by Markus Frick
Student, MA Tourism, Environment and Development, King’s College London.

This paper discusses the impacts of tourism development in the Bulgarian Black Sea coast from a political ecological perspective, a perspective used so far mainly for the global South (e.g. Stonich, 1998: Briassoulis, 2003; Gössling, 2003). Although Bulgaria is an EU Member since 2007, it faces similar tourism-related problems with the global south: poor transport infrastructure, corruption, poor education and training and lack of proper legislation.

The paper involved field research in the Black Sea resort of Saint Vlas (Bulgarian: Свети Влас / Sveti Vlas) which is located a few kilometres north of the much better known "Sunny Beach" resort and the ancient town of Nessebar, a popular attraction. The paper focuses on the impacts of private and public actions on the environment and the community's well being in Saint Vlas and how ordinary local inhabitants and professionals alike perceive tourism development in the area.

The anthropologist, Eric Wolf was one of the first (Blaikie and Brookfield, 1987; Peet and Watts, 1996; Stonich, 1998; Gössling, 2003; Robbins, 2004) to use the phrase 'political ecology' when he "... pointed out the theoretical need to integrate local ecological contexts within the broader political economy (Wolf, 1972 cited in Stonich, 1998, p. 28).

Gössling (2003, p. xi) wrote that political ecology is "... an emerging field of interdisciplinary research addressing the politics of environmental change..." and that its use in analyzing tourism development has been insufficient. According to Stonich (1998), political ecology usually seeks to recognize how political forces in interaction with environmental aspects affect social and environmental change through the actions of different social actors. Stonich points out that resource usage is a key issue in political ecological analysis.


11Bulgaria's Black Sea Coast used to be the most popular tourism destination within the COMECON block of countries from the 1960s to the late 1980s (Bacharov, 1997). However after the collapse of the communist system in Eastern Europe in the early 1990s, Bulgaria suddenly lost its main economic partners and in particular the USSR leading to a crisis. By the mid-1990s Bulgaria had become one of the most indebted countries in the world, when measured per capita, owing US$9 billion to foreign creditors (Bacharov, 1997)

Bulgaria's first post-communist government adopted international tourism as a priority sector (Bacharov, 1997) and the tourism infrastructure was designated for privatisation however the strategy was unsuccessful: the share of Bulgaria's world tourism revenues actually fell from 0.30% in 1985 to 0.16% in 1992 (Bacharov, 1997), slight growth took place in 1993 and 1994 but in 1995 the industry was in decline again. In 1994 ex-communist officials were elected back to power and market reforms slowed down. The economic crisis deepened since the now destroyed communist economy was not effectively replaced with a new economic environment (Bacharov, 1999) while according to OECD "the lack of reforms in the banking sector together with the lack of progress in restructuring loss-making state-owned enterprises contributed" culminated in a collapse of the currency (OECD, 2000, p. 37). 26 banks became insolvent and many businesses and individuals lost their savings (Kossev, 2005).
Widespread rumours were that one of the causes of the hyperinflation was the artificial devaluation of the lev, so that the Bulgarian nouveaux rich could buy tourist facilities, among others, at cheaper prices (Bacharov, 1999) while elements of the 'Bulgarian Mafia' are said to have bought hotels primarily as a means for money laundering (Labadi, 2008).

In February 1997, following protests, a pro-business government came to power with a plan for Bulgaria to gain EU membership within 10 years (ESI, 2010). Foreign direct investment (FDI) increased rapidly from an annual average of $153million in 1992-1996 to $636 [€570] million in 1997. The early 2000s saw a slight decrease in FDI but in 2003 an investment boom started which climaxed in 2007, when Bulgaria joined the EU, with over €9 bn of FDI pouring in mainly into real estate (Angelov, 2010). Naturally this affected tourism development as well and constructions in Bulgarian resorts saw notable increase. As a result of the foreign investments, the whole Black Sea coast saw a rapid modernization of tourism infrastructure in just a few years (Bacharov, 2006).

By 2008, the EU had already provided hundreds of millions of Euros in the form of aid but decided to freeze further aid alleging 'corruption' and 'mismanagement' of EU aid. (AFP, 2008). A new government took office in July 2009. The State Agency for Tourism was shut down and a new Ministry of Economy, Energy and Tourism was formed (Euromonitor, 2010). One of the aims of the new (current) government was to attract more foreign investment, hence increasing both inbound and outbound business travel (Euromonitor, 2010). The EU subsequently unfroze aid and further investment in tourism infrastructure is now expected (Euromonitor, 2010). However, in February 2010 the European Commission warned about a new potential freezing of funds because Bulgaria had 'failed to produce audits on more than 186 water and environmental projects co-financed by the EU' (, 2010).

