Old 23-02-10, 01:21 PM   #1
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Bansko Mayor Exclusive Interview

By Simon Feek
Ski & Snowboard Guide to Bulgaria

Most politicians are wary of the press, to say the least. So I was pleased to be granted access to one of the country’s most high-profile local politicians, Alexander Kravarov, mayor of the municipality of Bansko.

During his two terms and 11 years in office, Kravarov has come under considerable fire for Bansko’s rapid development which has turned it from a sleepy and beautiful UNESCO-protected village into Bulgaria’s most modern ski resort.

We met in Kravarov’s spacious office at the main municipality building on a sunny February afternoon. Initial impressions are of a laid-back but focussed community leader. Wearing a Bulgarian Mountain Rescue fleece, it quickly became clear he was more interested in promoting his town than himself.

Kravarov is born and bred Bansko. His wife and two sons all live and work in Bansko. Before public life brought him to his mayoral office, he had a successful construction business as well as a company that manufactured furniture, both of which dissolved after he began paying more attention to his municipality duties than his private business.

Greek tragedy

Perhaps the overriding question in everyone’s mind is the impact of the current financial crisis on Bansko in terms of tourist numbers.

"The crisis has, of course, been felt in Bansko," said Kravarov. "Fewer people are investing in property and business than before, but in general I believe we have felt it less than most other parts of Bulgaria. This is because our main source of income in Bansko is tourism, which has remained relatively unaffected."

Kravarov declined to compare tourist numbers to the previous year, saying it was "too early" to do so but conceded that "Bansko is suffering from the closure of the (Greek) border by Greek farmers". He said that, usually, 3000 Greek tourists come to Bansko every day in the winter season and that the loss of income was significant.

Any frequent visitor to Bansko can attest to that. At times in the season it seems like every other car has a Greek number plate. There has, however, been a significant increase in Serb, Macedonian and even Romanian tourist number plates around town this year, compensating at least partially for the Greek shortfall. It is clear, however, that the 15 000 hotel beds (and even more privately-owned apartments) or the 20 000 people per day ski zone capacity is nowhere close to being fulfilled while the border crisis continues.

"This is a traditionally quiet part of the season but with the British school holidays beginning next week as well as the prediction that the border will re-open after the weekend we do not perceive this as a long-term problem," the mayor said.

Passing the baton

Kravarov was quick to point out he is not running for a third term and next year will be his last in office. "Almost every plan we put into action from now on will be bequeathed to my successor," he said. "Bansko municipality is the locomotive pulling the whole area on to greater things," he said.

I noticed that Kravarov seldom referred to himself, preferring instead to credit "the municipality" with the developments he began to expand on.

He told me about the application, which was already filed, for a second gondola. This is essential to reduce lift queues, especially in peak season, although it has traditionally faced massive opposition from eco-lobbyists .

The project, which will be jointly financed by existing lift operator Ulen, private investors and the municipality itself, is currently being reviewed, and believed to be approved, by the Environment and Water Affairs Ministry. Kravarov said that all plans "comply with the rules" concerning the environmental impact on the Pirin National Park, which will hopefully appease all parties when construction starts in 2011.

Other initiatives, Kravarov said, include an additional run in Bansko, which requires no tree-felling at all, of 2.5km that will allow an extra 2000-2500 skiers a day to enjoy the slopes. A ban on the further issue of construction permits is also in place which will be good news to thousands of property investors who have purchased apartments and villas locally.

He is clearly very aware of the environmental risks of expansion and keen to point out the municipality’s plans to plant trees and bring the forests on the mountain to the very edge of his town. More than 20 000 saplings were planted by the municipality last year alone.

Dobrinishte, the village next to Bansko, which already boasts the longest ski run in Bulgaria, is also to undergo development. Coming under the control of the Bansko municipality, Kravarov hinted at a "similar sized" ski zone with modern lift infrastructure as well as the town itself, and its 30 natural mineral springs, becoming an upmarket ski and spa destination for international tourists.

This would be a breakthrough because the Bansko area would then be able to compete with its larger European competitors. Although environmentalists are concerned about a possible negative impact on Dobrinishte, the mayor promised that there would be no need to cut down swathes of forest to implement the project.

Kravarov also confirmed that funding had been found and a Spanish health care provider was now negotiating for the right to run a proposed new hospital in the centre of Bansko. There are already two seasonal medical centres in Bansko at the base station, manned by the municipality, with some of the best trauma doctors in Bulgaria from Sofia’s two most famous hospitals; the Pirogov and Tokuda hospitals.

Yet Kravarov wants more. A maternity ward allowing Bansko citizens to have "born in Bansko" on their documentation is a must, it appears. Dental and full operating facilities are also factored in. So apparently is a cosmetic surgery section to help promote Bansko as a "medical tourism" destination. This would be staffed by the country’s leading professionals and would be prepared to handle almost any eventuality.

And anything they can’t handle can be quickly transferred to larger facilities in Sofia by means of the hospital’s own helicopter and heli-pad. Construction should be complete and the hospital operational in two or three years.

Kravarov also confirmed that two million euro had already been reserved for his "Riverside Project" which will see the river that runs through the town tidied up, landscaped into terraced parks, children’s play areas and tennis courts and enhanced by riverside cafes. Pending approval – a small hurdle in his opinion – the project will begin later this year.

Once completed, the improvement to this area of town will help to make Bansko an "all season" resort.

Kravarov opened his desk drawer and smiled. "Would you like a little exclusive?" he asked. He showed me a document, signed only the day before, concerning 275 000 sq m of land in the municipality, three km from Bansko towards Banya, which is being "gifted" to a consortium of Bulgarian and foreign investors with a view to building a massive sports complex in four or five years’ time.

The so far unnamed project will have five football training pitches plus an "all-weather" artificial pitch, a 5000-seater stadium, four competition tennis courts with spectator seating, beach volleyball, an ice rink, a permanent skateboard park, a BMX-cross bike track, two Olympic outdoor swimming pools with high diving boards, an indoor sports hall and basketball courts as well as a 12-lane athletics track. There will also be a small hotel, administrative buildings, a conference hall and car parking for 800 vehicles.

"So you are effectively telling me you are turning the Bansko region into the ‘sporting centre’ of the Balkans?" I asked.

"Exactly!" he said, adding that the new mayor was the person to take the project to fruition but there had already been a great deal of interest in providing facilities such as this near Bansko by big names in the world of football. The altitude of the site at more than 1000m means that the location is perfect for training athletes in all disciplines. "These are all the facilities required to host the European Cup," Kravarov said.

Read more at skiguidebg.com

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