being improved.

"They've upgraded that," he told me, "Although elsewhere is Bulgaria they've been caught out on a few occasions."

David was keen to ram home the value that budget-priced Bulgaria has to offer, so a he showed me a large, two bedroom flat, boasting a balcony with wonderful views over rolling hills and forests. The flat had been sold at 60,000, a fraction of what ski enthusiasts would pay in the Alps.

For the next stage of the same development, which is still being built, prices have risen by 12%, because of what he calls "the huge pent-up demand for rental accommodation and second homes."

David Smith believes that Bulgaria's accession to the EU next month will not change anything overnight, but he says, "It's a vote of confidence. Something some people have been waiting for for two or three years."

More airlines

The big change for property investors, he forecasts, will be the arrival of more airlines, such as Ryanair and Easyjet, cutting the cost of travel and boosting the number of visitors.

Bulgarian scene
Some fear that unspoilt views are threatened by development
Investing in these flats only makes sense if the value of the property goes up, so the question over whether Pamporovo can cope is a vital one.

But there is a new ski area, Perelik, opening next door to the resort, with access planned for skiers staying in Pamporovo.

While that's bad news for sections of pristine forest which may have to be cut down, it will provide more skiing space for the hordes of holidaymakers about to arrive in these breathtaking mountains.


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