Since their entry into the Bulgarian market, budget airlines, such as easyJet and WizzAir, have enjoyed continuous success. The routes and frequency of flights have been expanded to and from Bulgaria in recent years (Euromonitor, 2010). The expanding of low-cost carriers in Bulgaria is expected to continue in the short term, with RyanAir starting flights from Stansted to Plovdiv and 'Pegasus' a Turkish budget airline, from Istanbul to Sofia (Sofia Echo, 2010). Also, existing carriers are adding new cities in Bulgaria to their destinations (Euromonitor, 2010).

The travel and tourism industry's contribution to the Bulgarian GDP is expected to decline from 11.9 percent (US$5,951.1mn) in 2010 to 10.7 percent (US$10,841.5mn) in 2020 (WTTC, 2010). However, looking at the figures, the income from tourism is forecast to nearly double in the coming ten years. The industry's contribution is also expected to fall from 324,000 jobs (10.2% of total employment) in 2009 to 270,000 (9.1%) by 2020 (WTTC, 2010).
Tourism in Bulgaria has been throughout its history very seasonal and concentrated in the summer months. Ski resorts are evening out this balance, but still the industry is largely mass-tourism oriented. More sustainable forms of tourism are starting to get a foothold in Bulgaria, with alternative forms of tourism and ecotourism being increasing in supply and demand.

There is also major leakage in the sector. As Fromer (2005) points out, it is clear that the majority of tourism revenue generated in Bulgaria does not stay there, and only a small percentage benefits the local community.

Tourism Development in Saint Vlas

Saint Vlas is situated in the central part of the Bulgarian Black Sea coast. In the south it borders Sunny Beach (Slanchev Briag). This overdeveloped resort caters mainly to young British, German, Dutch, Russian, Scandinavian along with Bulgarian tourists. The ancient town of Nessebar ('Bulgaria's Dubrovnik' - Gk: Messembria) a World Heritage Site, is located south of Sunny Beach on an island connected by bridge to the newer part of Nessebar. Old Nessebar is heavily impacted by the tourists from Sunny Beach and other surrounding resorts. Many of the beautiful old buildings are now restaurants, hotels or souvenir shops with bright neon lights and the streets are lined with stalls selling more shoddy knick-knacks for tourists. 30km south of Nessebar is the regional capital, Bourgas where the closest airport and railway station are located. The second closest airport is in Varna, about 85km north from Saint Vlas.

Saint Vlas TodaySaint Vlas Today
Marina Dinevi and Resort with the eastern part of North Vlas in the background
(Novinite, 2010)

Saint Vlas is a less hectic destination compared to Sunny Beach and Nessebar. The majority of tourists are couples and families with children. Most international visitors come from Russia, but as in Sunny Beach, British, German, Dutch and Scandinavian vacationers go there to spend their holiday.
Like Nessebar, Saint Vlas has a rich history dating back to the 2nd century BC. The Greeks and the Thracians founded a village on the spot of modern day Saint Vlas called Larissa. During the 14th century, the town was renamed as Sveti Vlas after a patron saint of cattle growers and merchants. In the Ottoman period it was called Manastirï, because of the five monasteries nearby. When Bulgaria gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1886, the name reverted to Sveti Vlas. The town was mainly inhabited by Greeks until 1920 when an exchange of population between Bulgaria and Greece took place (Kontogiorgi, 2006).

Saint Vlas in 2004, before major developmentsSaint Vlas in 2004, before major developments
Saint Vlas in 2004, before major constructions in South Vlas (Guide Bulgaria, 2010)

