Bulgaria's main mountain resort seeks year-round appeal

Once you only needed skis in Bansko. Graham Norwood explains why trunks, clubs and a riding crop are now essential kit
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The Independent Online

Put away the skis. Bulgaria's famous Bansko mountain resort, once a haven for winter sports but empty in summer, is now targeting year-round buyers and tourists.

Since 2003, some 3,000 Britons have bought homes in Bansko, the resort town that sits 150km south of Bulgaria's capital, Sofia. Many have done so because of its reputation as a top central European ski area - it has bid for the 2014 Winter Olympics and has 64 kilometres of slopes.

"As a ski centre, Bansko holds its own with French ones but until now, there hasn't been much to do outside of the season. That's going to change with the arrival of an equestrian centre, a golf course designed by British star Ian Woosnam, and bike and hiking trails," says Mike Wellings, a London financier-turned-developer, whose firm, Winslow Developments, has built hundreds of flats for British buyers in Bansko.

Wellings' latest scheme - Mountain Residences, 177 apartments ranging from £39,000 to £110,000 - sold out within a month this spring. "Within a few years, landlords will be able to rent their apartments out for much longer periods, not close them up for the summer," insists Wellings.

His scheme is not the only one seeking four-season appeal. Alpine Lodge is a complex of 123 fully furnished studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments in Bansko, near to the Woosnam golf course and the old town, and due for completion in December 2007. Although close to ski runs, estate agents are emphasising its sunbathing decks, barbecue areas and swimming pool, as well as the low starting prices of £29,973. (The Right Move Abroad, 020 8453 7516, www. therightmoveabroad.com.)

White Fir is another project of 123 apartments in Bansko. It unashamedly admits it is three kilometres from the resort's ski lifts but emphasises its proximity to golf, hiking and fishing facilities that are best enjoyed in the summer, as well as epic views of the Pirin Mountains. Prices are from £100,000. (Hamptons International, 020 7244 4740, www.hamptons-int.com.)

Sofia Golf and Country Club is near another ski resort, Borovets, but is marketed in the UK with the emphasis on its golf course, riding school, volleyball, basketball, 10-pin bowling, swimming, football and tennis facilities. As international-lifestyle buyers are sought, "so golf will play a major part in Bulgaria's future", predicts estate agent Robin Barrasford, who sells to British buyers. Club apartments are £57,000 to £69,000. (Barrasford & Bird, 0845 600 1871, www. barrasfordandbird.co.uk.)

Few can deny that Bansko and Borovets are like Spain four decades ago. Construction and improvements are going on apace and the tourism industry is booming after decades of stagnation - there was a 62 per cent rise in British visitors to the ski areas last year, according to official Bulgarian figures.

Eighty per cent of foreign visitors to Bansko are from Britain and Ireland, and there are daily flights by budget Wizzair from Luton, and BA and Bulgaria Air from Heathrow.

This comes on top of summer tourism and holiday-home sales in Black Sea resorts in the north of Bulgaria. These are already year-round hot spots but there are complaints from some buyers of few facilities apart from the hotels and beaches, and many new flats are built some distance from the best resorts.

Property analysts, such as Knight Frank, say that, short-term glitches apart, prices in tourist areas of Bulgaria have risen 25-30 per cent in the past two years and are expected to continue upwards. "We predict another 15 per cent to 20 per cent capital increase this year," says the firm's international research chief, Nicholas Barnes. "All-year resorts will give higher rental yields to investors who buy in those areas. But perhaps the real key is getting Bulgaria into the European Union, which is likely to happen in the next few years. Think of Spain, Portugal or Greece before they joined the EU. Now look at their improved motorway networks, railways and physical infrastructure schemes. As a result, property prices have blossomed. Now that's the Bulgaria of the future, too."