The mass tourism industry had not spread from Sunny Beach to Saint Vlas until recently. The main tourist facilities have been built on the coast of Saint Vlas in only a few years in the mid 2000s. A big part of the buildings, hotels and holiday home complexes, in South Vlas have been built by the Dinevi Group (Web: owned by the Dinev brothers. Their mother was the mayor of Saint Vlas for 30 years. Saint Vlas now boasts Dinevi Marina, the largest in Bulgaria with a capacity for 300 yachts, and a clientele of affluent Bulgarians and well-off international visitors. The older part of town is called North Vlas and all of the new tourism constructions have been built on the coast to South Vlas.
Research for this paper took place in Saint Vlas and the surrounding areas during July and August 2010. The fieldwork included observation; semi-structured and unstructured interviews with professionals in the tourism industry, construction business and environmental organisations, and self-completion questionnaires with locals living in Saint Vlas, not directly employed in tourism. During the field research conversations with locals took place in everyday situations and some information gathered of these has been used in the research. There were a total of 43 completed questionnaires, three interviews with tourism professionals, two interviews with figures from environmental organisations, one interview with a person who had been working for a construction company and three extended conversations with locals.
The questionnaire focused on attitudes towards tourism development and how it has affected people's lives. To gather the primary data the questionnaires were handed out to locals at the central square of Saint Vlas, a popular hangout place for locals from children to pensioners. The interview with the former construction business person was semi-structured. The main questions he was asked were: "How has illegal building in Bulgarian resorts been possible?" "Who are the people participating in illegal building and what are their motivations?"
Because of the small sample size, the population validity is low, as the results may not be generalised to all people of Saint Vlas. However, because the method of choosing participants was 'next-to-pass', no distinct group of people within the stratum was left out of the sample. The participant should have lived in the area for over 10 years and had to be over 25 years of age in order to get a comprehensive view and most information for the questions under study. By selecting this stratum and thus using purposive (nonprobability) sampling, the chance of random errors was minimized (Kemper, et. al, 2003). The participants working for environmental organisations were chosen through convenience sampling (Kemper,, 2003) as they were the only ones who agreed to be interviewed from the six who were contacted. The person who had been working for a construction company was also chosen because of convenience, as this person was a volunteer. The professionals in the business were chosen by visiting different tourism businesses in Saint Vlas. From the professionals who agreed to be interviewed, three were chosen from different sectors or backgrounds: One male hotel owner, who had lived his whole life in Saint Vlas, one female restaurant owner, who had lived 7 years in the town and one non-local male hotel receptionist/waiter, who had worked there for two summers.
Small sample size and non-random sampling (which was used in the interviews) are impossible to justify in a statistical framework but qualitative interviews are essential to a critical-realist analysis (Winchester, 1996).

The questionnaire

Of the 43 participants in the questionnaires, 18 were men and 25 women. The largest age group of the participants was 40-65 year old (18 people) and the most common professions were taxi drivers (7) and pensioners (6). Other professions, among a few others, included waiters/waitresses, who were mainly under 30, shopkeepers (includes all kinds of shops), ice cream sales persons and unemployed. The requisite for respondents were that they do not work directly in the tourism business, but from the participants who were employed, all were indirectly linked to the industry, except for one veterinarian.
The older participants and all shopkeepers reported that they visit South Vlas only a few times per month for pleasure. None of the respondents visit daily for pleasure purposes. Younger respondents visit mostly 1-3 times per week for pleasure. The only ones who visited South Vlas daily were the taxi drivers for business reasons.
When asked if the participants' everyday activities have changed along with the developments in South Vlas, most answered yes. The main explanation was work. Before many worked in Sunny Beach but now they had jobs closer to home.
In only around five years nearly all land in the southern part of Saint Vlas has been used to construct tourism facilities. When asked about these developments, most considered them as positive. Of the 43 participants, only 12 (28%) felt that they were negative. Of those 12, eight (18.6%) would have preferred no development whatsoever in the area, three (7%) would have protected the area and one would have preferred only small-scale leisure infrastructure to be built. Most of the respondents replied that if given the choice, they would have done the same as had been done. This is interesting, as they had actually had no opportunity to influence the decisions made by authorities. The only way the current land use has improved their lives is by giving them work. However, due to leakages and as the salaries in Bulgaria are among the lowest in Europe, the local people do not see much of the money that is generated in South Vlas.

None of the respondents thought that their standard of living had deteriorated in the past 10 years but nine (21%) thought it was the same as then. Of those who felt their living standards had improved, most answered that tourism is the main reason for the improvement. Also nearly all felt that the overall atmosphere has increased with the development of tourism.

Interviews and conversations

The interviews and conversations however told a different story.
During a talk about the situation in Saint Vlas and Bulgaria with a shopkeeper in North Vlas, he got very upset because he regretted that he never went abroad when he had the chance. Now "he is stuck in Bulgaria" where "there are 10,000 Mutras (Mafiosi) and the rest of us are their slaves". Still, the two professionals in the industry (the hotel owner and the restaurant owner) felt they earned sufficiently (neither seemed rich by any means). The receptionist/waiter felt his salary was way too small, even though he got free accommodation and food from the hotel. He earns BGN250/month (EUR 127), plus 3 percent of the restaurant sales and tips. The inexpensive restaurant was only used by the guests of the hotel, which had 25 rooms. He was taking English classes and was starting a truck driver's course. His dream was to "drive a truck around Europe" and to "buy a laptop"!
The restaurant owned by the woman interviewee and the hotel owner's business were in North Vlas. Both agreed that it is a shame what has been built in South Vlas. However, both say that it is good that the land was used to build tourism infrastructure, as there was nothing before and the land was not really used, and both agreed that their businesses profit from the increased number of tourists. The hotel owner had lived on the spot of the hotel since he was a child, and started to build the hotel with his wife little by little. Now the hotel was five stories tall with 38 rooms. He pointed out that it is a shame that they build illegally tall buildings in South Vlas as they ruin the sea view from his own hotel. He said that without the developments in South Vlas, he could not have had the money to build his hotel. He did have customers before the constructions but then the town was 'dead quiet'. The whole town centre has seen improvements with a more liveable and attractive town square. According to a waitress in a restaurant on the square, it was only a big slab of asphalt used as a parking lot before the developments. She said that most of her colleagues were not from Saint Vlas originally, and that a lot of people come to work there for the summer from all over Bulgaria.
The interview with the person who had worked in the construction business, revealed that along the Black Sea coast, "there are hundreds, maybe thousands of illegal buildings and construction sites". "It is all because of corruption and the justice system. No one can touch the Mutras or the judges who are in their pocket".
The environmental impacts of tourism were discussed with the workers of environmental organisations working on the Black Sea and its coast. They did not have specific information of effects in the town of Saint Vlas as none had projects there, so the conversations were of quite general nature of impacts in the Black Sea coast: how the masses of tourists that flock the shores every July and August affect the quality of the air because of air transport and private cars, that the small airports of Varna and Bourgas cannot cope with the amount of passengers that come and go during high season and even building temporary terminals has been suggested. The amount of private cars on the coast is increasing every summer, not just because of Bulgarians but because masses of tourists from Greece, Romania, Ukraine and Russia come by car. All the sewage and waste from the tourists pollute the sea because of insufficient waste management. When asked about any positive stories on the coast, the other interviewee mentioned the case of Irakli, a beach and nature reserve 30km north of Saint Vlas. The beach and the river that flows through it are protected areas, with the riverbanks providing a living environment for different wildlife. Still, a developer started building, destroying many parts of the river and the vegetation. This caused a big opposition even from people living in Sofia, the capital. The EU demanded that these environmental violations have to be stopped. People and organisations held protests and prevented the builders to continue and eventually the beach was saved and it is still protected with no 'developments' being constructed. Bulgaria had to face the European Court of Justice and pay heavy fines.

Observations and analysis of results

The story of Saint Vlas is very similar of numerous coastal destinations around the world. Closest examples come from Mediterranean Europe, especially Spain, Italy and Greece where mass tourism developments started in a large scale decades earlier than in Bulgaria. It cannot be denied that tourism development has brought jobs and development in other infrastructure too. However, the leakage is huge. Also the environmental impacts have been devastating as there has not been proper legislation to prevent constructions or legislation that could not be easily circumvented with bribes. Thinking about sustainability has not been a major topic in Bulgarian tourism industry until lately.
Even though Saint Vlas has a long history, the old buildings have been destroyed through the years and therefore cultural tourism is not practised. The main, and pretty much the only attraction in Saint Vlas is the beach, so the town is concentrated on sun, sea and sand tourism. Upscale restaurants serving anything from sushi to shashlik can be found from the newer development near the seaside while more modest, Bulgarian eateries are plentiful in the older part of town.
The town is divided in two parts: North Vlas and South Vlas, which are separated by a busy main road. Unlike Sunny Beach, Saint Vlas has a permanent population living there all year round. Practically all locals live in North Vlas while South Vlas is full with holiday homes and hotel complexes, which are mainly empty during the winter season. A good majority of buildings in South Vlas are technically illegal as the law prohibits construction on the beach, on sand dunes and on the territory falling within 100 meters from the beach boundary ( Also, while all buildings in South Vlas should not have been more than three stories tall there are a lot of 5-7 story constructions.

It is interesting that in some maps of Saint Vlas the buildings in the southern part have been left out completely, as on the left map below:

22 33
 Map A: New South Vlas Developments missing
(The Bulgarian Insider, 2008)
 MAP B: - South Vlas Developments showing
(Bulgarian Sea Resorts, 2010b)

Map B, with over 30 hotel complexes, shows a picture of what has been built to South Vlas but still is not very accurate. Reasons for the maps being so inaccurate can be that the buildings are not there officially, i.e. they are illegal, or just because of as recently as 2004, whole South Vlas was nearly deserted. Most of the newly built Dinevi Resort and the Dinevi Marina are not seen in either map. They are located in the South Eastern part of South Vlas, in the bottom right corner of both maps.

The Bulgarian construction law prohibits building on the beach ( However, in Saint Vlas, a brand-new marina with a resort complex has been built on the beach. The sand from the beach was used to build an artificial beach next to the Marina (behind the Marina in Image 3). The Dinevi Marina is the biggest of its kind in Bulgaria with a capacity for 300 yachts. It attracts, along with the surrounding resorts, a lot of wealthy Bulgarians.

De Kadt (1979, cited in Brissaoulis, 2003) noted that tourism development can skip certain stages in some areas. Looking at Butler's (1980) TALC-model it can be said, that the development in Saint Vlas, has skipped the first stages and after a very rapid 'development' phase, the destination is now already in stagnation. Most of the land resources have been used and future decisions will determine whether the destination will rejuvenate itself or start to decline. According to many people who have been interviewed and talked to during the time of research, Saint Vlas has started to decline already, but many believe it is only because of the economic depression of the past two years.

Through the search for capital investments, "...the tourism industry has become internationalised and globalised, resulting in the creation and development of a large number of previously unexplored destinations that are competing with mass tourism coastal resorts for a share of the global market (Briassoulis, 2003, p. 209). Although in the previous quote Briassoulis is referring to unique, customized and differentiated destinations that will compete with traditional postmature mass tourism coastal resorts, similar development can be applied to the case of Saint Vlas. Many resorts surrounding the town, e.g. Sunny Beach, are suffering from outdated infrastructure and image. South Vlas however, is very modern, clean and more upscale than other destinations and therefore has a market niche in the area. Until recently, it was fairly unexplored (at least for its current clientele) and now it offers a slightly different holiday than the inflexibly packaged, postmature coastal resorts around it. As noted earlier in this paper, Bramwell (2004) pointed out that one suggestion for diversification of coastal resorts is to build large-scale products to attract more affluent visitors. This is exactly what has happened in Saint Vlas with the Dinevi Marina. This strategy can be seen in use all over Bulgaria, where luxurious golf courses and other facilities are being built. This kind of development definitely suits the Bulgarian constructors mentality better than the other option Bramwell (2004) introduced: small scale with historical, cultural and ecological features.

To seek an answer from the ideological point of view of political ecological analysis, a highflying lifestyle is definitely appreciated in the South Vlas complexes and Dinevi Marina. Land use is directed to the kinds of developments that contribute to the (possibly illegal) constructions in South Vlas and do not really benefit the local community. Instead, the constructors and the foreign investors who promote these developments reap the benefits. As there has been cheap land, no limitations for construction and possibilities for fast growth in tourism, the global economy has definitely promoted in unsustainable land use at the Bulgarian coast. The role of the state has been crucial for this kind of 'development'. It has not provided proper legislation and the control of policies and resources. Many communities have had to change from their traditional livelihoods to working in tourism for incredibly small wages while the millions that tourism generates slips to the pockets of the constructors and whoever they might have had to bribe on the way. The role of local resource managers in this study can be seen in the example of the Dinevi brothers, whose mother had been the mayor in Saint Vlas.
Tourism development in Bulgaria has been out of control, and there are still major illegal developments been built along the coast but also in the mountain ski resorts. However, the sustainability bug has bitten the industry here too and loads of 'eco' tourism developments are planned and alternative tourism is growing. The government has expressed support for alternative tourism, but has not really done much about it (Fromer, 2005). Municipalities and entrepreneurs have started to pay more attention to alternative forms of tourism and communities all over Bulgaria have developed plans for cultural tourism and ecotourism (Fromer, 2005). The Bulgarian Association of Alternative Tourism (BAAT) has increased its number of members and new associations have entered BAAT competitions (Fromer, 2005). A remarkable increase in tour operators offering alternative forms of tourism has occurred since BAAT was formed: From only a handful in 1998 to over a hundred this year (BAAT, 2010). BAAT, together with Bulgarian Association for Rural and Ecological Tourism (BARET) and the National Association of Municipalities, has introduced a list of potential ecotourism projects. Total number of the proposed projects is 83 and they are all presented in a European Commission project to diversify the Bulgarian tourism product, raise awareness on nature protection and promote sustainable growth in the industry (EC, n.d).


The rapid construction of mass-tourism infrastructures in Saint Vlas suddenly changed the town's social, economic and environmental situation in the mid 2000s. In many destinations, mass tourism has exploited the natural and social resources and the situation is no different in Saint Vlas. Still, most locals currently feel that tourism development has so far been a good thing, even though they played no part in decision-making. In private however, some are confiding their aversion to corruption in decision-making bodies, which allows illegal constructions that impact on the environment. Despite the current crisis, more tourism-related construction is planned and expected.

Saint Vlas todaySaint Vlas today
Saint Vlas today (Beach Bulgaria, 2010)


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